A New Generation of Designers Brings ‘Sloppy Craft’ to Commercial Interiors

An unconventional handmade aesthetic is emerging, challenging the predictability and sameness of contract furnishings.

In the Russian city of Voronezh, the Krujok Café captures the essence of baking through design. Inside, tables and chairs appear to have been rolled, pulled, kneaded, and pinched into doughy forms for guests to savor. A similarly amorphous beige chandelier hangs in the lavender-hued space as if the chef had lost control and flung dough into the air, where it remains suspended on the ceiling, like in a cartoon. The purple velvet–upholstered seating evokes melting glazed sugar, while sculptures on the wall resemble the caramelized popcorn chefs use to decorate the café’s multicolored pastries. 

Through the use of handmade, one-off accents and furnishings, Russian architect Eduard Erumchuk and designer Katy Pititskaya set out to create an interior that feels like the “inside of a donut.” But while this café encourages a childlike experience of space through the senses, it also points to a larger movement among millennial designers who are rethinking narratives of craft in commercial interiors. 

Some have described this new expression as “ugly design,” “trash aesthetics,” or “sloppy craft.” But you know it when you see it. Perhaps it’s Thomas Barger’s bubble gum–pink chairs made from found objects and paper pulp, Katie Stout’s “Lady Lamps” collaged together out of ceramic fruit, or Diego Faivre’s cardboard stools covered in glossy, air-dry clay. 

“Through thick, often-biomorphic forms and raw, unrefined surfaces, the style promotes a playful organicism that leans toward the grotesque and figurative.” 

a table and chairs in a purple room
Twenty-seven-year-old Russian architect Eduard Erumchuk designed the Krujok Café in Voronezh to appear as if it were made of dough. Most of the furnishings are custom-made using papier-mâché coated in fiberglass. COURTESY INNA KABLUKOVA

Distinguished by thick, often-biomorphic forms and raw, unrefined surfaces, the emerging style promotes a playful organicism that leans toward the grotesque and the figurative. It moves away from traditional means of furniture design and production, and toward experimentation in material and method. By doing so, designers lend life to everyday objects, subverting function in favor of emotion. 

Writer and historian Glenn Adamson first introduced the idea of “sloppy craft” in a 2008 article in Crafts magazine, noting that craft’s appeal has long lain in its irregularities and imperfections that remind us that we are human. According to Adamson, the aesthetic is linked to the rise of the DIY movement that “penetrated art-school culture” and encouraged a post-disciplinary shift in art and design pedagogy, which has since been perpetuated by social media.

a sculptural lamp
Often considered the voice of the next design generation, Katie Stout has a distinct style (self-described as “naive pop”) that is often imitated but never replicated with the same care and wit that the Brooklyn-based furniture designer has brought to her work since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2012. Pictured: Fruit Lady (Gold), 2020. COURTESY NINA JOHNSON GALLERY

For Brooklyn-based designer Ellen Pong, “Ceramics is definitely not the best way to make furniture, but it is a way.” With a background in art history, Pong knew she wanted to make furniture, but didn’t know where to begin. When she started experimenting in hand-building with clay, it changed the game. 

From thorny massage chairs to tissue boxes covered in lunch meat, Pong’s work often layers mundane objects with absurd humor and subtle pop cultural references. “Sloppy craft, kiddy-core, lumpy things. I think there are a few reasons why this aesthetic is having a moment,” she explains. “I see it as part of the larger movement away from the rationalism of Modernism towards the irregular, the textured, the ugly, and the Gothic.” 

sculptural light fixture in a conference room.
With any popular design trend, there will always be the issue of copies. While architecture and interior design studio Roar’s design for The Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA) claims that “no two tables, chairs, or lamps are the same,” two chandeliers in particular (this page) look similar to Stout and Philadelphia-based ceramic designer Sean Gerstley’s U-Lamp from 2015 (opposite). Stout and Gerstley’s design is handmade in powder-coated ceramic, while Roar’s is a “bespoke” piece made of beaten metal by Dubai-based studio Light Link. COURTESY OCULIS PROJECT

The additive, bricolage nature of this aesthetic is the exact opposite of the Modernist “truth to materials” narrative so often touted by interior designers when discussing craft. Take the work of Paris-based designer Faivre, for example. Faivre makes objects using his performative and iterative production system called Minute Manufacturing, in which every minute of production is equivalent to one euro, or “Diego Coins.” Using this framework, Faivre creates chairs, stools, tables, shelves, and other interior objects by covering waste materials such as cardboard and plastic boxes in colorful air-dry clay he calls “Diego Dough.” The result challenges value systems and serves as a critique of industrialized processes. 

Faivre’s work inevitably recalls Maarten Baas’s self-described “spontaneous and naïve” The CLAY series from 2006 (an example Adamson also cites in his account of “sloppy craft”). Here, Baas hand-covered steel armatures in Plasticine, creating wonky furniture that looks like it belongs in Wallace & Gromit but now appears in the collections of major design museums throughout the world. Since then, the concept of “collectible design” has grown substantially, further blurring the lines between fine art and an emerging collectible design market. 

“Beyond the saccharine colors and clumsy forms, there’s almost something kind of dark about it all.”

Ellen Pong, designer
Pink chairs and room
In 2018, Thomas Barger’s puffy paper pulp chairs made waves on Instagram after being repeatedly photographed in Glossier’s (now-closed) NYC flagship designed by Gachot Studios. Barger, who studied architecture and landscape architecture prior to getting into furniture, has said: “What is important to me isn’t so much the design aspect of the work, but highlighting the relationships I find significant in my life. I’m more excited about sharing a story than making a chair.” COURTESY GLOSSIER

Erumchuk’s doughnut shop provides an example of how this aesthetic is slowly moving out of private homes and design galleries and into the realm of everyday interiors. Whether it’s Chris Wolston’s Terracotta Plant Chairs in Kelly Wearstler’s Santa Monica Proper Hotel or Barger’s installation at Gachot Studios’ now-closed Glossier Manhattan flagship, the desire to include handcrafted objects within commercial interiors is growing as brands seek to differentiate themselves and their spaces. 

It’s a phenomenon that goes hand in hand with the move toward more hybridized spaces—from social media pop-up experiences to shoppable hotels to residential showrooms. According to Stephen Markos, founder of digital platform and nomadic gallery Superhouse, “Rather than showing in a gallery, young furniture designers can partner with a hotel or shop, where the design has the ability to enhance the products being sold, but also give people a unique perspective on the furniture. People are seeing it and potentially buying it.”

But, Pong notes, “beyond the saccharine colors and clumsy forms, there’s almost something kind of dark about it all. The work signals a playfulness that is appealing because most people’s everyday lives are otherwise predictable and underwhelming.” Design can challenge that. 

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