Moving Mountains Mixes Memphis and Shaker Influences

Despite straddling design disciplines and working with many makers, Syrette Lew maintains a distinctive voice.

Sight Unseen recently tapped Lew to design its pop-up shop at Williamsburg’s Space Ninety 8.

Courtesy Mike Vorrasi

Syrette Lew will be the first person to tell you that she’s not a craftsperson—or even a maker. And yet, she’s well entrenched in the movement that has formed in Brooklyn over the past several years, championing the work of such people.

At ICFF this year, where her studio Moving Mountains picked up the Editors Award for Craftsmanship, Lew unveiled a covetable collection of handcrafted pieces, including a credenza, a Windsor chair and bench, nesting tables, a mirror, and floor and table lamps. Though she might not be the one physically bringing her products to life, it’s the process of collaboration that appeals to Lew—putting her ideas into the hands of those who will manifest them best.

“There was a time when I was interested in building my own furniture,” she says. “But I realized very quickly that I would be limited by my skill set; it might take me a couple of years to achieve the complexity and quality I want. So I decided to use fabricators and craftsmen for my work. And because I don’t make those things myself, I have to trust someone else to realize my vision.”

Lew’s studio is squirreled away in a rehabbed umbrella warehouse in East Williamsburg. “Most of my craftsmen and makers are also my friends,” she says. “I like using them because it’s easy communicating with them, and I know the quality that I’m going to get.” Among her cohort is husband-and-wife team Max Wang Studio, hailing from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, who make Moving Mountains’ mirrors, tables, and the case for the credenza. Connecticut-based maker Shawn Murphy handcrafts her Windsor Lounge Chair.

The Confetti Credenza is a perfect example of Moving Mountains studio’s refined sensibility and attention to minute details. Maple drawers with marquetry in dyed anigre wood are framed in ebonized ash and sit on a base of blackened steel.

Courtesy Hannah Whitaker

A native Hawaiian, Lew moved to New York in 2006 to design for West Elm, but after five years of working full time she began questioning the relevance of her corporate career. “You’re always thinking about price point and have to compromise your designs to meet that,” she says. “It was also hard for me to reconcile the pace at which we were designing and knowing that the end product will probably end up in a landfill in five years.” It was at that point that Lew decided to strike out on her own, but it wasn’t until about two years ago, she says, she finally found the confidence to call herself a designer.

Following her triumph at ICFF, Lew’s designs have earned her a legion of acolytes. There has been much talk of the Memphis influence on her work, but she isn’t so quick to be labeled. “I’m probably more influenced by the Shaker aesthetic, as well as Modernism and Minimalism, because I’m a very rational designer at my core,” she says. “In the end, I think furniture should withstand the test of time. I’m also interested in mashing together historical references. Someone recently called my aesthetic ‘Shaker meets Memphis,’ which I think is really interesting because those two things couldn’t be on more opposite ends of the spectrum, yet, somehow, I’ve figured out how to toe that line. I’m taking it as a compliment!”

Lew unveiled the A-Framed Mirror and the Hi-Lo Shelving unit, among several other objects, at ICFF in May. “I appreciate the irreverence and freedom that Postmodernism and Memphis offer, but if you look at my work as a whole, it’s actually quite tame and minimal,” Lew says.

An example of her fused aesthetic is her Windsor Lounge Chair, which acknowledges its midcentury predecessors while still achieving a fresh, contemporary style through unexpected shapes and exaggerated proportions. The much-beloved Confetti Credenza, though classic in form, also features a heavy dose of modern whimsy, sprinkled with marquetry.

Recently joining the design collective Colony, Lew says she’s not opposed to having things manufactured on a larger scale in the future. “Some things are great for manufacturing and some as custom-made pieces. I wish my designs could be affordable to others, but I haven’t found the right manufacturing partnership.”

While she defines herself as a designer, Lew navigates the lines between design, art, and fashion. “I can name several female European designers who are dominating many design fields at once. But in America, I can’t think of many female designers who are doing that,” she says. “I want to be known as a contemporary designer, but not just for furniture. I want to do products, clothing, jewelry, and even pop-up shops—I don’t want to be confined to any one thing.”

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