American Progress

Seven of our leading young product designers reveal how they’re conquering the tricky global marketplace.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a designer in possession of a good design must be in want of a client. The industry is about solving problems: for individuals; for companies with the resources to reach (and sell things to) multiple people; and, finally, for an abstraction that comes together as a “client.” The question the hundreds of designers who crash onto the market every year might well be asking, of course, is where to find these clients. The answer, according to a cross section of young American product designers, is everywhere.

Design schools around the country graduate hundreds of students every year. Some of them go on to work as freelancers with steady corporate gigs. Some of them, like the San Francisco–based designers Mike Simonian and Maaike Evers, who work together as Mike & Maaike, start a firm and refuse to take on a single client during the first year. Others, like Jonas Damon, work for a top firm such as Frog Design from nine to five, then head home and sketch projects that may or may not come to fruition. Theo Richardson, Charles Brill, and Alexander Williams (a.k.a. Rich Brilliant Willing) took their RISD-taught mojo and formed a publicity-friendly firm that punned on their names and introduced potential clients to the idea that they’d end up with a product that was not only brilliant but would also make them rich. (Willing is, perhaps, a hopeful view of how their clients will behave.) And then still others, like Todd Bracher, keep strong ties with European companies and operate more as strategists and business consultants than as the typical idealized vision of a young designer in his Brooklyn studio, surrounded by lathes and bits of wood.

The point is that just as writers tend to have their own very particular ways of working, so, too, do designers, even though their industry is ultimately based on producing objects that (ideally) thousands of people will introduce into their lives. And just as every writer has his or her particularly lucky break, so, too, has each of these young designers currently taking over a niche that absolutely no one else could fill.

The boys of Rich Brilliant Willing graduated in 2006 from the Rhode Island School of Design, a place recognized for churning out talent. Fresh out of school, they realized that one way to be both economically and practically viable was to work with existing companies, a practice that Mike & Maaike and Todd Bracher use in order to keep their worlds humming. The only problem? “When you’re starting out, all you have is your student body of work, which is obviously student work and doesn’t give you much of a ground to stand on,” Brill says. So they decided to be their own client (and manufacturer, and distributor, and press agent). The team self-directed the concepts, manufactured the prototypes, photographed them to appeal to both clients and influential editorial people, and decided to, as Brill says, “use that as a portfolio to begin to form a voice.” Four years later, he says their strongest work continues to be self-generated, but they’re now in a position to collaborate with clients in order to develop ideas. It was the Excel series, which started in 2008 and includes a chandelier, a floor lamp, a desk lamp, and a wall sconce, that kicked them up to a new level of client: American staples like Areaware and Blu Dot. (Artecnica, which is based in Los Angeles, is currently producing another one of their lamps.) For them, the market design-world shift happened not between countries or corporations, but between the blog-friendly, news-happy design world of today and the slower—and more controlled—process of the pre-Twitter era. Despite their youth (the three are in their late twenties), the designers behind Rich Brilliant Willing are focused and business savvy, speaking supportively of the power of collaboration and the importance of what Richardson calls “globalized collective thought.”

Bracher is just a decade older, but he works from an entirely different model. Born and raised on Long Island, he moved to Copenhagen at 24 to learn design from the country that produced Poul Kjærholm and Arne Jacobsen. In 1999, the first year of the Milan Satellite show, Bracher brought his self-produced work to the fair and initially got a great reception from a New York Times editor—until Bracher mentioned that he was actually from New York. As he tells it 12 years later, “He walks away and says, ‘I didn’t come all the way over here to meet an American designer.’” That, Bracher recalls, “said a lot to me about the state of things. I thought, Wow, I’m really not welcome as an American designer.” It’s a different world now, particularly with the current obsession for all things handmade and homegrown, but it set Bracher off on a career path remarkably distinct from that of his younger counterparts. He stayed in Europe, developing relationships with European companies like Tom Dixon (London), Holmegaard (Denmark), and Zanotta (Italy). He currently runs what he describes as a three-part business: an indulgently creative Italian arm; a corporate-friendly American one; and a global-design-strategy limb. If he’s on the first, he’s thinking about producing a glass-based object and contemplating which glass company in eastern Italy might be the best to help him see his vision through. On the second, he’s working on an office chair for Humanscale. And on the third, he’s wearing his corporate hat and working as the creative director for a company like Georg Jensen, helping to build strategy and grow the firm into multiple markets and directions, including jewelry, silversmithing, and seasonal and home collections.

Bracher sees a huge divide between the European and American design worlds. “With the American bit, it’s really two months of heavy market research, psychological research, anthropological research, and then we start to look at what it looks like,” he says. The market-driven focus comes from American companies’ desire for long-lasting huge sellers like the Aeron chair. “Whereas in Europe, it’s a one-to-four-year life cycle, so they want something really interesting and beautiful.”

That seems like a sharp difference, but Jeffrey Bernett agrees it exists. The successful designer runs CDS (Consultants for Design Strategy) and has worked for venerable companies such as B&B Italia and Cappellini as well as American clients like Michael Kors and Northwest Airlines over the course of a 16-year career. “To be a good designer, you have to have a sense of the marketplace,” he says. “And America is a little challenging. We have big, big corporations and we have little, little ones.” He argues that the big corporations tend not to want to take a risk on a young designer because there’s too much money at stake, while Europe “is full of small-to-medium companies.” Bernett adds that there’s a cultural difference as well. In Europe, he argues, designers need to be well-versed in history and able to explain, say, the Miesian references that might crop up in a new chair. In America, on the other hand, “you differentiate substantially enough to give it some fresh ground.” According to Dave Alhadeff, who runs the culture-making furniture store the Future Perfect, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, these across-the-Atlantic divides are “still real,” but he sees a hometown advantage for American designers.

“Young designers now aren’t scared,” he says. “They’re producing great work on their own. You see a lot more of the punk mentality and a lot less of the edition mentality.” Design, he points out, “is inherently supposed to be democratic,” which is why his shop has always stocked products by designers living and working just down the street. This isn’t to say that the Future Perfect is the equivalent of the coffee shop that sells terrible art just because it’s local—Alhadeff has introduced Williamsburg to the Campana brothers and the New York lighting designer Lindsey Adelman, among others—but that he’s intent on supporting independent designers as well. “We’re also working with people who are just producing out of their studio, like Steph Mantis,” he says. That’s partly because craft is “really hot,” but he also mentions the willingness of a few small American companies—such as Artecnica and Roll & Hill, both of which manufacture pieces by Rich Brilliant Willing—to work with emerging designers. He says these companies will soon provide enough support so that Americans won’t have to cross the pond. “I don’t think American designers need any more help,” he says. “They have a market of x number of million people right here in America, who are very interested in what they have to say.”

There are many ways to communicate those interesting things, though, and some designers, like Jonas Damon, get their work out into the world through two tracks: first, within the safety of a large company (in his case, Frog Design) and, second, through their own independent work. Damon is still able to pursue his own interests, which are radically different aesthetically from the work he does with Frog (a wooden flashlight particularly stands out). “In my day job, I work with huge clients on huge projects with a global reach,” Damon says. “And then in my spare time—when I can find it—I try to run the other way and do work that’s more basic.” Damon got a big push working for Dixon at Habitat, in the U.K., and spent years traveling around Europe, seeing what was going on there. “Being a designer in Europe is very much a lifestyle thing,” he says. “Work is socializing: you meet people and hang out with them, and the relationship evolves over a few years.” Writ large, this supports Bernett’s argument that there’s a much larger cultural component to working as a designer in Europe. But with the recession and the rise of social-media–driven press, designers on this side of the ocean now cop to the absolute importance of personal relationships. “Things have changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years,” Damon says. “You’re seeing American designers doing really good work with the European companies. That didn’t exist before the late nineties.”

It’s clear that success can come when American designers export their neo-European sensibilities back to Europe, finding ways to be more creative there when they can’t find the institutional support in the States. But what about the American who wants to stay in America? Simonian and Evers, of Mike & Maaike, operate on a European model, but in America. The two met when Evers, who is Dutch, interviewed Simonian for a job at a design firm in Ohio, a position she didn’t recommend him for. (“She wanted more Europeans there,” he says.) She was overruled and he got the job, the desk next to her, and, eventually, a relationship. After a few years of working in Columbus at Fitch, the two moved to the West Coast, where they worked for separate design firms before founding their own studio. “The goal was to be experimental and to work on a big range of categories,” Simonian says. Buttressing that experimentation was their decision, aided by Simonian’s sale of his successful skateboard company, Flowlab, not to take on any clients for the first year. “That’s when we started to work in furniture, in soft goods, in areas that we hadn’t done before.” After a year, they took prototypes to companies they had existing, Silicon Valley–aided relationships with (Google, for instance) and got a real start. “We’ve been quite lucky in that some of our first clients were pretty large,” Simonian explains. The biggest challenge now, as he puts it, “has been maintaining the balance between independent projects and work for clients, because we don’t see ourselves as a service company.”

The common thread among these design firms is just that: a commitment to creative independence even while working in a field that absolutely requires someone to want to buy something. Even if it means dividing the business in three, as it does for Bracher; or staying up late, as it does for Damon; or spending an entire year without clients, as it did for Evers and Simonian; or financing and producing one’s own prototypes, as it did for Rich Brilliant Willing, any successful career requires a steadfast commitment to an absolute sense of an innate truth that must be expressed. Those are words that get thrown around a lot, but the success of these designers in a market like the one we’re living in shows that with a little bit of faith and a lot of willingness to find and make connections everywhere—from independent furniture shops to companies like Cappellini and B&B Italia—everything is possible. “The secret to success is the ability to separate the economic climate from your career path,” Simonian says, “and to have a clear trajectory of where you want to go and who you want to join you.”

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