The concept of New York design continues to grab headlines but few fathom the full scope of what it entails. There’s no question that, through thick and thin, this global capital has persistently drawn in creatives from across the planet, let alone from inside its own borders. Since the end of the Second World War, art has cemented itself at the core of this metropolis. Its seemingly confined quarters still play host to an endless stream of ambitious architectural projects. But what about design? According to different experts, leading the charge for this often marginalised discipline, the idea of New York design was unheard of 20 years ago and practically non-existent at major events like the Salone del Mobile in Milan. With a significant presence felt at this year’s edition, the question lingers: what’s changed?

For former architects turned lighting designers Jean and Oliver Pelle, the discipline has always been an important part of the New York landscape but, for a long time, was absorbed by other fields like architecture. ‘In the last 10-15 years, design became less opaque,’ they explain. ‘A lot of independent studios popped up.’ Some cite the 2008-2009 financial crisis as the catalyst for this change. Establishing the American Design Club around the same time, Kiel Mead saw the crash as a chance for young talents to become self-sufficient entrepreneurs. ‘It was all about making do with what we had; turning low-grade materials in to high-end designs,’ he reflects. Renowned product designer Todd Bracher saw it differently. For him, the financial crisis meant that larger companies and brands gained more awareness about design, as a potential means of rebounding their business.

Echoing the top design blog, itself founded in 2009, Sight Unseen Offsite is an annual fair / exhibit showcasing up-and-coming independent practices. This year’s fourth edition breaks the mould by integrating exhibiting designers into a parcours of lower Manhattan stores. The main space will be dedicated to immersive installations. Image courtesy of Sight Unseen.
Still, David Alhadeff – founder of The Future Perfect Gallery – notes that young designers inspired by New York design in the last decade no longer aspire to corporate jobs and rather opt for the autonomous route. For many graduates fresh out of school, the clear option was, and still is, to establish their own studio; to produce and sell their own work. Names like Lindsey Adelman, David Weeks, Fort Standard, Bower, Brendan Timmins, and Chen Chen & Kai Williams – among a long list of independent designers – have gained recognition. Director of the BFA Product Design programme at Parsons The New School, Daniel Michalik recalls that the American Design Club forged a community in which some of these talents shared knowledge and resources. ‘Realising that the city had both a manufacturing and consumer sector within its own borders, a strong relationship formed between architects, designers, retailers, and consumers. Everybody got to know each other,’ Michalik adds.

Ten years on and a sense of community is still key for New York designers. Relatively close-knit but now more multifaceted, the scene is less competitive than some might imagine, furniture design trio Egg Collective (Stephanie Beamer, Crystal Ellis, and Hillary Petrie) reflects. For Lora Appleton, founder of the Kinder Modern gallery and production house, it’s ‘a multi-tiered and fertile scene’ and she emphasises how ‘NYCxDESIGN links those points in a more cohesive way.’. As the city’s smaller yet longer answer to the Salone, this government-supported annual event (this year, from 11 to 23 May) incorporates fairs like ICFF, Sight Unseen Offsite, and Wanted Design, among other programmes. However, the scene can also feel insular, as Oliver Pelle reveals, and out of touch with the rest of the design world – let alone the diversity of people that make up New York – Michalik interjects. Both Appleton and Egg Collective add that women are under represented in design. The current Women in Design survey exhibit  seeks to rectify this disparity.

Another part of the problem is the cost of living and the reality of who can actually survive as a designer in New York. It’s no secret that space in this city is increasingly expensive and hard to come by. Egg Collective, who design large works, feels that if rent continues to increase, It will not only force creatives out, but also influence the nature of work produced. According to Appleton, New York design has gone in two directions. On the one hand, talents have shifted away from mass production in favour of a craft-led approach – as described above – but have had to scale-down their work. On the other, some have had to abandon their own production because of high costs.

 Isla table reveals the scale and precision at which Egg Collective works. Image courtesy of Egg Collective.


Many have drifted towards the high-end sector to stay afloat. Monica Khemsurov – co-founder of leading design blog Sight Unseen – doesn’t think this is good a thing. ‘There’s a greater awareness about design and consumers but their options are either Ikea or a five thousand dollar chair with West Elm as the only in-between,’ she explains. ‘With this city becoming unliveable, independent talents are having to produce highly expensive gallery level work.’ Bracher agrees that there’s a disconnect with a wider consumer base and the small practice model. For him, it’s a precarious situation.

For newcomer duo Trueing (Josh Metersky and Aiden Bowman), the stakes are higher. ‘We can’t get away with making things that look like something designed in 2008,’ they explain. We have to create work at a higher price point and with more refined details.’ The duo is part of a second or third wave of Brooklyn designers. Though they focus on product design, many of their contemporaries – Misha Kahn, Katie Stout, and Thomas Barger – have adopted a highly expressive and personal approach to design. Their works are sold in a gallery context. ‘There’s a small community of people in American collecting emerging and contemporary design,’ Alhadeff explains. ‘But at the Future Perfect, the largest community we work with is the architecture and interior design community.’

 #300 Mirror by Brooklyn-based Trueing is a testament to the studio’s attention to detail and use of quality materials. Image courtesy of Trueing.


Michalik mentions that a large spike in real estate development over the past 10 years has created more space for consumers and hence a greater demand for home furnishings. For him, this also accounts for the recent surge in lighting design. If you look at most independent practices working in this medium, scale is rarely an issue as most components can be produced elsewhere and later assembled. Mead recalls that many of the talents that now focus exclusively on lighting design, started out working in a wider scope. ‘Lindsey Adelman’s first design was a sticker,’ he reveals. Consumers in New York expect brand continuity and many talents end up specialising accordingly.

‘In New York, you can’t separate design from financial concerns,’ Oliver Pelle explains. ‘In Europe it seems like a lot of designers don’t have their own money on the line when launching a new product, they can be more speculative,’ he states. ‘If no one buys your work in this city, you go broke.’ Mead adds that Europeans focus more on practice and less on business.

For Appleton, who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, Europeans look to New York as aspirational. ‘The perception is that there’s a gold-rush here,’ Jean Pelle interjects. ‘The question is if you’re really going to find that much gold.’ Though the New York market is vast and varied, it is still controlled.

‘It used to be that New York design had to justify itself at the Salone,’ Alhadeff explains. Khemsurov echoes this view: ‘You went to Milan to find European producers and press but New York-based talents no longer need that validation.’ Both Alhadeff and Kemsurov agree that you cannot do the same type of business you do here anywhere else. As much as recognisable talents now dot the country in places as far away as Los Angeles – what Alhadeff believes to be the new creative hub of America – New York remains the storefront.

NYCxDesign calendar / nycxdesign.com:

Designing Women II: Masters, Mavericks, Mavens, Egg Collective showroom, 10 May – 1 June, #DWIIMMM

Sight Unseen Offsite, various locations, 17 – 20 May, offsite.sightunseen.com

WantedDesign: Manhattan, Terminal Stores, 19 – 22 May / Brooklyn, Industry City, 17 –21 May, wanteddesignnyc.com

Soho Design District Night, 19 May, sohodesigndistrict.org

ICFF, Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, 20 – 23 May, icff.com