What they say about great design is that it should go unnoticed. And maybe that’s true. But what of great designers, who so often toil in obscurity while next door to their Brooklyn studios, painters are throwing soirees and fashion designers are roping in TV cameras? (To wit: Do you know any of these award-winning Brooklyn-based designers? Chris Lehreke, Tobias Wong, Klein&Reid, Godley-Schwan? Didn’t think so.)
This is the problem the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce sought to solve in 2003 when it threw the very first BKLYN Designs, a juried expo of local designers. This past weekend in a DUMBO warehouse, 45 designers presented work that ran the gamut from the truly bizarre (a chair made of plastic ball-pit balls, sewn together) to the quietly clever (lamps made of charred wood that appeared to have been burned by the very bulbs above). Those who, in the depths of a recession, could afford to outfit their Park Slope townhouses with $9,000 dollar desks clacked their heels alongside the amused local hoardes, who “tested out” the kooky sofas and pulled out all the odd drawers. There was a bed made of rope that no one—no one!—could bear to not lie down in. (After 44 booths, one gets a bit sleepy…)
Despite a sour economy, retailers reported that not everyone was here to gawk. There were serious buyers. In a downturn, “The fairs are maybe even more useful,” said Greenpoint-based designer Nikki Frazier. “Design stores have been closing and going online only—Though there are a lot that are fighting the good fight.” Along with her husband, Frazier runs Brave Space Design—a green furniture outfit that has been showing here for five years. Though their pieces sell well on the web, Frazier says it’s not the same. One must toy with their bamboo-wood chests to appreciate the light touch necessary to close a drawer, one must look closely at a hexagonal table to see that it is made up of hundreds of joined hexagonal chunks of wood.
The fair has another utility for hidden designers—it is a launch pad. Once described by Interior Design magazine as a “coming out party for New York’s hottest new furnishings designers,” lots of new North Brooklyn acts hope to come here, catch some press, and get into those aloof glossies. 25-year old Williamsburg-based Hugh Hayden is one of these. Using the plastic balls one finds in a McDonalds’ ball pit, Hayden sewed them together so that they stand upright, such that a complete set would make the ideal dinette-suite for Tom Hanks’ loft in the film, Big. Candy-colored with the give-and-take of real balls in a real ball-pit, the chairs—which range in price from $300 for a child’s bucket seat to $3,200 for the equivalent of a beanie-bag—are for child-minded adults.
As a Cornell University architecture student, Hayden attended a party that would change his life; It had a ball pit. “It was really fun and nostalgic,” he said, pointing to the Facebook photo he had found and reprinted of that seminal experience. “And I was thinking, how can I contain that experience in its own space, and make it a singular object?” He has displayed the chairs in the heralded Williamsburg design boutique, The Future Perfect, but those didn’t get nearly as much attention as the ones at this fair where, every few minutes, a child bored by the furniture everywhere else laid eyes on the line Hayden has named “FUNature” and asks, shyly, if she can test them out. “Go ahead,” Hayden says, and then, as an aside to a nearby adult: “It’s for the child in all of us.”
Nearby also making a big splash at the fair was Katie Deedy, a wallpaper designer whose rococo re-imaginings of octopi and cowboy lassos are hand-drawn in her Bushwick studio. Inspired by a parent who wrote children’s books, each design comes with its own narrative back story—the octopi are what Deedy dreamed-up to illustrate the afterlife of a drowned sea captain, the lassos that end in nooses tell the biography of the first female cattle herder. For her next line, she’s thinking of something autobiographical, which will span from her mother’s arrival from Cuba to her current digs in Bushwick. “I’m constantly inspired by my neighborhood,” she said, from within her papered booth. “I’m so proud of this borough; Honestly, I wouldn’t want to do any other fair.”
But she’ll have to—this is just a launching pad, which for North Brooklyn’s unnoticed designers seems to be working.