Ernest Beck | Reviews

Olive Drab: BKLYN DESIGNS 2009

"Burn Lamp," OSO Industries

I’ve been to design fairs in Paris, London, Cologne, New York and Miami, as a reporter and a plus one, and no matter what the locale, I usually walk away with the same slightly depressing thought: impressed by the beauty within the hall followed by the letdown of the drab ordinariness outside and the feeling that I, along with most of the rest of the world, will never possess any of the fabulous stuff inside. That’s why I was the grumpy voice who popped up last week in my wife Julie Lasky’s review of the Milan furniture fair. I rained on the parade as well as the fabulous food, wine and parties by complaining about the disconnect between the glitz, glamour and gilded knickknacks she wrote about and the reality of life as we know it in a time of severe economic dislocation. Okay, I know there’s Ikea, but still.

With that in mind I schlepped over to Brooklyn this weekend (with wife and 3-year-old in tow) to check out BKLYN DESIGNS, the annual jamboree featuring designers who live in (or at least work in) the borough in which, I must confess in the interest of full disclosure, I was born. What, I wondered, did these folks, who according to the design press work in gritty post-industrial spaces and hang out in funky Williamsburg dive bars, have to say about the state of the world and how we live in it? On a humid afternoon, we wandered through St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, pushing through crowds, to find out.

The mood was what I would call, as we near the 40th anniversary of the famous music festival, positively Woodstockian. Many designers — young, bearded or unshaven, and clad in various stages of decaying jeans — were positively bursting with enthusiasm about their work and dedication to principles of sustainable design. The green theme was everywhere: within minutes, we saw furniture that was recycled and recyclable, salvaged, reused, reclaimed and repurposed, and there wasn’t a whiff of nasty toxic glue anywhere. I fingered hand-loomed wild silk fabric woven by women in the northern Indian state of Assam. I saw a table that converts to a cork-lined seating bench, perfect for those who live in small spaces. The overall look of just about everything was woody and boxy, with rough textures and edges; that’s the green look as far as I could tell. And there was extra effort made to be totally sustainable: a handout from ALS Designs noted that the card was made using 100 percent recycled, chlorine-free paper and soy inks.

All well and good to think green down to the publicity materials; every little bit helps when it comes to saving the Earth. But why does it have to be so, well, dull? And expensive, especially because most of what we saw lacked, for the most part, any genuine sense of freshness and excitement. I’m inclined to think that scrap lumber picked up on the street and fashioned into a lovely polished table top might be cheaper than what you’d pay a bunch for at Design Within Reach. After all, the materials are cheap. To be sure, much work, thought and person-hours goes into creating these eco-designs. Yet there was little on hand that tugged at my wallet, my heart and my green guilt and said, “Take me home now, I must have it, and we’ll save the polar bears too.”

Dining room chairs, Uhuru Design

Typical of this was Oso Industries, which showed pieces (book shelves, a console table, a side table) made with stainless steel rebar and thick black concrete with a mottled surface, which was cast with the texture of charred wood and brought to a high polish. The concrete mold was made from burned wood found in the studio (if I recall the story correctly), as a way of making new things out of disused ones ($2,150 for the console table; $700 for a lamp). In a similar way, Vexell presented a line of outdoor furnishings called "Green on Green" featuring two eco-friendly products in a table — recycled aluminum legs and a top made from “natural stones” cast in epoxy — for the same rough-hewn look ($3,500). Uhuru showed dining room chairs composed of ornate, rounded wooden backs of some Louis-something style that were discarded from a chair factory attached to sleek, minimal metal legs and seat. It came off as gimmicky, and the $18,000 price tag for this limited-edition set of 12 chairs made me swoon.

Hand-printed wallpaper, "Captain Smith Story," Grow House Grow

Okay, no more complaining. Here’s what I did like: stunning carpets by Asha and the beautiful, intriguing hand-printed wallpaper by Grow House Grow, with designs based on historical figures. Prominently displayed was the "Captain Smith" pattern, referring to the captain of the doomed ocean liner Titanic, who was lost when the ship went down in icy waters. At first glance we see what appear to be Art Deco-like patterns and sun bursts, only to discover that we are viewing an undulating underwater world of swirling jelly fish, squid, and opulent sea fauna — according to this narrative, the captain’s new crew, tentacles and all, on the ocean floor. The wallpaper, silk-screened on vinyl-coated paper, is $150 per roll, enough for about 33 square feet, about the size of your average Manhattan apartment. In one sense, the Brooklyn design crowd does recognize the world outside with its genuine commitment to the creed of sustainability, natural materials and locavore manufacturing. That is certainly admirable. But along the way they lost some edginess. And marketing-wise they’re thinking along the lines of organic milk producers — that green-minded buyers will pay any price to avoid hormones. If anyone can fit all these pieces of the green design puzzle together in one nice package, I think they could make a bundle — and hopefully help stop the polar ice cap from melting.

We left the show and returned to the real world of yummy Brooklyn ice cream down at the waterfront, complete with wedding parties and unusually jolly French tourists admiring the view of lower Manhattan. That’s about as real as you can get.

Posted in: Product Design

Comments [15]

I too was very unimpressed overall with Brooklyn Designs. Most things felt very timid; few designs took much of a risk or stood out as memorable, original or provocative. What gives?
Angela Riechers

Thank you for the post.
Did you go to the panel discussion on Friday?
When the integrity of design does not change in a down economy: We can always buy blankblank.
Carl W. Smith

Beautifully written! At the risk of addressing only the form and not the content, I actually smiled after reading the prosaic first paragraph, pleased that the care was taken to weave long sentences so deftly!

If the writer is from Brooklyn I am from Mars.
If your idea of "real" is local ice cream by the waterfront with wife and kid in tow, well, I doubt you wanted to part with any real money at the show.
And you sound like a snob.

Green and sustainable have so much more impact when applied to furnishings that are mass produced. It would be so encouraging if the American consumer would demand quality and sustainablity. Perhaps then the furniture and textile industry could return to the Carolinas.

Perhaps your kid in tow doesn't make much impact to your brain about the importance of eco-friendly. When you fell in love with the vinyl wallpaper, did you ponder about vinyl most commonly known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and the super toxic organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates, organotins and metals? Do you understand what that means? I doubt you do, so here is a lengthy description.

VOCs can damage the liver, central nervous system, respiratory system, reproductive system, and can contribute to developmental damage. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. On a day-to-day level, they can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and loss of coordination.

Perhaps you comparing "saving polar bears vs. your wallet" is funny but consider your kid's future. Your witty article is not very bright anymore, is it? Congratulations on keeping my attention enough to write a response, but shame on you for passing over real value for flashy aesthetics. I'm sure you buy vinyl toys painted with lead at the dollar store for your kid in tow to chew on. Most people are bothered by that, but you must support the freight, labor, & low costs of China. Instead of going to BKLYN DESIGNS, you might as well have gone to Walmart (or for your edgier designs there is a store called Target, complete with ice cream). good job.

LOL, do you regret posting now?
Sizzle Creative Agency

Well written. And I agree with the writer. Just because something is eco-friendly, doesn't mean it has to cost an arm and a leg. And it's not a matter of not wanting to part with any "real money", but rather getting a good value. I would pay $700 for a lamp if it was something that truly stood out, captured my undivided attention; and the added bonus of it being sustainable would be great. I don't think the author is saying he doesn't care about the environment, he just doesn't think price gouging or rough hewn design is necessary to do so. Give the guy a break!

I do not think this post is about deciding between polar bears and wallets or BKLYN DESIGNS and Walmart/Target. The author is saying that the green design he saw was neither compelling nor connected/real world.

In terms of the merit of the design, it's hard for me to tell for myself from the pictures. I actually liked the burn lamp. The chairs were alright but not $18,000 alright, and alright is hardly a winning response.

In terms of "real world," green design won't create real change til it happens on a larger scale. As Jean comments above, "Green and sustainable have so much more impact when applied to furnishings that are mass produced." If larger distributors (like Walmart and Target) were to adopt green practices and carry green products, that would make a huge difference.

BKLYN DESIGNS seems more a conceptual exercise in being green as the number of people for whom this work is accessible is so small that the effect is a message of greenness rather than any practical change. This reminds me of the "Paper, Plastic, or Canvas?" post. The canvas bag was an excellent message medium but a poor and counter productive means of creating actual change in terms of landfill accumulation and use of resources.

Innovative or flashy design—the stunning thing you must have that makes what you do have no longer good enough—may not be compatible a green objective of consuming less. Perhaps truly green design would employ good, understated design and quality construction that appeals to practicality rather than desire. (This last idea is something I got from Kenya Hara's book, Designing Design.)
Miriam Martincic

In general I agree Ernest's feeling, it is discouraging and frustrating to see how dislocated design and the economy can be in these trade shows. I do want to point out the struggle of these small businesses to keep manufacturing in Brooklyn, which will soon disappear. These businesses deal with high overhead costs, in addition to the well being and salary of their employees, and the investment to participate in these shows. At the end, the cost materials is almost irrelevant to their overhead. Sure there are beautiful rugs made in china but how can we make things here? Maybe these shows are meant for exposure and educating consumers who can then take their time purchasing something meaningful where they can meet their makers and establish a relationship and not for impulse buyers that want to buy a funky souvenir on the Brooklyn waterfront on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I would highly recommend Ernest to come to Brooklyn and see how things are made, write about it, and maybe he can help the industry find support and investment for innovation and design... which will eventually produce his beautiful cheap furniture piece made in Brooklyn.

I don't understand the logic of your argument; the cost of the designs shouldn't be a point against their design. I also swoon at the prices of art at art fairs, but that doesn't reflect badly on the quality of the work or the fair. It's hard to make a living as an artist or a 'local' designer. We should applaud the efforts of all those attempting to do so, even if, yes sometimes the "greening" of design products can come off as an overly gimmicky marketing tactic.

and... I agree with Jean's comment re: sustainable production on a mass-scale.

I agree with Mimi--the presenters at this year's show were both enthusiastic and talented, and regardless of price, put on a good show. As one of those designers, I can say living and producing artwork in Brooklyn is VERY difficult, and it's much easier to be negative when you're on the outside looking in. I'm extremely proud to have been part of this year's exhibition...and eco-friendly or not, all the wallpaper designers in particular were amazing. I can't wait to see what Brooklyn designers produce next, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. The best part about BKLYN Designs is that we all really stuck together and helped one another throughout the weekend, which speaks highly for the artisans living and working here.

And as a side note on the VOCs--I completely agree that waterbased ink is better in some circumstances, but there are pros and cons to each ink method. The average printed t-shirt you wear is using inks with VOCs, and you put that against your body. Not to mention the heinous paints people use to color their walls, or the dangerous chemicals we clean our homes with. My amazing hand-printer lives 25 feet from a lake, so waterbased inks are not an option (lest they go down the drain and into their water system/lake). He reuses EVERYTHING. Even left over inks are placed in containers to separate; the medium is reused in new inks, and the pigment is used in black, grays and browns. This is what I get for "going local." Being eco-friendly is a million shades of gray, and each individual needs to decide what works best for them.

It's interesting that the two things you fawned over were heavily graphic and undeniably 2-D. Just an observation...

Bear in mind that conceiving and making quality objects is no walk in the park. Put yourself in a normal Brooklyn Designer's shoes for a day or two and see what you come up with. It takes loads of money and even more time to make and market well-designed things with nothing more than a slim budget and your hands.

You never mentioned China (more like what it represents) either. Something hand-crafted right in the States will obviously cost way more than something pumped out of a factory in China...or anywhere for that matter. The price may be justified by a personal touch, or perhaps a wildly inaccurate sense of value, but at the end of the day, nobody's forcing you to buy it.

Many small business in their first few years don't have the capital to go large scale, so they do what they can with what they have and charge enough so they can reinvest into the business and maybe treat themselves to some of that fancy ice cream you so adore.

And can you really blame anyone for jumping on the Green Bandwagon? It's kind of a prerequisite these days to sell anything. An-y-thing. Everyone's doing it. And if they don't, they risk appearing ignorant, careless, and disconnected. It's just another i to dot and t to cross.

I must say that your writing is superb and flows like a babbling brook, albeit a very grumpy one.

P.S. I think ICFF comparatively has a lot more crap. You're always going to get a mixed bag at these things no matter what. And, of course, the homegrown one won't look as glitzy as the International one. That's what gives it corner store appeal and a differentiation from what you could consider to be the Target of design shows.

P.S.S. Vinyl-coating isn't something anyone who inhales air should have in their home, especially with a young child. On a brighter note, there are many modern "green" alternatives, such as Cavern, on the market. Affordable ones to boot. :)

Jeez, from the comments here, you'd think nobody had ever read a piece of criticism before. This is a design blog, isn't it? Thanks for your insights, Ernest.

And thanks for trying to do sustainable work, designers. Now, take Ernest's criticism to heart: create work that's emotional appeal matches its affordability.

I live in Brooklyn and would love to see a design community flourish here. But I am forced to agree that the work presented was overall uninspiring at best, mannered, cloying, and self-satisfied at worst.

Kind of like, um, much of Brooklyn these days.
Jay Harlow

Mr Beck! So! Married with 4 yr old (now) back in United States. Ernie - I have always loved your wrting - you can still sell milk to cows! Get in touch. I'm still in Santa Monica - and have to catch up! Love, Deborah
Deborah Monroe

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