Thanks to everyone who came out Thursday night. We had our biggest crowd yet, as people filled Knoll's showroom to hear the soft, compelling voice of designer, David Weeks. Thanks to David, Knoll and also to September Wines, who provided the drinks. Head below for the recap...
We started at 7pm with a brief presentation by the ladies from Design Intermix. Their new site launches on April 17th with a big party at Parsons and is an online community for designers, artists, students and friends. You can check them out here: DesignIntermix.com.
When David came up he started with a presentation of images of his work from the beginning to the present (see above). Born in Wisconsin and raised in Georgia, he came to New York after a year at RISD studying fine art, looking to make a career for himself as a painter. Disappointed with the exclusivity of the art work, he landed a chance job with Ted Muehling which eventually turned into an apprenticeship.
From there things took off, but slowly. One of the hallmarks of David's career so far is that he's grown slowly and excercised patience, never trying to be a design star, keeping his head down and learning as he went. Ted Muehling's influence was in teaching him a sculptural approach to design. Ted found everyday objects and reduced them until they became new objects. David's approach has been similarly artistic.
David started off on his own making lighting, which consisted originally of old lamps that he changed by cutting pieces away from them. They were distinctive enough to get him invited into friend's booths at ICFF land him sales, most notably at Troy Soho. While his first lamps retailed for $200 and didn't make him any money, things changed when he designed and sold his first floor lamp for $1000. He sold one a week. Realizing that he could raise his price and design on a bigger scale was a breakthrough in a business sense, and he continued to pursue his lighting designs to the trade and to upscale customers until he had created a name for himself.
Lighting also turned out to be a good choice, and friends often comment that he was smart to have chosen it. David said he didn't think of it as necessarily a business strategy, but it did work out well As a subject for design, lighting offered many possibilities and as an item it was easier to sell in multiples. People like lighting, he said, and he didn't think he would have done as well as he started out designing sofas.
David started as one person in his Brooklyn studio and now he employs nearly a dozen people, which is not too big, but enough that his production has significantly increased as his business has grown and he has never been overstressed by unwieldy production demands. It has taken patience, something that comes naturally to him. He values the slow growth of his business and considers it a strength that he is still a small business with all of his lighting made in the USA.
Meanwhile, he's seen a number of skilled fellow designers lose patience and leave the business. While New York can be a tough town, David seemed to be saying that the way to win the design race is to be slow and steady. Success rarely happens over night, but New York contains a powerful web of connections and word of mouth referrals that have helped him build his business quietly behind the scenes. Paying attention to this network and nurturing connections over time seemed to be the takeaway here.
One of David's strongest relationships over the years has been with Ralph Pucci. He spoke fondly of working with "Ralph" and cited the opportunity to design furnishings as being very rewarding. David showed his sofa and chair collection, which was based on his sculptural approach, where he reduced the form to reveal what he wanted rather than add to it. He spoke about how he's been able to really experiment with his forms and not be constrained by having to design something that will be made hundreds of times - because Ralph Pucci sells all his pieces as custom orders. The more David spoke, it became clear to me that working for people like this and in small batches aimed to the trade has allowed him to stay much closer to his artistic roots.
Though very soft spoken (the microphone helped), David revealed a very funny, deadpan sense of humor that was also apparent in his designs for Areaware and Kikkerland. This has been a new avenue for his company and one that he's really enjoyed. He showed a number of short promotional films of Hanno, his wood gorilla, as well as his Ulterior Votives, his monkey face ashtrays and his candlestick that is also a flashlight. All of these designs are for mass production and he noted that they each took so long to design, that it would be even longer before they made him any money. The upfront investment, his relatively little cut of revenue and the price point made these projects much different from his lighting business.
One of the questions from the audience had to do with whether he'd ever copyrighted any of his designs and/or whether he'd ever been infringed. David said he'd only done it once, for a lighting design, but that he didn't consider it worth much. It is too easy to copy designs and tweak them a little bit and too costly to go after those that do it. He said it annoyed him and that copy catting happens often, but he tries not to think about it too much and to simply keep his designs a few steps ahead. Someone asked if he felt it was flattering that big companies copied his designs. He said he didn't find it flattering.
What Would he Have Done Differently
Nothing. The last question I always ask is what would you have done differently if you were going to do it all over again and David had no regrets, though he did say that he really knew very little about industrial design when he started, and learned a lot along the way from those he'd hired who had backgrounds in fabrication and prototyping.
He seemed happy with the steps he had taken and the journey that he'd embarked upon so far. In this way, David's approach, his designs and his presence all spoke of his origins as a painter. Soft spoken and thoughtful, he seemed chiefly concerned with the development of his artistic skill that expressed itself though his designs. The other stuff, he seemed to say, you can figure out.