Chicago has been able to nurture and support a unique design community where younger ... talent can find the inspiration, resources and customer base to sustain them. These designers are increasingly keeping the city as their base instead of fleeing to a more expensive and anonymous East or West Coast. Whether it’s in textiles or furniture, these green designers are finding a global market for their wares, but have concluded that there is no place like home.Dogs and possums Roscoe Jackson (roscoejackson.com) is the design team of Caleb Dawson and Shawn Gnann. Why the name? The two young designers met in a dog park through their canine companions Roscoe and Jackson and found they not only had cool dogs but a common design sense that lead them to launch their furniture company in the summer of 2007.
Dawson says their design style is contemporary, modern and even edgy. “It’s for people who are sick of buying crap from IKEA,” he says. “It’s approachable, not cold. People can relax and get comfortable.”
Dawson spent a year in Paris after finishing his undergraduate degree. His time in Europe changed his focus from law to industrial design. He says he studied the constructionist movement and admires the work of Dieter Rams, Alberto Giacometti and Ettore Bugatti, the car designer.
His training led him to designs like the Possum chair, Asterisk stools and a wine rack made with sustainable hard wood and recycled plastic. The team also has a uniquely designed indoor/outdoor table, chairs and coffee table. Dawson and Gnann search for material and manufacturing processes that provide a sleek look without plastics or solvents.
The pair initially thought their products would appeal to people like themselves, but found their niche market to be somewhere between themselves and their parents. “Our customers have some interest in their environmental footprint, and it gives them a chance to be the first ones to have something from a new designer,” Dawson says. The reasonable price point of the furniture adds to its appeal. “Given the current economic climate, people are really counting pennies,” Dawson says. “Design is important. We’re not trying to sell 10,000 of something. We sell something you can connect to and live with. Buy our product and it will last for the next three or four recession cycles, and lasting long is fundamental to the environmental approach.”From Wall Street to Lincoln Square Textile designer Mara Snipes started Maramiki (maramiki.com) just last spring. A former Wall Street investment banker and buyer for The Gap, she lived in San Francisco for 10 years before moving back home to Chicago.
Snipes says she finds inspiration from nature during her daily walks in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. She took her drawings to the Lill Street Studio on Ravenswood and learned techniques to print her drawings and illustrations onto fabric. Her pillows, custom work, tablecloths and bedding are all designed with images based in nature, but are extremely imaginative. Simple, organic and not so serious, she says.
She marketed her work on Etsy.com, a marketplace for handmade items. Orders started to flow in immediately, and Snipes says half of her customers are in Europe and Australia. Many are from New York and Los Angeles. The designer carries her respect for nature into the process and production. “I want to impact the environment as minimally as possible, so I choose natural and/or organic fabrics such as linen, organic cotton and raw silk,” she says. “I use only non-toxic, water-based inks in my printing, do all the printing by hand and finish the textiles with heat (instead of chemicals or solvents). The materials I use for shipping are recyclable. While my inspiration and designs are all based in nature, I want my production to follow the same philosophy.”
Made of steel
Randall Kramer (kramerdesignstudio.com) has been doing commissioned custom design and fabrication of fine furniture and furnishings since 1993, and he works primarily with steel.
“Steel is green,” Kramer says. “It’s the most commonly recycled material on the planet. It’s an inexpensive, common material in an urban environment that can be highly crafted, polished and finished. It takes a humble material to another realm.”
His website has one other explanation: “Why Steel? It’s incredibly hard and strong, yet it sounds cool when I tell folks that I bend steel with my bare hands. Being from the Rust Belt, I have been surrounded by steel my whole life. The common, humble, everyday nature of a basic building block of our world has led me to use steel in a way commonly reserved for wood.”
Kramer also likes to “repurpose” architectural finds. “If you have something made for one function, rather than melting it down, give it a new life,” he says. “Allow it to look like what it had been, but give it a new function. It’s a bit of whimsy I respond to.”
Devoted to steel, there isn’t a better place to do his work, he says. “Chicago is the largest place in the country for metal fabricating,” Kramer says. “There are more companies that make things with steel. There’s Tony’s Metal in Melrose Park. He’s the metal polisher to the stars. That’s hard to find anywhere else.” Kramer is loyal to a third generation blacksmith company on the South Side that helps him with his designs. “Back in the day, they made horseshoes,” he says. “It’s a very dark and medieval-looking place.” Today, the blacksmith company makes grapple hooks for the U.S. Navy.
Kramer’s sleek designs and custom work is at the high-end price point. Because everything is custom, he doesn’t design prototypes. “I can’t afford my own furniture,” he says. He’s accessible by appointment only.
A perfect pair
Alicia Rosauer and Robert Segal (unisonhome.com) were New Trier High School sweethearts. They moved to Finland and spent five years as junior designers at Marimekko Corporation, a textile and clothing design company. It may just be in their blood. Segal is the son of Crate & Barrel founders Gordon and Carol Segal. Rosauer’s mother was a painter and her father a landscape architect. Upon their return home (they wanted to be American again), they married and set up Unison, which has been written up in rave reviews by national design magazines.
A review in Metro.POP Magazine said that Rosauer and Segal had finally merged sophisticated and funky with their unique bedding. Apartment Therapy voted their pillow lines as one of the best in 2008.
Their style has been described as “clean modern.” The mid-range-priced bedding, pillows and table linens are made of organic materials, 100 percent cotton, linen and cotton and bamboo and cotton mix. The designs are minimalist, but are colorful and fresh. Rosauer has a background in photography and textiles and says her inspiration currently comes from nature, photography and architecture. Even their West Loop neighborhood provides them with new ideas.
This is one design powerhouse couple that we should see a lot from in the future.
Forklift to fine furniture
Jonathan Nesci (hale-id.com) has an eclectic background. This 27-year-old furniture designer once attended a Baptist seminary, worked as a forklift operator for FedEx for five years and managed restoration at Wright auction house.
The Chicago native had an early interest in modern furniture design and industrial, mostly decorative, arts. Early on, he’d handcraft ramps for BMX biking. He took his passion for design to a more technical level by earning a degree in 3D CAD (computer-aided design) at a community college.
A visit to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York inspired him to be a presenter, and he debuted his first collection in 2007. His work included solid-colored tables, shelving and water jet-cut steel stools. He sold eight of his metal Tidal shelves at a fair in Paris this year. Milan looks to be next on his list.
Nesci calls the style of his work “functional minimalism” and says he has been inspired by abstract artists like Josef Albers and Donald Judd. He takes inspiration from 20th century master works and applies it to new design. “Not a copy of the past, but a progression,” he says.
“It’s really only with a clear understanding and respect for the history of design that you can reasonably expect to be a part of its future.”
He has a regular line of furniture in metal with a focus on aluminum and also uses steel, wood, bronze and plastic. Nesci shows an additional line at the Casati Gallery on Fulton Street, which allows him to develop a global clientele.
“There is a niche market of people who buy low-production design,” Nesci says. “My customers and I end up talking regularly. Our connections are personal.”
Armed with such early success, Nesci is one Chicago designer set to make his mark on the global design scene.
Published: February 08, 2009
Issue: February 2009 Design Issue