Here at The List, we’re ever-curious about the culture of design, so who better to survey about the field’s current state than those currently working at the top of it? In Need to Know, we pick the brains of best-in-class creatives to find out how they got to where they are today—and to share an insider’s perspective on the challenges and highlights of their particular perches in the design world.
There’s a good history of couples making robust, lasting contributions to design.
The synergistic approach of the Vignelli, Knoll, and Eames couples’ proved bountiful in the mid-1900s: the New York City Subway map, the legitimization of interior design as a discipline, and successful material experimentation among their contributions, respectively.
With their commitment to humble materiality, unexpected forms, and their rejection of unwarranted ornamentation, Alexandra Burr and Allen Slamic of AlexAllen Studio find themselves tiptoeing toward the paths chartered by the above design giants. Both AIA-certified architects, Burr and Slamic have infused their lighting line with true architectural know-how to brilliant effect. Surface spoke to Burr and Slamic about AlexAllen Studio’s origins, balancing architecture and product projects, and how tight budgets have given way to incredibly satisfying results.
Alexandra Burr: We’re both architects; we met at Yale University Architecture School. We worked for architects in the city. We just started experimenting at night, building light fixtures and furniture, and we came up with this product called the Light Bracket, basically a shelf bracket with an LED light in it. We entered it into the ICFF Studio Awards, and it was selected. That was our first introduction to ICFF and the product design world. It really kind of jump-started our career. At that point, we started designing more products and were able to leave our architecture jobs and go full-force to start our own studio. We feel lucky to be doing architecture and the lighting and products at the same time: the two help to inform each other.
The 2×4 Pendant was your first product. How would you say its design is indicative of AlexAllen’s overall ethos?
AS: I’d say it’s very simple, pared down, and minimal, but we care a lot about the details, tectonics, and how things are put together. For instance, we spent a lot of time developing what the top of the light looks like. No one ever sees [it], but we care about those moments. We care about how the wire and cables connect with the light fixture, and we designed this beautiful metal plate to cover it all and end caps at the light’s edges to hide the wood end-grain. It reads as something that’s quite minimal and pared down, but we’ve spent a lot of time working on these details, which we think adds a nice touch and it makes it feel a little more high-end and luxurious.
Another thing about it is that it was always affordable; I wouldn’t say it’s a high-end light fixture. It’s in this middle range—that’s the reason it does so well for us. It’s definitely more accessible to designers, in terms of specking it, and we see it being installed in residential and commercial spaces. A lot of our projects have pretty tight budgets, and that fixture is, in a way, a response to some of those restraints.
AB: Yes, figuring out ways to be smart about designs so that it doesn’t cost a fortune while still making a beautiful fixture.
I’m wondering, and the answers may obviously may differ between the two of you, how your upbringings influenced the way you design, think about design, or experience design?
AB: I come from a family of architects, so that probably had a large impact on my youth. My parents are architects, my sister is an architect, my sister is married to an architect, I’m obviously an architect and married to an architect, so there’s a lot of us. And my youth was spent touring around and looking at architecture. It was part of my life from a very early age, so just understanding design and being aware of it, that was something I grew up with.
AS: My parents are not architects. I don’t have any architects in my family. My dad was a metals advocator, so he was always building stuff. I grew up in Ohio, and in my 29 years there, he always had a metal shop on the side and would always have projects. I was definitely around and exposed to that. My mom worked at General Electric, she built light bulbs for about thirty years. I definitely come from a family of… I would call them “makers,” before makers were makers. I was always around crafts. I wasn’t really aware of it until I entered college and found that some of these resources were actually were quite beneficial to me.
How do you balance architectural practice with product design and production?
AS: When we have light orders, we have to work on that. When we have architecture projects and deadlines, we work on that; but it isn’t just things like that. We spend a lot more time and money marketing our light fixtures, and none of that on architecture projects. We get all of our architecture projects through word of mouth, and there’s a much slower process; we treat it quite differently from our products. We promote our products at trade shows, and we have different marketing initiatives and ways to promote it. Architecture we treat quite differently.
We try to split our time at this point, it’s maybe 50/50 working on architecture and products. We’ve spent a long time trying to find the perfect balance: for a while it was mostly the products and the lighting design. Slowly, we’ve been getting better and better architecture projects that we’re really excited about. It’s a slower pace. The architecture products can take years, whereas the product design is quick and we can turn out new pictures and iterations of designs fairly quickly. We have a lot of control over the products and less so with the architecture. We have clients that we must cater to for the architecture, whereas with the products we have full design control. So they are two different entities, but we find that they really inform each other.
AB: Again, we’re growing quite quickly all of a sudden. But I do think that the two relate quite a bit. The way we treat a detail on a light fixture is similar to how we might detail some millwork on an architecture project. It’s nice to work at two different scales, the very fine detail work on a product design versus larger scale moves in architecture.
Are there any recently completed architectural projects that you could walk me through?
AB: We did a house in New Paltz. As Allen mentioned before, the clients were on a tight budget. We had to be smart about how we did this house, but still make it look beautiful. I think we achieved results for the money that they had. And it fit our design ethos of pared down and minimal, yet you can kind of understand the tectonics of that exterior cladding—you understand what’s happening on the interior based on what’s happening on the exterior.
AS: With what we were just saying earlier, we did a loft in Williamsburg which is also quite minimal: white walls, no known trim, kind of really pared down—really a backdrop for the client’s beautiful furniture collection. But it actually takes quite a bit of work to make something look so minimal and clean. We’ve got a few new things in the works, including a townhouse in Manhattan that will be a four-story gut renovation; we’re doing a big apartment renovation on Central Park West; we’re doing an artist’s loft on Great Jones Street and another townhouse in Greenpoint—lots in the works right now.
I know that you’re both architects but I’m wondering how your different responsibilities manifest?
AS: I’m very much the lighting side of it in terms of managing production, fulfilling orders, managing all of our vendors, and just dealing with day-to-day customer relationship issues we might have.
AB: I’m doing more of the architecture projects. We act in two different spaces: we have an office/showroom where all of our architecture happens and a fabrication studio down the street where all the light fixture production happens. So I’m off and in the office working on the architecture projects, and Allen’s off and down the street in our production space working on the light fixtures.
AS: This kind of goes back to what we were saying earlier of “figuring out that balance.” I’m actually coming back to more architecture now, just because our workload is larger, so it’s a tricky point in terms of how to get everything done and streamlined. Traditionally, those have been our roles, over the last couple of years.
What aspect of the studio would you say you’re most proud of? Is there a part of the job that’s most satisfying to you?
AS: In terms in the architecture, the New Paltz house and the Williamsburg loft, on both those projects we were working with pretty tight budgets. People are quite shocked that we achieved the end result with the [allotted] budgets. We’re pretty proud of executing those projects and getting what we wanted in terms of material and details within the budgets. I think that’s pretty impressive. Some of our newer projects have bigger budgets, but I don’t think we’re departing from the idea of trying to get the most out of the budget. So we’re still very conscious of how much things cost, and I think that will carry on into our current work.
AB: In terms of the products, we were pretty pleased with the Chord Collection, especially since it took us almost two years to find the right fabricators who could bend the tubes the ways that we needed, and a lot of the details that went into that light fixture took a really long time to figure out so that the fixture reads as quite minimal and everything fits together perfectly. I think that represents our design aesthetic really well: simple and pared down, yet also kind of luxurious, and giving a sense of tectonics and the craftsmanship that we hope to achieve in our architecture projects and in our products.
AS: We’re never really trying to hide the way things are built. I think that’s just how we design and that’s how our aesthetic works. We’re pretty true to the materials and not hiding them, and we use that to express the design and the details of the design.