Arielle Assouline-Lichten Is Firing on All Cylinders
Undeterred by her second-place finish on Ellen’s Next Great Designer, the Brooklyn-based founder of Slash Objects is heralding a promising new chapter by dialing into her newfound flow state to fine-tune her most well-received pieces.
Those who closely followed Ellen’s Next Great Designer, the finale of which recently aired on HBO Max, likely remember waiting with bated breath as the judges announced the grand prize winner. It came down to either Arielle Assouline-Lichten, founder of the sustainability-minded Brooklyn furniture studio Slash Objects, or Mark Grattan, the ascendant Mexico City–based creative lead at Vidivixi. Both designers braved one arduous weekly challenge after another, creating pristine pieces of furniture around strict parameters that pushed their resolve and ingenuity as designers to the limit. Challenges ran the gamut from creating new pieces inspired by shapes and artworks to fashioning outdoor play structures that could withstand the elements.
In the series finale, both Grattan and Assouline-Lichten faced their biggest challenge yet: designing an entire furniture collection from scratch across four days to furnish the living room of interior designer Brigette Romanek, who served as a judge along with product designer Fernando Mastrangelo and actor Scott Foley. Both contestants worked from a shared woodworking studio in Los Angeles—an unfamiliar city where neither had their valuable network of artisans and fabricators. Despite the grueling time crunch and continuous unforeseen obstacles, both designers kept their composure to deliver formidable, showroom-ready collections that serve as impressive additions to their oeuvre.
Assouline Lichten delivered “The Rift,” a collection whose forms evoke California’s tectonic plates while featuring her signature blend of natural materials—onyx and brass—across a floor lamp, coffee table, console table, and daybed. Though her collection thoroughly impressed the judges, who praised her nonpareil consistency and elegance, they ultimately awarded the title of Ellen’s Next Great Designer to Grattan for his strikingly original vision—a collection called “A Seat at the Table” marked by Vidivixi’s signature graceful curves and Italian retro sensibilities.
Undeterred by her second-place finish, Assouline-Lichten quickly returned to work with a newly positive outlook. The competition’s weekly challenges quite literally extracted her from her comfort zone as a product designer and problem solver; the tight turnarounds forced her to follow her intuition, even during intense moments of stress and adrenaline as deadlines loomed. “I could definitely design one piece in a week now,” she told me over the phone the night before the finale aired. “I never thought that was achievable, but it’s not a bad way to test out ideas super quickly.”
That’s an exciting revelation for an independent product designer, especially one like Assouline-Lichten who strives to give new meaning to discarded materials. Since the show wrapped, the Harvard-trained designer has been working tirelessly to bring her most well-received pieces from the show to market. Today she debuts the Adri Chair, a sculptural statement piece defined by a recycled rubber composite seat that’s perched like a scroll between two sturdy marble slabs. (She’s also fine-tuning her Rolly Rockers and exploding dodecahedron chandelier). “What I’ve built so far will only keep growing and resonating with more people,” she says. “This show was an opportunity to create, test, and explore, which is why I set up a creative business in the first place.”
We caught up with the designer, who dishes on dialing into her creative flow state, becoming more comfortable with getting her hands dirty, and how she plans to scale Slash Objects up in the future.
Now that a few months have passed since the finale, how are you feeling?
I’m really glad to have made it to the end and created that final collection because it was so far out of my comfort zone. It showed me what I’m capable of and helped me overcome some fears about how I work. Seeing what I can produce with limited time and resources awakened within me this desire to make things more frequently.
On the show, you experimented with new product types that were uncharted territory, notably the Adri Chair.
The Adri Chair is launching today, June 15! It was my favorite, if I can choose. It speaks to a new direction with how I’m treating the same materials differently and testing the limits of their strength. It’s incredible how much you can learn about a material the longer you work with it. To me, this was about testing the capabilities of recycled rubber. I pushed myself to position materials together in daring ways throughout the show, and I want to continue that.
There’s potentially an entirely new collection that can come out of working with these materials in this way, where a marble slab is used vertically with minimal structural metal details tied together with a fabric or material intention. One of my goals for doing the show was to demonstrate my ability to think creatively in different capacities. When you’re working on a brand, you don’t always have the ability to experiment or step outside a certain condition. I’d love to see this chair take on a new life by working with an external manufacturer to bring it to more people.
Was there a particular challenge that tested you the most?
The finale. At a certain point, you’re so emotionally exhausted from the previous challenges. As Fernando [Mastrangelo] mentioned, you’re firing on all cylinders. I was trying to think about what it takes to create a collection as opposed to a few pieces in a living room, and how it could encompass a light, a console, surfaces, and seating. My brain was constantly pinging between these functions and relating them back to how I explore materials.
I was really concerned with making a bold enough statement to win the competition. I knew it’d take getting not only detail resolved, but also making something cohesive that would stand out in this beautiful space. I also wanted to try working with new material, and I’ve always liked onyx. I’ve had some requests to bring those pieces to market, so we’re doing one-offs for individual spaces and refining the proportions to make them more widely available.
Were the eliminations as tense and emotional as they looked?
Yes! Everyone put in so much work and really wanted to be there. There also weren’t that many of us, so as fewer people were left in the room it got more palpably tense.
How did you emotionally prepare for the finale after such an arduous competition?
I was listening to Alicia Keys on repeat while waiting for the verdict [laughs]. I definitely feel like I evolved as a designer and as a person throughout the show, though. Putting myself out there is something I never thought I could do. There’s no real way to prepare for that moment, which made it so heart-wrenching. It took a lot of courage. I really just wanted to show the world what I’m capable of, and I definitely feel like I achieved that.
Now that you’ve cooled off from the end result, what was the most rewarding aspect of being on the show?
Being able to create this new work was such a gift. It’s rare to have this bubble of time and space to work in. I really tapped into my flow state during the show, so now I’m recreating those conditions to continue exploring, learning, and growing. Also, deadlines are an incredible tool! You have to just go with a decision, which can be so liberating.
Did you rely on a strategy outside of your own adrenaline and intuition?
My strategy was to push myself and surprise the judges. That sounds banal, but every week I asked myself “What are they not expecting me to do?” That’s why I made a chair—they’re notoriously difficult to create. That also pushed me to create the light. After showing these very precise and clean designs, I wanted to prove that I could work with an element of chaos and that I could let things out of my control and rein them back in.
Mies van der Rohe said that chairs are more difficult to design than skyscrapers, didn’t he? It’s interesting how that was something you fearlessly rushed into.
Go big or go home! I thought about saving the chair for later, but bringing my best idea every week was the only way I’d make it to the end.
What preparations did you take knowing that you needed to fabricate these intricate objects so quickly?
Lubricating my brain and hand to come up with ideas quickly. I spent months thinking through potential challenges and different pieces they might ask me to make. It’s a muscle that you always exercise, so it’s important to have that facility to quickly translate an idea into reality. That was all based on practicing and challenging myself.
Mark [Grattan] said that having cameras around impeded his design process. Did this impact you at all?
It’s impossible for it not to. The producers made me articulate what decisions I’m making and why, which brought another dimension to my work. It helped me flesh out choices that seem like second-nature but were all calculated.
Did articulating your decisions ever change the end result?
There were challenges where I wasn’t certain if my idea would work. For the coffee table, I wasn’t sure if the rock would hold the weight of the wooden slab, and there wasn’t enough time to make sure of that until the very end. For the chair, there was potential for the marble to crack. The wheels were always churning about backup plans and how to quickly come up with solutions. Even the Rocky Rollers were a backup. I started thinking about Storm King and making a piece with the playfulness of permanent outdoor sculptures, but four days to make that isn’t feasible.
Now you’re experimenting with lighting for the first time. Tell me more about your first collection, Coexist.
Coexist is about volumes and how they relate to one another through material. The latest extension of that is a series of floor, table, and bedside lamps with a marble base and prominent cylindrical shade. They’re really meant to have a presence and show that everything has a place in space. I’m also developing the light from the competition that deals with chaos and order, which feels like the antithesis of Coexist. It’s about moments of break and what happens when geometry and chaos come together and how that can be a really beautiful moment.
Chaos and order seems like an apt metaphor for your time on the show.
That’s the nature of making. I’m not trained as a maker—I’m a designer with a planning background, and I think of problems conceptually as opposed to physically. Bridging that conceptual space and the physical making of that piece enables a push and pull between having that order and it falling more out of your control.
Do you find that you’re enjoying working with your hands more?
New opportunities have arisen from the show that have required us to prototype. It’s made me comfortable working with clients on faster deadlines because we can bring pieces to life more quickly, especially one-offs. Managing a business and the creative side is a push-pull, and you need to carve out the space to continuously play and discover.
What do you want viewers to know about you as you’re looking toward expanding in the future?
I’m not used to talking about “fans!” But now I have thousands from the show, and them sending heartfelt messages about how my work resonated has really propelled me forward. This is the first time I’ve really shown my story, which makes for a whole new level of interaction and intimacy with the public. I’d love to continue fostering that, and engaging with more design lovers about how I think through ideas and bring pieces to life.
I keep going back to a phrase that Fernando said about you—that you’re firing on all cylinders. Do you feel that you’re doing that now?
Definitely. For a while, I was trying to decide what to focus on and what to leave behind. Now, I’m realizing that everything actually works together in tandem. It’s a lot to juggle, but it’s something I’m capable of doing. I’m really sticking to my vision and trying to bring as much to life as possible. During the finale, I said something along the lines of “the only way out is through.” Even if it doesn’t always feel that way, I have to continue on because what I’ve built so far will only keep growing and resonating with more people. This show was an opportunity to create, test, and explore, which is why I set up a creative business in the first place. It almost feels like a new beginning.