Derek Chen likens his job as founder of Council Design to that of a matchmaker. Rather than employing full-time designers, Chen hires designers who have ideas that fit his company’s brief, mimicking the collaborative business plan of European companies, like Kartell and Cassina, which dominate the modern design world.
It was only fitting that Council was one of four Bay Area design collectives that gathered at One & Co’s studio last week's "Designers in Dialogue" event presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art A+D Forum, an auxiliary group of the SFMoMA that organizes events and studio visits for members with acute interests in architecture and design. The theme: the unique cooperative design environment in San Francisco. “Coming from New York, which is a very competitive and individualistic place, one thing that moved me about San Francisco was the way designers aren’t competitors but friends and collaborators,” said Cary Bernstein, a San Francisco architect and co-chair of the A+D Forum.
In addition to Council and One & Co, blankblank and Mike and Maaike also joined the discussion. To get a sense of how interwoven these designers are, Bernstein broke it down like this: “Mike and Maaike have designed furniture and products that are manufactured by both Council and blankblank. One &Co has designed furniture that is produced by Council, and both blankblank and Council design their own lines as well as solicit lines from other artists and designers.” (Also in the mix are Cathy Bailey and Robin Petrovic of Heath Ceramics, located in Sausalito: Bailey was a founding partner of One &Co but left when she and Petrovic purchased Heath Ceramics in 2003.)
Aura Credenza by One & Co for Council Design
Maaike Evers, who designs for Mike and Maaike with her life and work partner Mike Simonian, describes the local collaborative phenomena as a result of the “Bay Area’s start-up mentality.” “We’re not so worried about whether a product will sell right away,” she said. “We just try it and have faith that at the very least it will be a great experience.”
As for financial security, “the money falls into place when the passion is there,” said Scott Croyle, one of One &Co’s three design principals. The Bay Area also attracts smaller egos, he said--and perhaps that’s because it’s a smaller community than New York or Los Angeles, Bernstein adds. “The designers here are aware of how conservative the consumer market is and it brings them together,” she said. “The question is what can we do as a community to promote modern design.”
The success of these four companies speaks to the value of collaboration: Council will launch its third collection this year at the International Furniture Fair in New York, Mike and Maaike’s Juxtaposed bookcase for blankblank sold out instantly and the duo is now working on a follow-up piece for the company, and One &Co recently completed designs for the likes of Burton and Microsoft.
If New York is all about the “me,” San Francisco is most certainly about the “we.”
Lead image: Juxtaposed: Religion by Mike and Maaike for blankblank