I think we just became more comfortable, like how any relationship develops, we became more open about sharing ideas or moving a project forward. Just learning better editing skills. That’s what good design is, having the essence of a concept and then being able to pare it down and develop it further.— Katrina Vonnegut
New Yorkers who keep your heads down on the subway, take note: a chance encounter on the G train in Williamsburg is what brought together one of the industry’s most intriguing duos, Vonnegut/Kraft. Helmed by Katrina Vonnegut, a RISD grad, and Brian Kraft, a self-taught carpenter’s son, this young but much-lauded studio specializes in handmade, sculptural furniture and objects with a keen interest in materiality, fine detail and the occasional subversive nuance. We met the designers at their Sunset Park studio and wood shop — down the road from Industry City, Brooklyn’s new mecca-in-the-making for creatives — to talk about a shared commitment to craft, a mutual obsession with chairs, and the ins and outs of building a successful work-life partnership.
RONEN LEV: Could you tell us a bit about your backgrounds, and what brought you together?
KATRINA VONNEGUT: I studied furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduated in 2009, and moved to New York. Brian and I met a couple years after. We were neighbors.
BRIAN KRAFT: Well we sort of met on the G train. We sat next to and took notice of one another while riding the train. Then we started seeing each other around the neighborhood and it turned out we lived across the street from each other…
KV: I was making furniture independently, Brian was doing custom millwork, and then we started working together.
BK: My dad’s a carpenter, and I grew up building houses with him. When I moved to the city I actually went to NYU as an English major. After school, I met a guy with a similar background and we started a millwork shop together. I had taken a long break from doing any carpentry and then fell back into it. So when Katrina and I met, I had this shop in Bushwick, which lasted from 2003 to 2013. She came in toward the end and Vonnegut/Kraft really started when we moved down here. Was that 2013?
KV: Yeah. But you’ve been here—you kind of grew up in New York.
BK: I grew up in New Jersey but I feel like, by extension. in the city.
RL: And you grew up in Vermont?
KV: Yes, in the Lake Champlain Islands. North Hero and South Hero. It’s pretty rural and close the Canadian border.
RL: Have you always been interested in furniture?
KV: I went to RISD initially thinking I was going to study film. But I really enjoy physically making things, and within the first couple months of my major at RISD I changed my mind and joined the Furniture Department. I was trying to find a balance between sculpture and product design, and furniture was the perfect blend of these majors. RISD has a really good woodworking program. So that’s kind of how I got into furniture, but I’ve really been surrounded by it my whole life. My mother is an antiques dealer and would refinish furniture, so there was always an emphasis on the importance of well-made, beautiful furniture pieces and objects and understanding the history and craftsmanship behind objects. And my dad’s an architect.
RL: So it was inevitable!
KV: Yeah, it really did just kind of feel…inevitable.
BK: Yes, and then we met. I had been wanting to do more creative work, and it just worked out. She really inspired me to…. You know, I was getting really tired of doing these custom jobs for people.
KV: But you’re an incredible carpenter. I mean, you worked on David Adjaye’s first project in New York, Calatrava’s apartment… I mean, you’ve done so many amazing spaces through the custom side of it.
RL: So how did you find your voice when you combined?
KV: It took a while, but I think we just became more comfortable, like how any relationship develops, it became more open about sharing ideas or moving a project forward. Just learning better editing skills. That’s what good design is, having the essence of a concept and then being able to pare it down and develop it further.
BK: We kind of found our first really good pieces pretty early on, and it built from there. It’s still a struggle sometimes, but we always find our voice, I think.
RL: How do you explain the Vonnegut/Kraft aesthetic?
KV: I think we have a strong emphasis on form and materiality. [To Brian] How would you describe it?
BK: We really focus on formal details especially ones that really articulate their overt function. Ideally we strive to make these sort of sculptural centerpieces that feature bold gestural details .
KV: And also it’s about finding a new voice within sculpture. Like with this table [the Mesa Table], the structure is integrated into the aesthetic signature of the support system. And even with our daybed [the Crescent Lounge], it’s kind of a play on the idea of an Egyptian headrest, and the concept of holding the headrest up with this sculptural element. We’re really detail-oriented, so figuring out the right connection is important — something that’s a little surprising or atypical. Right now we’re striving to include more asymmetry and color and move forward on expanding this design vocabulary with new materials.
BK: I think being more thorough with new materials, exploring fabrics and metal and stone, which felt a little impractical for us in the beginning.
KV: With wood we’re able to do more complicated forms because of our deeper understanding of how things go together, whereas in other materials it’s not as familiar. But we’d like to challenge ourselves a little bit more.
RL: Do you try to debut a certain amount of new product each year?
BK: That was the idea at first, and we had anticipated that the cycle necessitated new releases maybe as often as every six months — but as we got more involved in the New York design scene, it became a little more realistic than that. With furniture it’s really difficult to prototype and release even on an annual cycle, so I feel like we and a lot of our peers have gotten into an every-other-year rhythm. But we always do something for design week, like a collaboration or one or two new pieces.
RL: Could you walk us through your typical process when you’re designing something?
KV: We sketch. I make a lot of models. Then we usually get together and present all of the variations and from there we’ll start mocking up details pretty quickly, which is why having a wood shop is so essential to our process.
BK: I really like to work in scale. Prototyping shifts up and down, but I really like to just get in and prototype in the shop. Because we have the space here, we tend to mock everything up in wood.
KV: Typically you’d do a drawing, have it prototyped, then adjust and edit from there… We have the ability to do that in real time, which is really beneficial to our process.
RL: So your team makes everything to order here?
KV: Yes, by us and we have part-time employees. With the exception of metal and glass. We’re in the process of trying to outsource some of our pieces but keep some of our staple designs, like our credenza and the daybed, in house. The idea is eventually to be more or less a prototyping shop.
RL: Do clients ever choose their own fabrics?
BK: Yes, I’d say about 50% of the time — and they’ve been choosing some really good combinations.
KV: When they do, we get to see it in a new way, which is exciting. We had one client who just chose a beautiful Mongolian lamb fur for the headrest with the leather detail on the ends, and it was really beautiful. It’s one of those things where I was like, maybe we should offer this. It’s nice that you can get so much variation out of the same framework. Like seeing it go from black to the bleached ash — that can change the whole piece.
I think that craft — speaking from my associations of what craft means and how we employ that in our own work — is about understanding our materials, which is what gives us control and allows us to have new ideas. If you don’t have that understanding and you don’t know how to construct things, you’re going to be limited in your design concepts.
RL: The design scene here in Sunset Park seems to be thriving. How do you find it?
KV: It’s really tight-knit. Do you know Chen Chen and Kai Williams? They’re in our building. It’s really tight-knit but also really open, in that people are willing to share resources, like if we’re having issues with fabrication, or vice versa. I don’t think that applies to other industries… Because we’ve all sort of evolved here, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie. We’re also part of Colony, the showroom, and we have meetings every month where we get to see and catch up with many of the designers who are exhibiting through them. Beyond that, everybody makes an effort to go to everyone else’s openings, studio parties, whatever is happening. I hope Industry City is beneficial to artists and designers. Everything’s changing really quickly.
BK: It’s starting to infiltrate a little further down, too. For example, I think Kara Walker just moved her studio around the corner, and a lot of artists are looking down here. Between Industry City and here and Red Hook, there’s a lot of creatives around. All of South Brooklyn, really. Egg Collective is right down the street, David Gaynor, Red Hook has Fort Standard, Ladies and Gentlemen. Its great to have this sense of community. I think it’s something that Katrina’s really familiar with, having had such a tight group of friends and peers at RISD and seeing that continue right up through today.
RL: We’ve recently been discussing the ratio between men and women in the design classroom and then how it changes once you enter the industry. Any thoughts on this from your experience teaching?
KV: It still feels like there is a large gap in the ratio of men to women in this field or it might just be the gallery representation is not equal. In teaching furniture classes and engaging with universities I hope that we can mentor more women to pursue careers in furniture design and fabrication.
BK: But I do have to add that we’ve had at least 50% female interns/employees, if not more.
RL: That’s really great. Today’s students are probably noticing the growth of craft as a movement, and I’m wondering if you see this as a trend or a return to artistry — more of a paradigm shift?
KV: I think that craft — speaking from my associations of what craft means and how we employ that in our own work — is about understanding our materials, which is what gives us control and allows us to have new ideas. If you don’t have that understanding and you don’t know how to construct things, you’re going to be limited in your design concepts.
BK: I came to the creative side through making. I don’t have any formal training, I’m self-taught in the shop, though I obviously had a lot of integral skills that came from growing up with a carpenter father. But the only approach to design that I know stems from crafting things by hand.
KV: I think it’s where the discovery happens.
BK: That’s what’s exciting about designing, is the discovery in process. I don’t think we could do it any other way.
RL: And how do you balance that craftsmanship with technology and innovation?
KV: I’m interested in using technology to achieve something that we wouldn’t be able to do ourselves. That would be the tipping point, where that is the advantage. Everything we make now, we feel like we’re capable of doing it, so the process of taking it out of the studio to a facility with a CNC machine… It always just seems faster if we do it ourselves.
BK: Although I do think it’s inevitable, with the volume of stuff we’re making now. It is important for us to recognize our limitations and to understand how technology can help us grow. But to put it simply, we’ve just never been interested in conceiving things from the standpoint of the implementation of technology.
KV: Well I don’t know we might be! (Laughs)I guess what I’m trying to say is that we wouldn’t use technology unnecessarily, but would want to find a function for it that is appropriate for the form or the design.
RL: Who are the furniture designers or makers that you look up to or can see yourselves emulating in some way?
KV: Thinking sort of regionally, Wendell Castle, Nakashima definitely. These designers’ studios are representative of the way we would like to create in terms of scale and studio environment. We’re disappointed that we never got to meet and visit Wendell Castle up in Rochester before he passed. And then going back in time, I’d have to say Eileen Gray. If I could maintain even a shred of her creative output throughout my life, I will be content as a designer. She was undeniably the best. All of her work embodies that perfect balance between art and design. She had a complete vision of details, materiality, form and proportion.
RL: Is there a dream project or collaboration you have in mind?
KV: A sauna on a lake! We have a mutual love for sauna/bathhouse culture and design and its always been a dream of ours to design one.
RL: What is your living space like? Do you have your own pieces at home?
KV: We do. It’s cozy and minimal. We live in a small 2 bedroom apartment in Chinatown, Manhattan, so we try to keep it really simple and uncluttered. We always wind up doing custom versions of pieces for our apartment because it’s New York living and its always necessary to customize. The furniture we have of our own are floor models or pared down iterations of a piece or the study/prototype leading up to the final piece. We put them to good use.