Talent to Know

Talent to Know


Karl Zahn

Like a lot of socially responsible young designers these days, Brooklyn-based Karl Zahn is trying to walk the line between cottage industry and making himself a household name. Over the past few years he has gone from building furniture and product prototypes on his own to working with large manufacturers—it’s a leap that most designers dream of making, but one that also requires a different mindset.

“Most of the products I previously designed were actually made by myself and I had complete control over every aspect of it,” said Zahn. “For mass-market products, there is no way to have the same amount of control, and you have to be comfortable with that.”

So far, giving up a little control has only worked to his advantage. This year, Brazilian company Vulto YoYo will release his low-cost, high-performance yoyo for entry-level players, and McSweeney’s will release an interactive wooden case he designed in 2008 for the publisher’s new children’s book collection. In its fall 2009 and spring/summer 2010 collections, LA-based design company Artecnica released the designer’s Phrena pendant and table lamps with flat-packed Tyvek shades that unfold into flowerlike forms inspired by globe amaranths.

A native of rural Vermont, Zahn said in an interview that he sees his lifelong fondness for plants and animals emerging in his work. “I have grown more comfortable designing things that I appreciate, rather than what I think other people will want,” he said, although increasingly he’s doing both. Take Wall Cleat, an outlet plate with brackets for looping extra lengths of electrical cord that are universally annoying. 

This newfound confidence will likely be seen in several soon-to-be-revealed collaborations with New York–based manufacturer Areaware, including Zahn’s Hakomono wooden animal containers, which should launch this year. In the same vein, the designer recently completed a set of carved stacking whales and is working on a series of birds and a lighting design for Future Perfect’s Lift Hold Roll show at this year’s ICFF. A new “precarious pendant light,” named Heavy, will debut at the ICFF’s show Uncomfortable Conversations.

The pieces reflect Zahn’s continued interest in fabrication, which he traces back to his father’s woodworking shop. He followed the interest while concentrating in fabrication and manufacturing at Rhode Island School of Design from 1999 to 2003, and during his subsequent time in Copenhagen studying Danish furniture design.

Last year, Zahn’s Vladimir Pallet Mirror won Best in Show for sustainability at Design Within Reach’s M+D+F competition. Framed with reclaimed shipping pallets made of exotic woods from their countries of origin, the mirror references French Victorian style, but its roughness and commission-only availability attest to Zahn’s goals of environmental sensitivity coupled with traditional craftsmanship.

“I suppose it would be easier if I were only interested in designing cars or chairs, but I would rather experiment with as many products and materials and techniques as possible,” he said. For now, the difficulty of getting things made in the U.S. is part of the reason he builds his own prototypes. “But I would much rather work closely with a craftsman,” he said. “In my dreams I draw a sketch on a napkin and a little factory makes me prototypes.” And that’s a craftsman with ambitions. 

Jennifer K. Gorsche is AN’s special projects editor.



Jessica Carnevale

During her third year at the Rhode Island School of Design, American designer Jessica Carnevale was chosen for the school’s 2003 European Honors Program, allowing her to study for a year in Rome. There she interned at the studio of American designer Kevin Walz, and also worked for a traditional upholsterer and woodworker. The resulting collection showed at Rome’s Palazzo Cenci and included a carved wooden chair called the Pomodoro, squat and low-backed with a tomato-red upholstered seat. She was launched.

Carnevale’s new collection, which debuted last month at the Milan furniture fair’s Satellite hall for newcomers, bears little resemblance to her earlier work. “Essentially, I wanted to bring some of the exuberance of the fashion world into my designs,” she said. Inspired by young Scottish clothing designer Christopher Kane, Carnevale set about envisioning the Stretch collection in her Brooklyn workshop in 2007. “I experimented with a lot of pretty unusual materials before settling on latex, bungee, and rope,” she said. She learned about heat bending to fabricate the metal frames, then wove the coordinating cords in basket-weave patterns to create tensile seats and backs. One with a white frame has an open checkerboard pattern of white rope; the other two, one green and one neon pink, have circular weaves.

The response to the new collection has been positive, quickly landing photographs of the chairs on design blogs across the globe. “I have been talking to a number of different producers and retailers at the fair and I hope to expand this collection,” said Carnevale from Milan.

Carnevale’s trajectory to this point hints at what is yet to come. Upon graduation from RISD in 2004, she became a junior designer at Martha Stewart Living, working on the Everyday Living line of clocks, tableware, and ready-to-assemble furniture. From there, she moved to projects with West Elm, hotel designer Alexandra Champalimaud, and Brocade Home. In 2008, she became a designer for Marcel Wanders Studio and moved to Amsterdam, working on projects for Philips and Baccarat, and leading the designer’s 2009 holiday collection project for Target, which included more than 50 decorative and tabletop items.

Most recently, Carnevale worked under Wanders’ direction on the Sparkling Chair for Magis, the Tulip Armchair for Cappellini, and pieces for the production store Skitsch and for XO, all of which debuted in Milan in April. With that under her belt, Carnevale is now relocating to London to open a studio of her own that will concentrate on furniture and product design. But mass-market projects are behind her, she said, and she will likely treat it as a learning experience in preparation for even more thoughtful designs in the future. “My philosophy, if I dare to call it that, is that the material comes first. I love experimenting with new materials and new combinations and techniques,” she said, adding, “a sense of fun, though, I suppose is central as well.”  JKG

Jonah Takagi
Washington, D.C.

Tokyo-born and New England–bred designer Jonah Takagi has a fondness for widgets and how little parts are made. Their unintended aesthetics spur him to create furniture with a cunning, frank design. The idea for his latest invention, Simple Machine(s), struck him while sweeping his studio and studying the broomstick. The resulting set of stools, tables, and benches in white ash comes with removable legs in two different heights, with the threads both as function and ornament.

The customizable assembly will be launched at ICFF as a part of Matter’s MatterMade collection no. 1, consisting of 20 new pieces informed by early American craft and design. Produced entirely in the Americas, the works are made by both established and emerging designers. Takagi’s two pieces will be his first in production.

His father is an architect, and inspired him as a child to draw floor plans and build models. But after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2002, Takagi spent years touring and recording as a guitarist and bass player for several indie rock bands. Still, he used his spare time crafting, molding, and casting design pieces in the corner of a friend’s stage set shop.

He founded Atelier Takagi in 2005, but it was only a little more than a year ago when he decided to give his designs an honest chance. The idea of a five-legged table, later named American Gothic, became the starting point. A handsome fusion that recalls Windsor chairs and Japanese lacquer art, the gracious piece was chosen for ICFF Studio 2009.

Takagi sees his design process primarily as organic. “The way I work is often very hands-on, trying to see what I can do with a given material.” His goal is to create furniture that feels both familiar and new, pieces that “people will give to their children,” he said.

With an idiom that evokes the playfulness and minimalism of Japanese design within an American context, the Takagi world offers a fresh take on the two traditions. After ICFF 2010, the young designer hopes to display his work at the Designers Week in Tokyo, where his father lives. “That is something I always dreamed about,” Takagi said. “Then things would come full circle.”

Rebecka Gordan is an editorial intern at AN.



Kristen Wentrcek

Kristen Wentrcek came to design by way of a somewhat unexpected path. A native of El Paso, Texas, she was studying communications at New York University in the mid-2000s when she landed a summer job working for developer Stanley Perelman. That soon translated into a full-time position as the developer’s liaison overseeing the Enrique Norten–designed One York condo in Tribeca. While slogging through the requisitions and punch lists that filled her workdays, Wentrcek found welcome respite in a trip to the Corian factory. There, in the midst of a lecture on how an idea becomes a countertop, her life changed forever. “Oh,” she remembers thinking, “I can quit my job and do something like this.”

At approximately the same time, Wentrcek bought her first apartment, a two-bedroom, 500-square-foot walkup on the Lower East Side, which she gutted and converted into a studio. Everything went smoothly enough until it came time to furnish the place. “I couldn’t find good quality furniture at mid-range prices, so I decided that there was a void in the market,” explained Wentrcek. “What I couldn’t find I thought up and designed.”

In 2009, the ever entrepreneurial Wentrcek quit her job, rented a workspace in Bushwick, enlisted the help of a few college buddies, and founded Wintercheck Factory. After prototyping about ten designs in plywood, she refined the list down to the four strongest and released a line of furniture: a desk, a coat rack, a chair, and a table. Each piece responds to the extreme space efficiency demanded by many New York City apartments. The coat rack mounts on the wall, taking up no floor area, and includes boxes for stashing the sort of small items you’d want handy by the door, such as keys and a pair of shoes. The top of the table lifts on hinges to reveal a hidden compartment, the cushions of the chair come off to reveal a recess for magazines and such, and the desk boasts a pair of storage boxes.

In addition to furniture, Wentrcek has also designed and released a line of accessories: a scarf with zipper pockets, sunglasses, and a forthcoming wallet and pair of ultrasuede gloves. The smaller items help keep the business afloat. “People only refurnish their apartments every so often,” she pointed out. She has also done everything in her power to keep costs low, working with manufacturers to find the most economic solutions. Because of the markups imposed by retailers, the designer sells exclusively (for now) online. A recent change of furniture fabricator should also bring her prices down by more than $100 per item, putting Wintercheck Factory right in the sweet spot of affordability.

Aaron Seward is AN’s associate editor.