This week on Creatures Features, we met Vonnegut/Kraft designers Katrina Vonnegut and Brian Kraft at their Sunset Park studio to see their latest projects and best-loved pieces.
One ferry, a beer, and a sunset—that’s how to get to the Vonnegut/Kraft studio from Manhattan, according to Brian Kraft. A light-filled studio stocked with pale wood and paned windows (and no AC at the time of this interview), the V/K studio sits a block away from the Bay Ridge Channel. Walking into the airy space you’d never know the rest of the warehouse building houses frequent weekend raves. Rather, Vonnegut and Kraft's studio displays protos and in-process versions of the artfully structured, easily impactful furniture the brand is known for and that we’d come to see.
Creatures Features: Tell us a bit about yourselves—how did the two of you meet?
Katrina Vonnegut: I grew up in the Lake Champlain Islands in Vermont and then studied Furniture at RISD.
Brian Kraft: I'm from rural north western New Jersey and studied English Literature at NYU before turning towards furniture making. We sort of met (i.e. exchanged glances) on the G train but didn't talk to one another until a year later when I happened upon Katrina in conversation with a mutual friend at a bar. We eased into working together soon after, but didn't get around to V/K as it is today for maybe a year or two after we met.
CF: How do your backgrounds in textile design and carpentry play into your work?
K: I think both coming to design as makers we have a concrete understanding of connections and can visualized three dimensionally proportions and scale pretty well. I did some machine knitting at school and really loved it but haven't involved those kinds of textiles in our work. I think any craft helps inform another though, even if it’s just about patience and detail.
B: I suppose structurally then in both cases: one recent example are our Sonia Tables, which are formulated loosely on the concept of woven patterns adapted to wood and their intersection with their supporting elements. We're always referring to various woven structures, from basketry to textiles. As far as general carpentry, which I came up doing as the son of a builder, it's invaluable as a basis for engineering the construction of pieces no matter the materials involved, really.
CF: What are the perks of collaborating versus working on your own?
K: I think we work through design problems much faster than if we were on our own. We still have our own roles and autonomy in the studio and then come together to resolve a detail or review designs. For our studio and production, working together has been essential. I don't think either of us would have been able to do this on our own. We also crack each other up, which is probably the best part of my day when I get a little relief and we just laugh at how serious we're taking ourselves or a problem.
CF: What is a typical day in the studio like?
K + B: Right now, we're doing lots of juggling between production and prototyping/new projects. We have our morning team meeting and divide up between the office, where drawings and concepts are developed, and the machine room, where we spend about half the day working on parts that are then passed along to the assembly room, where you'll find production happening in its later stages, from glue ups to sanding. The second half of the day, there's a focus on newer ideas being executed on the machines, whether it’s working out a new joint or detail, or new material, textural or finishing spec being worked on in the office.
CF: So part of what drives your pieces is the idea that “good design elevates our collective human experience.” Can you explain this or expand on it?
K + B: Good design is obviously subjective, but we feel that design elements should respond to and be expressive of our human needs. By this we mean everything from the more visceral multitude of sensory experiences, the combination of the visual and the tactile with form and shape, and in some cases physiologically, i.e. ergonomics and the recognition of human posture, of course. We strive to render our furniture as a seamless expression of all of these interactive qualities.
CF: With that in mind, what is one everyday object you’d redesign to change lives?
K + B: This isn't an everyday design object, but one thing we think about a lot is the wrapping and shipping. Biodegradable packing materials are still pretty limited; I would want to develop a more pliable/thinner biodegradable furniture packing foam. Anything we can do to eliminate plastic waste to help our ocean environments is a priority.
CF: Joinery seems to be really important and distinct in your work (using the Dune Candelabra and Mesa Table and Coffee Table as examples). What inspires you to take what some designers consider purely functional and make it a key part of a piece?
K + B: Although our work is often sculptural, we love that the function of prominent connections can be the focal point visually but also in some cases, physically. This tension and reliance between two forms or materials has always interested us, whether in the case of an actual point of joinery between wood or metal elements, as in the Dune Candelabra, which, as a set, can also be used/displayed separately, or sort of more explicit physical rendering of function, as between the bolster and its holder on the Crescent Lounge. Highlighting these moments in some of our work allows the user/owner to hopefully engage with the piece in a more integral way, another example/dimension of our "collective human experience" motive.
CF: So when you design furniture or home decor, does form follow function?
K: It goes both ways. It’s important for the piece to be functional but we don't necessarily conceive of the function first. Sometimes we'll develop a connection and or detail and find what type of furniture best suits that detail or idea. I think the best designs actually consider function and form simultaneously; you can't separate them.
CF: Drawing on that, you recently collaborated with Mary Ping and Weft for Sight Unseen Offsite where the furniture design followed the upholstery. In this case, form followed fabric. Was this different from how you typically conceptualize a piece? Please walk us through your design process.K: This was slightly different for us. We approached that the use of this bold/graphic pattern really needed details/elements that lent its design elements into consideration, instead of being stuck on. A lot of this also had to do with a tight deadline. We wanted the pattern to be echoed in some ways in the form to create a whole vision. We also like the idea of trying to translate the two-dimensional form of the fabric into a three-dimensional ideation.
CF: Where is the line between art and design? Or art and furniture?
K: Sometimes I consider myself a sculptor who designs and makes furniture. This line is certainly becoming blurred these days as it seems more and more artists are working in a furniture-like medium and, to some extent, vice versa. The idea of function is what had always separated these two, but I think people are becoming more interested in living with art using art. There's been a real shift in perception, and I tend to attribute this to this generation's openness, fluidity, embrace of collaboration, and the bending of context.
CF: What colors are you working with at the moment? Any particular influences for your color palettes?
K + B: We're using rusts, beige, green, black, nudes, deep blue, yellows. In everyday production color pallets arise organically within the upholstery fabrics sourced, sometimes incidentally by interior designers and clients. Always drawing from landscapes/fashion/exercises in studio mashups of textile and material groupings.
CF: What are you working on now? Are there any in-process pieces we can hear about?
K + B: We're expanding on the Sonia series of low tables that we released during design this year, named for and inspired by a Sonia Delaunay print design that was produced by Metz and Co. in 1930. This piece features a wooden half-lap joint grid work pattern, like woven wood. The print is a simple cross hatch print design that is broken up by incomplete voids and appears to be a repeat that emulates the frayed edges of torn fabric. Taking visual cues from the graphic pattern, we're alluding to the imbalance of the broken grid and "threadbare" edges while filling the spaces in between with our own emerging patterns, those of the aluminum support volumes piercing through the grid. We're also exploring the grid pattern in the development of other pieces of furniture in collaboration with another furniture designer/architect for a special project. We also have some new work, including dining tables, a console, and some brand new case pieces, as well as new iterations/color/material ways of our existing Nocturne Credenza and Chests.
CF: Favorite iteration of the Crescent Lounge?
K: Right now the matte black version, but will probably change by the time this is published!
B: Walnut with rust pillow and grey mattress.
CF: Designer you wish you could collaborate with/pick the brain of, living or dead?
K + B: Rudolph Steiner
CF: Coffee or tea?
CF: Books or magazines?
CF: Friends or The Office?