April 10, 2019

You may not know the name Steven Bukowski yet, but if you’ve recently snagged a seat at NYC’s trendy Café Altro Paradiso or Flora Bar, chances are you, quite literally, owe your seat to him. Bukowski may be relatively new on the design scene, but his eye for high craft and eye-catching proportions has quickly made him a go-to for restaurateurs looking to outfit their bars with chic, modern seating that doesn’t look like it’s trying to be chic, modern seating.

Only three years ago, Bukowski was jack-of-all-trading at an industrial fabrication studio, plotting his next move, when he decided the time was right to launch his own studio. Steven Bukowski’s studio designs, which move fluidly between Bauhaus, Op Art, and Memphis style, quickly caught on among New Yorkers, elevating Bukowski from novice to in-demand designer seemingly overnight. In addition to his bar partnerships, Bukowski received the American Design Hot List Award in 2017 and earned critical praise for his and wife Hannah Bigeleisen’s collaboration with HotelTonight at the 2018 Sight Unseen OFFSITE. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also been pegged for an upcoming exhibition at the William Vale Hotel during NYC x Design in May.

To celebrate Bukowski’s DECASO debut, we chatted with Bukowski recently about how he got his start in fabrication, his bar stool forays (yes, there’s another one in the works!), and his upcoming collaboration at NYC x Design—do feel free to pull up a seat.

Steven in his studio, The Bakery co-working space, in Williamsburg. Photo by Samuel Sachs Morgan.

How did design and craft factor into your life growing up?
I’ve been surrounded by it forever, really. Many of my family members are involved in either design, craft, or fabrication, or have some sort of inclination in these fields. Even if it didn’t become a career choice, it is still part of their daily lives. My grandmother is an incredible quilter and seamstress, producing dozens (hundreds, possibly?!) of quilts over the years. My grandfather was a steamfitter, and very much took it upon himself to teach us [my sister, 12 cousins, and our parents when they were younger] how to use tools, weld, and build projects. This definitely instilled a bit of a DIY approach to things. Or at least the idea that we are all self-sufficient and can develop clever solutions to tricky problems, and hopefully have fun along the way.

When it comes to your furniture, where does your inspiration come from?
Architecture is a huge inspiration. I almost applied to architecture school before my high school art teacher introduced me to the concept of industrial design. I’m always looking at the smaller details. Such as the play of space, light and shadow effects. I think about how the space is used or what informs its purpose. I also find industrial equipment, specifically locomotives, completely fascinating in their aesthetics.

Dazzle Screen and Forma Stool, designed in collaboration with Hannah Bigeleisen. Photo by Jonathan Pivovar.

Is there a particular style or design movement that informs your aesthetic?
People are always telling me “Memphis,” and of course there are similarities. I definitely have a big appreciation and affection towards the work, specifically the use of color, form, and repetition. I think Op Art is another big one. I’ve always been interested in how you can bend or manipulate space and perception through form, pattern, and color. Only recently have these things started to come together to form the bigger picture I’m trying to paint. Art Deco, Bauhaus, Vienna Secession, FLW are also high on the list.

You established your studio in 2016. How did you know it was time to establish your own studio?
I was running a fabrication studio with a friend at the time, which we had established a few years prior. We worked with a wide range of industries, such as prototyping medical devices, set design, and millwork. It started to take us in weird directions, business-wise, and ultimately we had different ideas of how the business should operate. I was exploring some of my own furniture designs already, so it just seemed like the right move to make. I found it was much more enjoyable.

Piano Chair. Photo by Bekka Palmer.

You currently have a few other collaborations with your wife, artist Hannah Bigeleisen, in the works. Anything you can tell about any of these projects?
We’re working on a outdoor seating designs for a group show opening in May during NYCxDesign. The show will be located at the William Vale hotel on their elevated garden. They’ve curated a nice cross-section of the American design scene, featuring lots of locals. We may also try to squeeze another project in during that week if we can find the time.

Hannah is a sculptor and painter, while your background is in design and fabrication. How did you first discover you were compatible design-wise and could take on professional collaborations?
Honestly, we both never thought it was possible; our processes are so different, with how we work through ideas and how we work in the studio. Really it came about through our collaboration we did at OFFSITE last year in 2018. As part of our conceptual hotel room with HotelTonight, our original idea was for me to design the furniture and Hannah to make the artwork. As the work progressed, we were lending more and more ideas to each other. It just sort of went from there. Our original sketches look nothing at all like what we presented, which was super exciting to see evolve.

We still work differently, and for the most part independently. But when we both come to the table with similar ideas, we know it’s the perfect thing to collaborate on.

Scene from Steven and Hannah’s installation for HotelTonight at Sight Unseen OFFSITE 2018. Photo by Charlie Schuck.

There seems to also be an increasing sense of collaboration and community in the maker scene, especially in Brooklyn. Outside of working with Hannah, how do you approach collaborations with your peers?
Similar to how Hannah and I work, it’s really about the differences that open you up to new ideas, methods, processes, thinking. Hopefully everyone involved is learning new things and pushing themselves out of the familiar. Currently, I’m working with my friends at Yves Yvette (Kyle Mosholder and Alan Tansey), on another restaurant seating project. They’ve been experimenting with molding leather to create various vessels, and it turns out these same pieces lend themselves really well for upholstery.

Altro stools catching some sun at Café Altro Paradiso. Photo by Gentl & Heyers.

Your bar stools grace both Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar. Can you tell us a bit about how your bar stools winded up landing in not one, but two high profile New York restaurants?
I’d say I happened to be in the right place at the right time. The owner of Estela, Ignacio Mattos, reached out to me. He had seen my Scout stool design somewhere on the web. He said he was interested in these for his new restaurant, Cafe Altro Paradiso. We ended up designing the Altro stool instead, since it seemed more fitting for the space. After completing that project he reached out again, saying something along the lines of, “Hey, do you want to design some stools for a new restaurant we’re opening at The Met?” My jaw practically hit the floor.

Why do you think your designs have been so embraced by the hospitality community?
I think it’s a snowball effect in some ways. Having done two high profile restaurant projects back-to-back thrusted my work into the spotlight which just kept building and feeding off of itself. I have also developed a design process that allows my clients to be involved in the development of the product or project, and I think that the collaborative aspect really resonates with them.

Bubble Side Table. Photo by Bekka Palmer.

Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve designed?
The Bubble is a favorite for sure. We have the prototype at the apartment and use it daily, and love it. For me, it marks this shift in my work that’s allowed me to explore new avenues and open up my peripheries to things I historically have eschewed.

A number of your pieces like the Upright Bowl feel so on-trend for the moment, but also completely timeless. Do you eschew trends as you’re working, or are those something you take into consideration when designing?
I like to make myself aware of what’s out there, whether it be vintage, antique, or contemporary. So researching is a part of my practice which usually involves countless hours of Pinterest and at the New York Public Library. I don’t like to use trends simply because they’re trends, but I try to dig below the surface and see what it is about the trend that makes it so. Often times I discard these, but sometimes remnants make it into the final product. A lot of times I have a vision of what the thing should be and go with my gut through the rest of the development, the rest be damned.

Detail of Bubble Side Table. Photo by Stephanie Smith.

Do you have a dream project that you’d love to take on?
Designing my own home has always been a dream, and I hope one day to do so. Cliches aside, designing clothing and interiors, as well as more lighting, are definitely something I am setting my sights on to accomplish in the next few years.

What’s next for you?
I’m preparing for ICFF this coming May where I’ll be launching several new items including a Bubble credenza, some lighting, and a new dining chair. I’m really excited to see these pieces come together and can’t wait to show them to the world.

Lead photo by Gentl & Heyers