October 8, 2019

To say that Brooklyn is the center of New York’s creative culture and design capital is… well, as original as saying that Williamsburg is where the cool kids are moving: It’s not exactly news, and it’s been plainly true for a few decades now. But facts are facts, and the sheer volume, variety, and audacious inventiveness of design work coming out of Brooklyn is awe-inspiring. There’s a reason the design locus has largely moved out of Manhattan and it’s not just a real estate story (sorry, Manhattanites): Brooklyn is where the makers are.

To get a better sense of today’s design world in the borough, we asked five of our favorite creators about their neighborhoods, their favorite boutiques, and the other designers who influence their lives. Brooklyn can be overwhelming to visitors—it has more residents than Paris as well as 15 U.S. states, after all (a true, Google-able fact)—so it helps to have a friend. We spoke with Brian Volk-Zimmerman of VOLK Studio, Erik Johnson of Argosy Product Division, Bowen Liu, Robert Sukrachand, and Anthony Morris to find Brooklyn’s best and learn how it inspires them through every New York minute.

Volk StudioPieces by Volk Studio (from left to right): The St. Charles Armchair, the Halsey Floor Lamp, the St. Charles Side Table, and the Pacific Sideboard. Photo: James Chororos

How does your neighborhood affect and inspire your work?

Brian Volk-Zimmerman: My studio is in Red Hook, which has an amazing community of designers and artisans—I don’t need to go far if I need advice or inspiration. We are also right on the water, which I find to be incredibly therapeutic. On a super-foggy day, it can feel like we’re on the edge of the earth.

Erik Johnson: Our shop is located in one of the few remaining industrial business zones, so I take inspiration from everyday objects and architecture that are all around us, from bridges to old windows and their hardware, and from flaking paint to weathered facades.

Bowen Liu: Red Hook to me is a quiet, creative, and friendly neighborhood. It helps me focus on developing my work and being myself. My studio is in the Liberty Labs Foundation, where I’m among 14 other professional artists / makers / designers. The working environment is great for me, and it enables me to transfer my concepts to reality.

Robert Sukrachand: In my Red Hook building alone, I can count a few dozen furniture companies. This— and the broader design community in Brooklyn—are a lifeblood for shared experiences and creative inspiration. Red Hook in particular has an industriousness to it that can’t help but influence your practice. I struggle to think of a particular process or fabrication technique that couldn’t be executed in the neighborhood.

Anthony Morris: Brooklyn is historically a working class borough (however much it may be gentrifying now). It is the working class that has historically generated the most broadly accomplished artisans and craftspersons we have known and admired. Although the admiration is often for the work itself, we must never forget the hands that crafted the pieces. Brooklyn is where these people have lived and worked for a very long time, and I am always committed to remembering how important it is to further the work itself, the traditions of craft, and the human beings who dedicate their lives to the trade.

Argosy Product DivisionPieces by Argosy Product Division: The Disc Lamp in Matte Black (far left); the Plate Chair (center).

What are some of your favorite design-centric stores & boutiques in Brooklyn?

Brian Volk-Zimmerman: Swallow on Smith Street and The Primary Essentials on Atlantic Avenue are pretty much my go-to shops for gifts for friends and family, or just for a few moments of inspiration.

Erik Johnson: Without a doubt, Modern Design Furniture Gallery (MDFG) in Williamsburg. Prouvé, Perriand, and the like have always been a huge source of inspiration for me, and I cannot believe all of the incredible original works they have in one location, so close to my own shop. Truly amazing.

Bowen Liu: Home Union in Williamsburg is one of my favorite stores to shop used mid-century design furniture and objects. The owner, Megan, is a great resource, and the prices are reasonable.

Robert Sukrachand: Keeping it local, Pioneer Works is a favorite, and Erie Basin is another favorite just down the street from my studio.

Anthony Morris: I am particularly fond of the bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown and their eclectic collection of inspiring books on architecture and design.

Bowen LiuPieces from Bowen Liu: The Feast Table in Walnut & Brass; Feast Armchairs in Walnut and Feast Side Chairs in Walnut; and the U3 Bar Cart / Serving Trolly in Ash & White Carrara Marble.

What other New York makers and designers most inspire you, whether in Brooklyn or the rest of the city?

Brian Volk-Zimmerman: Kai-wei Hsu of KWH Furniture makes amazingly detailed and unique furniture in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He’s one of my oldest friends and was a huge source of help and inspiration when I was just starting out. And I have exhibited with Rosie Li a number of times during Design Week… getting to see her design process up close only increased my appreciation for her nature-inspired lighting.

Erik Johnson: I have always been impressed with Roman and Williams. Argosy Designs— our design & fabrication company—has had the pleasure of working with them many times over the years. I continue to be inspired by their attention to detail and quality.

Bowen Liu: Apparatus is the most inspiring brand to me in New York. They’ve made us really anticipate their new show every year. It’s brilliant.

Robert Sukrachand: It’s hard to single out any one person or studio since the most inspiring aspect of the design world in New York is the community as a whole and the degree to which we all push each other to do our best work. I honestly don’t know if I’d still be in business were it not for the many friends who are sharing in this crazy experience of trying to create a small design and manufacturing business in this rewarding but terribly cutthroat city. It’s a slightly masochistic endeavor, and seeing so many people around me working their butts off to create unique work is what’s most inspiring.

Anthony Morris: I am inspired by the fact that we can still find materials and crafts throughout Brooklyn, in spite of the knowledge that New York has lost its traditional manufacturing base (much of which has in fact disappeared in the last 40 years). Brooklyn is enormously creative; if I had to name one inspiring maker, I would say that Jean Paul Viollet is an exceptional artisan.

Robert SukrachandPieces from Robert Sukrachand.

Who’s your favorite Brooklyn resident or Brooklyn native?

Erik Johnson: It’s really Brooklyn itself. I’ve lived and worked in this borough since 1996, and it has been a constant and inspiring source of interesting people, architecture, and opportunity.

Bowen Liu: Adam Sandler!

Robert Sukrachand: Larry David would have to be near the top of the list.

Anthony Morris: I have to say that my favorite Brooklyn native is my wife of 48 years. She was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant long before Brooklyn was so “cool.” She is a staunch supporter of our craft and has worked with me for decades, both in the administration of our company and on the shop floor. I am also quite enamored of one of my oldest friends from Detroit, Todd Weinstein, who’s now a Brooklyn resident. He is a well-respected and successful photographer and artist, and he has also been one of my most loyal supporters in my efforts to foster and perpetuate the craft of furniture making in America.

Anthony MorrisPieces from Anthony Morris, including a Single Drawer Entry Console.

How would you describe your design aesthetic? 

Brian Volk-Zimmerman: I strive to design objects that are simple in form but rich in materiality and that celebrate small and unexpected details. I try to simplify each design as much as possible without losing the moments that give each piece its soul.

Erik Johnson: Refined, industrial, and modern.

Bowen Liu: My design aesthetic is high-quality, minimal, and functional in order to better serve people’s lives.

Robert Sukrachand: I make mixed material works that blend divergent cultural and craft influences. At their core, my designs try to subvert the predictable by offering a new context for a material or application of a form.

Anthony Morris: My primary inspiration and motivation in furniture and product design has been to allow the materials to reveal themselves in the craftsmanship of the piece. To allow the materials to “speak” their natural beauty, enhanced by the design for custom fabrication.