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Designer Focus: Brad Ascalon

The New York-based designer talks to Mix about his motivations, creative processes and current projects.

10/06/2020 5 min read
Softop for Skandiform

Brad Ascalon’s eponymous award-winning studio was founded in 2006, and he is widely regarded as one of the leading American design voices of his generation. The multidisciplinary designer specialises in furniture for the contract, hospitality, and residential markets, working with clients ranging from global brands to start-ups. Brad’s long list of collaborators and clients includes Carl Hansen & Sons, Ligne Roset, Skandiform, OTHR and Mitab to name a few.

Born outside of Philadelphia, Brad was immersed in the world of art and design from an early age – his grandfather an industrial designer and noted sculptor, and his father a renowned artist. The New York-based designer talks to Mix about his motivations, creative processes and current projects.

How did your passion for design begin?

 I am fortunate to have come from two prior generations of artists and designers who instilled invaluable lessons in me – that an appreciation of craftsmanship, a respect for materials, and that the utmost rigor are integral in creating principled design work worthy of existing. Because I work almost exclusively on design for large scale production, these values become even more essential to my work because the impact of how I treat design and production is that much greater.

What influences your work?

I like to think of myself as a rational designer, not an emotional one, so I tend to avoid external influences that find their reincarnation in my design work. Most of my projects begin either with a strategic brief from a client or from a desire to explore new ways to think about the objects we use and take for granted. This is how something is traditionally done, but in what other ways can we accomplish the same thing? The inspiration is the desire to solve these puzzles through my understanding of materials, processes and visual balance.

Doppio for Civil
What themes drive your working and approach to design – and have these changed as the industry has changed over the past 20 years?

I have always been a reductive designer. I question every decision based on a very narrow set of rules. Does my decision to do “X” add to the functionality of the design? Is it a detail that is necessary from a manufacturing or engineering perspective? Is it integral to the concept? If the answer is no, I eliminate it. This approach has always helped me get to the purest solution possible. I think this sets apart two very different types of designers, the rationalists and the stylists.

Design as a stylistic exercise to me is such a mundane endeavor. And I’ll be honest, I do it when a client asks that of me. But to create a design in which every single detail or element has a reason for being there – a logical reason, not an emotional one, that’s what really gets me.

I love beautiful things as much as the next person, probably more. And I strive for it. But it’s the way in which I find a beautiful solution that interests me. If I set out to create a beautiful object for its own sake, so what? If the result of all of the other things – the obstacles, the manufacturing process, the material challenges, the budgets, the clients and the market needs – if all that gets thrown in the hopper and the result is beautiful, that to me is good design. It’s design that is reduced to exactly as much as it needs to be while simultaneously as little as it can be. This has been my approach for fifteen years. The clients may change and the needs of the market certainly do, but the approach has been consistent.

How do you get unstuck creatively?

Music. Before design, I had music. I grew up playing and writing music. I even minored in music theory in my undergraduate studies. To this day it is my form of meditation. When I’m feeling stuck, I will stop what I’m doing and pick up a guitar or play my piano for a half an hour or so, and that allows me to open my mind back up to the project at hand.

In your opinion, what are the key issues – challenges, opportunities – facing the industry?

I think that we’ve gotten to a point in our industry where so much of furniture design has become fashion. The industry seems to be following an unbelievable array of short-sighted aesthetic trends, and we continue to unleash more products that latch onto some arbitrary material, geometry or colour du jour.

As designers and manufacturers, we have the opportunity to create designs that last, and to create stories that can be told over and again for decades. And the design media has the opportunity to help change our own paradigm by supporting the notion that new is not always better. It’s just newer. With nearly every design fair being cancelled this year due to Covid-19, it is the perfect time for an industry-wide introspection.

Many of us are thinking that perhaps we’ve gotten out of control with design fairs and tens of thousands of new products in every major city every year. If we had only a fraction of the fairs and launches, then maybe then we would start valuing again design that that endures over time, or maybe we can shine a spotlight on products and designers that address needs over desires. Whatever the answer, there is surely the opportunity to bring more meaning into what we do.

Preludia for Carl Hansen & Son
Tell us about the projects you’re most proud of – what makes them stand out to you?

I love all of my projects, but the one that stands out above all is my Preludia series for Carl Hansen & Son (which won a 2019 Mixology Award no less). When the company asked me to collaborate with them, as their only American designer, and to develop their first-ever contract furniture collection, it was both exhilarating and petrifying. This is a brand that I have revered for close to two decades. Theirs are the designers from which our industry’s history is made. So while it was such an honour, it was also a tremendous responsibility to make sure that every decision that we made in my studio was both an understanding of, and a response to, the 110 year history and trajectory of the brand and its legacy, through my own voice. I never felt such a responsibility to do right by so many in my career. Beyond that, having a client relationship built on such a high level of trust was the benchmark of how designer/manufacturer relationships should be.

What are you working on at the minute?

Without specifics, I have quite a lot of work in the contract furniture industry at the moment. This is the sector of the industry that I love most because it has everything to do with solving problems and creating better working environments for people.

Currently, in light of this pandemic we’re facing, there is a much greater challenge moving forward in this sector, so my studio has been very focused on thinking about both how the office and the home office will shift in the coming months and years. We’ve also been expanding existing collections for some of my current clients including Carl Hansen & Son, Skandiform, Glimakra, Civil and Hightower.

We are also in the process of launching a new division for a company based in Mexico City called Sindo Collection. We have been working with them for just over a year on their eventual brand launch, and we have been extremely busy with six full outdoor collections and additional lifestyle accessories as we gear up for the brand’s premiere later this year or early 2021.

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