Brad Ascalon of Brad Ascalon Studio NYC is one of the American designers with the widest recognizability in the world, nowadays. Since 2005, when he started his business, to date, he designed dozens of products and furniture collections for the residential and contract market, and has been awarded several prizes from the best design fairs and the most prestigious magazines. Its distinctive feature is the search for the essential, a rational and minimalist approach at the same time, reflecting the synthesis of the relationship between form and function. And he doesn’t forget the attention to the environment, which is increasingly necessary. Ascalon shares with Roberta Mutti on his design and his journey.
Please tell us about your journey into design. First of all, what is your background in design?
I come from two prior generations of designers and artisans who taught me the importance of craftsmanship, materiality and rigor. From an early age, I apprenticed my father in his studio, learning a variety of crafts and ultimately aiding him in the production of large scale art installations in stained glass, mosaics and copper/bronze sculpture. This experience eventually became the backdrop for my own career, although after college, I worked in a few other fields before landing on a career in design.
What inspired you to choose design?
As I was transitioning out of the music industry, I became fascinated with the notion that all of the products that we, as consumers, buy, live and work with, take incredible effort to design, develop and produce, not to mention market and sell. Yet as a whole, society tends to take these objects and efforts for granted. In other words, we take for granted nearly our entire built environment. This was an eye-opening realization for me as I too was guilty of this. I began to read as much as I could about design, craftsmanship, large and small-scale manufacturing processes. I studied designers and producers, the history of product design, and the various cultural shifts that created movements in design. I knew that working in this realm was the only path that would satisfy me. This in combination with my experiences coming from a family of artists and craftsmen, laid the groundwork that helped me find the types of projects and the types of clients that I wanted for myself over the course of my career.
How you would describe your design philosophy in general?
I am a reductivist. My philosophy on design is that it should be uncomplicated and rational. A product’s concept, function and form must live in harmony with each other as simply as possible, all while adhering to the specific demands of our clients and their markets. Our goal is to carefully eliminate all unnecessary decoration, to bring a design to its essence, while paying very close attention to assure that the harmony of those three factors (concept, function and form) remains intact and as strong as possible relative to one another. In the end, we strive for a simplicity that is still beautiful, emotionally charged, and marketable on a larger scale.
How would you rate Form vs Function? Which is more important from your perspective and why?
To start, I believe the two are irrelevant without one another. To me, while there is much debate on this, an object must be highly functional to be considered good design. Otherwise, at best it is simply art in disguise. Furthermore, the object’s form should lend itself to the functionality. The user’s reaction to love or hate a piece of design based on its form is a subjective one. After all, tastes vary from one person to the next. But the user’s reaction to the success of an object’s functionality is inarguable and concrete. And this is why functionality must drive the process of design, and the form should simply support the designer’s proving out the functionality in a visual manner.
Can you describe your typical creative process from concept to final product?
I rarely start a new design project without first delving into the company with whom I’m collaborating, understanding their needs from both a product and business perspective, their successes and failures, their competition, and of course their markets/customers. This is absolutely vital in developing a feasible and marketable design solution. As we acquire that information, we’re able to start putting the pieces together like a puzzle, until we can help to identify where it is we should be focusing our efforts. The more pieces there are, the more a project starts to design itself in a way, or at the very least, the more we become certain which directions we shouldn’t take. Once we have a general understanding of the goals of a given project, we ideate using hundreds of sketches and small models toward a concise design aesthetic and functionality, looking for that moment in which the two combine seamlessly. Once we’re convinced of a specific direction, we take to creating computer models that we can hand over to our clients for analyzing and beginning initial prototypes. Between factory and studio visits, and over the course of months, sometimes years, we hone in on a final design that speaks to the needs of the client, as well as the DNA of both designer and brand.
Which collection/design(s) is the most iconic in your repertoire, both for inspiration, and market reception?
I think that a design has to persevere over time before it can be considered iconic.
But I think that the Preludia chair for Carl Hansen & Son, in particular the solid wood variation, will prove to be an enduring, and hopefully iconic, design within my repertoire and for the company as a whole. I find it to be a perfect tribute to Carl Hansen & Son’s incredible history, as well as a reflection of the company’s future in some small way to which I am able to contribute. Furthermore, because of our decision to use a still-uncommon 3D veneer technology, I find it to be the most comfortable wood shell chair that I have ever sat in, an accomplishment that we spent a great deal of time and effort trying to achieve over the course of a few years.
I also believe that our Ascent collection for Mitab is quite iconic; it is a very unique, surprising solution for public seating, one that cannot be confused with any other design on the market. It is at the same time bold and quiet, offering a poetic, simple resting place in a public space. I’m very proud of the contradictory forces of hard and soft.
Can you tell us about your latest collection? Which is the inspiration behind the design?
Preludia was the result of a creative and strategic collaboration between my studio and the danish company Carl Hansen & Son. It was designed to unite Carl Hansen’s heritage and my studio’s modern, rational approach to design, while offering the company’s first collection designed for the contract market. Every element of the Preludia Series – from the solid wood and veneer, to the metal legs, the table joints, and the upholstery – reflects our penchant for materials and finishes that are tactile, bring about a feeling of warmth, and personally resonate with those who use them. The Preludia series also reflects my firm belief in subtlety as a design value, not unlike many of the mid-century masters who have inspired me.
Have you been recognized for any of your designs?
The first piece of major recognition I ever received was from Wallpaper* magazine, which in 2005 named me as one of the “Top ten emerging designers in the world”. This recognition was integral to my early career as it helped bring the attention of the industry to my work in a way that I couldn’t have done alone back then. It was no doubt a turning point for me.
From that point in my career, I managed to work with some incredible companies around the world who took my work seriously very early on, companies like Ligne Roset and Bernhardt Design. These were the formative years that helped carve the path of the designer I am now. Since then, we’ve managed to work with many great companies for which much of our work has received a variety of awards — Interior Design magazine (Best of Year), Contract magazine (NeoCon Editor’s Choice), ICFF (Editor’s Choice) and others. I was also honored to be invited to singlehandedly represent American design by the organizers of Moscow Design Week in 2013, where I created an installation in partnership with the Italian fabric brand Dedar Milano.
Do you collaborate with other designers? If so, why did you choose to collaborate with external designers? How do you choose the designers you work with?
I enjoy collaborating with other designers, however I don’t get the opportunity too often. In the past we’ve collaborated with Ghislaine Vinas, Frederick McSwain, Chris Adamick and Evan Clabots. These are all close friends who have distinct understandings of design different from my own. It is these alternate perspectives that make collaborating worthwhile and that allow for us to learn from one another. In the end, that is what a good collaboration should be about, and if I’m not learning another way of looking at a problem, there is no point in the collaboration.
Which products come from a collaboration?
Ghislaine Vinas and I launched an outdoor lounge collection called Sunnyside, with the american manufacturer Loll Designs in 2015. While there is still a bit of development work to go, we plan on hitting the market in 2019 with the final version of the collection. Frederick McSwain and I collaborated a number of years ago on a project with Neal Feay Company, a factory out of Santa Barbara, California that produces high-end milled aluminum parts. Ascalon/McSwain developed a series of concept objects and furniture in 2012 for a Wanted Design exhibit during NYC Design Week, exploring the responsibility of the user to engage in the objects around him or her. With Chris and Evan, my studio has developed a handful of concept work over the years. They are great collaborators because we are all market realists, meaning that our collaborations tend to focus on market needs and business drivers for clients, something that my studio practices daily.
How do you make your products commercially viable?
All of my designs are sold and distributed through their own channels, depending on their market and the part(s) of the world in which they offer their products. Some clients are retailers, while others sell wholesale to retailers. But the majority of my work is sold to the trade and the Architect/Design industry by way of brand reps, dealers, etc.