Eye on Design: One-on-One with Workstead

Facebook. Natalie Portman. Wythe HotelBarneys CO-OP. Not only are these all infinitely cool (and a few of our favorite) things – they just so happen to be a small sampling of Brooklyn design firm Workstead‘s exceptionally prestigious (and rapidly expanding) roll call of clients.

Founded in 2009 by husband-and-wife team Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Andrew Highsmith – and joined by Ryan Mahoney – Workstead has quickly made a name for itself as an architectural and interior design powerhouse, with its reach extending across the U.S. to, literally, the other side of the globe (they’re involved in the design of the Levi’s flagship store in Tokyo). The oh-so of-the-moment Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example? Its entirely one-of-a-kind public spaces (The Ides bar included) were all their designs. And then, there are their totally unique light fixtures – the Industrial Chandelier, for one – that grew so popular so fast, they’re now sold in shops throughout New York City and Los Angeles (and, luckily for us, online).

We sat down with Stefanie for more on Workstead’s aesthetic, the firm’s trip to the top, and how exactly those amazing light fixtures came about (hint: utter necessity).

RLL: First off – we love your firm’s name. How’d you come up with it?

Stefanie: One night, we were eating dinner at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, and their menu included a Farmstead cheese platter. I just loved that word, and mentioned it to Robert. I kept repeating it, then isolated the word “stead.” It felt like a very wholesome word, a word of depth and quality. He agreed. On a long road trip the next day, we passed time by thinking of words that would go with “stead.” Robert was the one who came up with “Work.” It was such an epiphany – we just loved it.  We then checked to see if the “.com” was available and, strangely, it was. Such a lucky thing, indeed…

RLL: How would you describe the Workstead aesthetic?

Stefanie: Workstead focuses on architectural and interior design, lighting, furniture, and exhibitions, with an aim to design responsible works that create a sense of place for both the objects they contain and the people that experience them. Our palette is strong and rich, yet simple and efficient. We really try to find depth in our designs. Even if we have modern lines in our chosen furniture, we try to infuse a sense of richness or history through its material. Ultimately, it’s all about balance.

RLL: How do you balance meeting client needs while staying true to your own vision?

Stefanie: This can be tough sometimes, for sure. We have been very lucky in most of our projects to have clients that hired us because they love and trust our aesthetic and sense of style. Most clients have trusted us to do our thing, and that has been very exciting because we’ve been able to be extremely creative. Design is also about problem-solving, though – that’s what makes it an interesting challenge. It’s about finding creativity with the constraints of a budget, functional issues, and a client’s scope of work or wishes. Sometimes having no rules can make the design process surprisingly harder. I think it’s best when there is a healthy balance.

RLL: Is there any one project which, in your opinion, took your careers to the next level?

Stefanie: Yes, there is one wonderful little project called the Sliding Kitchen that really started it all.  Both Robert and I were working other jobs (I was at Gensler; he, freelancing.) This was our first joint project, and we did it on nights and weekends. Once completed, the project was featured on many design blogs and subsequently in Dwell; people seemed to respond very positively to it. With this momentum behind us we decided to take a risk – that is, leaving our jobs and starting Workstead.

RLL: The lighting fixtures Workstead designs are, to say the least, amazing. How’d they come about?

Stefanie: Robert has always loved lights. As a hobby, he used to buy vintage light fixtures on eBay, fix/clean them up, and sometimes even rewire them. We soon had one too many in our then-studio apartment in the East Village, so Robert decided to sell one. Turned out, it sold for a chunk of change higher that we’d ever anticipated. This encouraged us to design and fabricate new designs on our own.

RLL: And thus, the Industrial Chandelier?

Stefanie: Yes. Like most of the lights we design, the Industrial Chandelier came about because we were unable to find a pre-existing fixture that fit our needs both aesthetically and functionally. In our Brooklyn apartment, the junction box wasn’t center above the dining room table.  Instead of finding an electrician to retrofit the j-box (a costly endeavor for a rental space), we needed a light that could be installed in the existing j-box, but which could also be moved and re-centered over the table. The Industrial Chandelier, like all light fixtures we design, is infinitely adjustable, both in height, width, etc., meaning it works for different ceiling heights, room sizes, j-box locations – the list goes on.

RLL: What advice would you give to someone who’s redoing their own space for the first time?

Stefanie: That really depends on the budget. If I had a small budget and was doing a lot myself, I would focus on a high/low kind of approach: identifying items that could be bought vintage and repainted or retrofitted to save money, then splurging on some key pieces. If I did have a larger budget, then I’d find a design firm whose aesthetic I respected and trusted, and would let them come up with a design for me – always keeping in mind, though, that a little buffer of extra cash is key. (Projects notoriously end up being more expensive that estimated – it’s unavoidable.) I would also make sure that, if I hired a designer, the final outcome would not look like “instant house.” A home should feel like it’s been there for a while. Objects should be both new and old and tell a story.

By Sarah Stanley, Staff Writer

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October 15, 2012