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Q&A: Workshop/APD’s Cofounders Talk About Designing a New Industrial Age

The New York studio’s first collection brings well-calibrated grit to the furniture scene.

If anyone asks: Yes, mid-century-modern design has overstayed its welcome.

Only a brave few dare to create a furniture silhouette that isn’t a direct descendant of Eames; Matt Berman and Andrew Kotchen are among them.

The cofounders and coprincipals of New York architecture and interior design firm Workshop/APD launched their first furniture collection, a collaboration with design brand Desiron, that deals in the sober, hand-worked certainties of material and patience. Deviating from the usual suspects, Berman and Kotchen announced their industrial intentions in blackened steel, hand-charred woods, and basalt stone—elements best left to the seasoned craftsman. The five-piece debut includes a bench, a console, a bar cart, wall hooks, and a floor mirror—and each one is made-to-order.

We asked Berman and Kotchen about their inaugural work, the power of contrast, and playing with fire.

 

How did this collaboration come about? 

Matt Berman: We have been specifying pieces from Desiron for many years; at the same time, we’ve been designing custom pieces for our clients, sometimes produced by Desiron. It seemed like a natural next step to design a collection with them.

We’ve learned that the inspiration for this collection was in part “the power of man and machine.” What does that mean to you, and how were those influences translated into the work? 

Andrew Kotchen: We approach all of our work through the lens of “crafted modern,” which is an exploration of how simple materials are enhanced by craftspeople or by machines. In this collection, you see the hand of the maker through the burnt wood, and you see the perfection of machine in the metal forms.

What were some of the special techniques used to create these pieces? 

MB: This collection has two really unique techniques: Shou Sugi Ban—or burned wood—and gradient steel, which is a metal finish created specifically for this collection: an ombre of molten dark finish that gradually changes to mirror finished steel.

A lot of furniture is treated to look aged or worn, but Workshop/APD by Desiron features the Japanese art of Shou Sugi Ban. Tell us about that process and why you were drawn to it. 

AK: We were drawn to Shou Sugi Ban because it is a fascinating process of burning that actually builds a protective finish on the wood—it’s destructive in a way but also beautiful. The process is inherent in the final product, meaning it tells the story of the maker, and that really aligns with our ethos.

Some of the piecesthe floor mirror in particularhave a monolithic presence to them. What kind of vibe did you want to convey with your first furniture series? 

AK: This collection is what we call a “corridor collection,” pieces that can stand together and alone. We see this mirror being a dominant piece—almost an art piece—in an entry foyer. The gradient steel speaks louder than a typical mirror, and that is why it feels monolithic.

The design public has really woken up to the idea of craftsmanship and products made by hand, and that really matters to you both in your practice. What’s the next step, or the next level, in producing high-quality design handmade goods in your opinion? 

AK: We think there is still a lot of opportunity to use more traditional craft techniques in modern ways—some of this is through traditional techniques with updated innovative materials, or mixing hand techniques with machine techniques.

For a long time, “masculine” furniture meant works in leather and steel, or anything that looked like it belonged to James Bond. That idea feels out of date; how do men of the modern world think about design today? 

MB: The definition of masculinity is in flux. Masculinity can be in materiality but also in scale, details, and form. Masculinity doesn’t have to be tied to gender anymore. I think modern men can appreciate fine details and don’t have to default to a butch aesthetic just like modern women can be drawn to a rougher aesthetic. Oftentimes, the contrast is key in design.

Which piece do you both love as end users? 

MB: Each piece has unique attributes that we like. The mirror, however, is special. In one material, in one simple form, we can show how the relationship between hand and machine can inspire both beauty and function.

AK: The bench was the beginning of this collection. Design is a funny thing—you dream, you sketch, and then you react and edit. Rarely is the final what you originally thought it would be, but in this case, it was very close to what we started with.

Which piece was the hardest to get right? 

AK: The mirror––the gradient finish is completely new and it took time to get correct.

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