On February 17th, New York’s Museum of Art and Design is presenting The Home Front, a panel discussion about the triumphs and tribulations of being an independent designer. Moderator Jen Renzi pre-interviewed some of the panelists, and this is the first conversation, with Alissia Melka-Teichroew.
Tickets, offered in partnership with Co.Design, are available here for just $9, with the offer code HOME.
Alissia Melka-Teichroew is something of a hybrid: Her mom is French, her dad is American, she was raised in Utrecht, the Netherlands; educated in both the U.S. (RISD) and Holland (the famed Design Academy Eindhoven); and speaks three languages. Her New York design practice is similarly polyglot: she’s designed glass and ceramic tableware, high-concept acrylic jewelry, tongue-in-cheek USB sticks, and sells her work in shops ranging from MoMA Store to Target. After launching her first furniture collection last year, [we were/I was] curious to hear her thoughts about the American and international design scenes.
How do you think design?education, manufacturing, networking etc.?differs here versus Holland, a country that many in the design world consider to be at the leading edge of furniture and product design?
In general, I find the design scene to be friendlier here than in the Netherlands. People are more helpful in sharing contacts, information, and resources?which means you can move forward faster.
Interestingly, these days, many of designers doing well in Holland aren’t even Dutch; a lot of foreigners are based there, which the current economic climate encourages. As long as you have the right permit, graduating design students in Holland can apply for a stipend to get subsidized by the Dutch government. The grants are kind of a pain in the ass because you have to submit all these reports that you’re really working in the field, that you have worked the minimum required hours, and that you didn’t make much money, etc. But it encourages designers to work there.
I have a theory about the Netherlands vis-à-vis the U.S.: in Holland, there’s so little space, it’s one of the most overpopulated countries, and we live in such close quarters that everything needs to work and to look good. How can you enjoy life if everything looks awful? In Holland, you can’t just paint your house purple.
Do you actually have to check in with Dutch authorities?
Yes! Which is a good and bad thing. People can’t just do what they want, which is annoying. But, on the other hand, everything is pleasant to the eye, which is very calming. Even the Dutch systems are well designed, unlike the U.S. Design is just not part of our society here.
You attended both the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands and RISD in the U.S. Did you notice a difference between the two education systems?
To totally generalize: In the U.S., you’re taught how to make something but you’re not really taught to question the essence of the object?nor anything about form or proportion. When students are asked to redesign a spoon here, they just redesign the shape?a swoopy spoon or an angular spoon?but don’t think about the essence of the object.
You’re taught a skill base, which is fine, but I think students need to balance that with finding their own path — what interests them — when they’re young enough to still be informed. When I was in school in the Netherlands, they didn’t even teach us skills; we were left to figure that out on our own.
Here you’re in school all the time, so you have to do your schoolwork at night or on weekends. Which, to me, is a weird system. Eindhoven closed on weekends and by 9 or 10 during weeknights. I can’t imagine a school in Holland being open 24 hours. Attending a school that closed early taught me to budget my time more effectively, to be more productive. You learn how to focus during the day, get your work done, and then value your free time. I think you become organized in a professional way. So when students graduate and transition to office life, that 9 to 5 mentality is already there.
I’ve lost that a bit of that lately, though. I feel like I never stop working?and on the wrong stuff. I spend so little time designing, and too much on administration, following up with retailers, etc. I want to become more productive again. I actually just hired a business consultant/coach to help get me back on track, to teach me how and what to delegate. I’ve been wanting to do this for years!
Last semester, you and your husband, Jan Habraken, who’s also a designer, co-taught an undergarduate class at Pratt called “New American Design: An Exploration into the Future of American Design?. How, as a teacher, did you attempt to encourage your students to think more conceptually”
We tried to teach students to communicate what they felt about things. Which is really hard because, in a way, talking about feelings is not very academic?and certainly not something you’re taught to do. When you ask a student here why they made something, they usually say: “Because I like it,” or, ‘because I was interested in it,’ or “because I like green.” And that’s fine, but what if I don’t like green? Are we going to have a fight about it? How can we even have a real discussion about something so subjective?
That said, it’s not a bad thing if your design isn’t loved by everyone. It’s actually a good thing because it stimulates a discussion. Personally, I don’t need my designs to be for everyone.
Do you think the conceptual and the commercial are inherently at odds? Or that they don’t have to be?
I don’t think the two have to be at odds. They can peacefully coexist.
Actually, I think that one of the biggest mistakes designers make is putting too many ideas into one object so it’s overdetermined; then the concept prevails over the function. I’ve noticed that, especially when we’re working with a big firm, the client often demands too much from a single object. This one brief was like: “It needs to be modular and cool but not too modular or too cool, but not boring, like this but not like this?” Clients have to make choices and prioritize.
In general, I think it’s better to break up an idea into a few different products. With every collection, you have so many ideas and you want to prototype them all and make this enormous collection. But you have to pick which pieces best reflect whatever you’re trying to say and which best work together. With the Peasant vanity, I probably went through a million iterations in my sketchbook.
There’s a fixation with design being about problem solving, which I don’t agree with. Sure, if you’re designing a store interior or something like medical equipment, then it’s about problem solving/engineering. You can always find a problem if you want to, which becomes nihilistic. Then you can’t design anything! I have no problem with the more industrial side of design, which is really much more based on problem solving. I do believe there are problems in the world that could still be solved. I just wonder if it’s necessary to find/search for problems in everything that we do and touch, which is how some firms work.
When I make jewelry or furniture, I?m not trying to solve a problem. I?m commenting on or investigating something. For instance, with the Jointed Jewels, I was looking at the manufacturing process. The concept was sparked in a CAD class where the assignment was to make a two-part connection using 3D printing technology. I had the idea to do a ball joint, but rather than design two pieces that click together, I exploited laser-sintering technology to make it as one piece.
If it’s not about solving a problem, then what do you see as the role of furniture design?
It’s about making our lives easier and more pleasurable. The vanity mirror, for instance, was about making action of looking in a mirror more fun, turn it into more of a three-dimensional object in the round versus something that lies flat against the wall. We keep redesigning chairs because of trends, colors, and evolving ideas about comfort, technologies, and how we want to live. I think designers should aspire to make the world a more beautiful place, which sounds cheesy, I know.
Still curious? Buy tickets to the Feb. 17th event here for $9 when you enter the offer code HOME.