Fred A. Bernstein

Mass Market and Couture

Young designers mix it up in Greenpoint

Published in The New York Times, June 22, 2007

FOR budding furniture and product designers, the Design Academy Eindhoven, in the southern part of the Netherlands, is a hot ticket. The success of the school's graduates - some of whom have introduced hugely successful products while still in their 20s - is the envy of rival institutions.

During the recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair in Manhattan, two of those graduates, Alissia Melka-Teichroew and Jan Habraken, seemed to be everywhere.

Mr. Habraken was presiding over the booth at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center rented by WAT Design, the company he runs with a partner in the Netherlands (WAT stands for Working Apart Together). And he was a frequent visitor to the sprawling outpost of Umbra, a manufacturer of furniture and home accessories. Umbra has just begun marketing one of WAT's most inventive products: a line of wineglasses with three angled legs in place of the expected round base.

Ms. Melka-Teichroew (pronounced MEL-ca TIE-crow) was showing products not only at the fair but also at several other locations around town, including a hair salon in the meatpacking district where champagne was being served in her own flutes, which are suspended - like teardrops preserved in amber - within glass cylinders. The flutes, which arrived in May from a factory in China, are available at C.I.T.E, a design store in SoHo.

When the fair was over, the couple, who married last September, gathered up their wares and returned to the apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that is not only a cozy home but the headquarters of Ms. Melka-Teichroew's company, by:AMT, and the New York office of Mr. Habraken's. There are three adjoining desks: one for him, one for her and one for their shared intern.
The couple manage to confine their professional activities to one of the apartment's five rooms, leaving the bedroom, dining room, kitchen and light-filled living room to domestic life.
The design of the 975-square-foot apartment is basic - the walls are white because the couple's landlord insists on it. Against those walls, the couple have placed a whimsical collection of furniture and lamps. Many of the pieces are from Ikea, which has been part of their lives since childhood. (Mr. Habraken, who is Dutch, grew up in Eindhoven; Ms. Melka-Teichroew, who is half French, half American, was raised in Utrecht, the Netherlands.)
Mixed in are pieces by well-known designers, including a bowl made of melted toy soldiers by Steve Mosley and Dominic Wilcox and a floor lamp using a car headlight by the Italian designer Achille Castiglione.
"It's like wearing H&M and Helmut Lang at the same time," Mr. Habraken said of the mix of mass-market and couture that characterizes the apartment.
Mr. Habraken, 31, works at his Ikea desk, sitting in a chair of his own design. Otherwise, few of the couple's products are visible, in part because they're tiny.
Ms. Melka-Teichroew, 30, has had the greatest success with a line of plastic rings that mimic the shape of a gold band and a single large diamond. The rings are made under her supervision and shipped from Greenpoint to retailers like the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. She said she had sold tens of thousands of them.
It was the rings that brought Ms. Melka-Teichroew and Mr. Habraken together. Since 2005, she has operated a Web site that includes links to the work of designers she admires, WAT Design among them. When sales of the rings started going through the roof, the number of visits to the WAT site increased, too. Maarten Baptist, Mr. Habraken's partner, called Ms. Melka-Teichroew to ask what was going on.
Ms. Melka-Teichroew told him that her rings had taken off.
Mr. Baptist and Mr. Habraken were planning to show their work during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the giant furniture fair in Milan, in the spring of 2006, and they asked Ms. Melka-Teichroew if she wanted to share the storefront they had rented. (With her focus on barware and rings, Ms. Melka-Teichroew said, "I don't take up a lot of space.") She accepted the offer, and during the fair, she and Mr. Habraken hung out together.
When the fair ended, Ms. Melka-Teichroew returned to Boston, where she was living at the time. "I realized, this is no fun without him," she said.
Not long after returning to Boston, Ms. Melka-Teichroew proposed marriage via text message, and Mr. Habraken, who was in the bathtub at the time, texted back his acceptance.
The couple decided to have a ceremony in the Netherlands and a reception in Boston. Their first task was designing an invitation, but the two designers wanted different fonts. "I thought his looked weird, and he thought mine looked weird," Ms. Melka-Teichroew said. (They ended up using some of each font on the invitation.) To put their own stamp on the wedding, they designed as many of the accouterments as they could, including drink stirrers based on Ms. Melka-Teichroew's rings.
The couple planned to settle in New York, where they would be closer to manufacturers, retailers and a large design community. Ms. Melka-Teichroew, who had once lived in Greenpoint, focused her apartment hunting on that neighborhood. The place she found - for $1,900 a month - is on an extraordinarily pleasant block: Noble Street between Franklin Street and Manhattan Avenue. Outside, birds chirp and children play under a canopy of trees.
Inside, the couple's careers encompass marketing products themselves (as with the rings), licensing their designs to manufacturers (as with the tripod glasses), or working for set fees (as with a booth Mr. Habraken is designing for Nooka, a watch company).
"It all depends on what's best for a given project," he said.
For both of them, design is as much about whimsy as practicality. One of Mr. Habraken's creations is a digital clock that has no buttons. When you turn it on, it flashes 12:00, which means you have to plug it in at noon or midnight. Another of his pieces is a sawhorse-leg table made entirely out of glass.
For her part, Ms. Melka-Teichroew is planning to expand her jewelry line with plastic caricatures of pearl necklaces and bracelets. She has also successfully marketed ceramic plates shaped like taco shells, convenient, she said, for crowded cocktail parties.
Both Mr. Habraken and Ms. Melka-Teichroew (who also holds a master's degree from the Rhode Island School of Design) credit the Eindhoven academy with making them better designers. In the United States, teachers don't really criticize students, she said, because "you're not supposed to hurt their feelings."
In Eindhoven, their teachers, who were practicing designers, had no such concerns. As a result, Ms. Melka-Teichroew said, "you learn to work with the criticism rather than just feel bad."