Best known for their Tetris-inspired shelves, Nikki Frazier, Sam Kragiel, Jesse James Arnold make up the Brooklyn-based group Brave Space Design. Here at Inhabitat, we’ve been keeping an eye on them since May 2005, when their design sparked a frenzy in the blogosphere with Tetris fans who loved the design but wanted the shelves to be much cheaper.
However, outside of gaming circles, the Brooklyn design trio is probably best known for producing gorgeous, modern, environmentally-friendly furniture using FSC woods, bamboo and water-based finishes. I sat down with the Brave Space trio at their shop in Brooklyn to ask a few questions about how they went from art school in Florida to designing cult-worthy furniture and influencing the evolution of good, green, affordable design.
Sam: Yeah, Brooklyn Designs is a really important show for us. Three years ago, we visited Brooklyn Designs and saw all the interesting things going on here. It’s really what got us excited about starting our own company. We said to ourselves, we can be here. And the following year, 2005, we were in it. So this year was our second time there.
Jessie: ICFF was new for us. We were happy to be a part of it and we made a lot of great connections that we are following up on. But as a local company we felt that Brooklyn Designs and Haute Green are more our scene.
Nikki: We also participated in a Microsoft Event at the W Hotel, but we didn’t have to do too much for that one. They just picked up the piece and dropped it off a few days after.
You mentioned that the Brooklyn Designs Show in 2004 was a catalyst for the creation of Brave Space. How did you three meet in the first place?
Sam: We met in art school in Florida. Nikki and Jessie went for photography but ended up doing sculpture. I was in the sculpture department.
Jessie: We didn’t have a lot of direct contact in school though. When I moved to New York we reestablished contact and started working together with lofts and buildings.
Nikki: Finding clever and efficient solutions for living spaces is really how it all started. Building out loft spaces on budgets with limited amounts of wood gave rise to the asymmetrical designs that we have become known for. It’s all about creating more space using less wood.
Jessie: And using everything. A huge part of sustainability is efficiency in the designs and material use.
So your sustainable ideas essentially stem from a sense of frugality?
Nikki: Generally speaking we lean towards sustainable solutions when they are possible and practical. We consider the impacts of choosing different materials and finishes carefully. For example, we offset all our electricity costs with wind power credits which actually costs a bit extra. Our first responsibility though is to create good designs. After we have something that we like, we think, “How can we make this green?” We want the design to come first though. It’s all about becoming green.
Jessie: Really, we don’t go out of our way to make green stuff. It’s just an engineering principle; a set of constraints to take into consideration. Given my background in mechanics and robotics, I approach green design problem solving for efficiency. Sam brings politics into the picture, the notion that we have certain social obligations.
Sam: I grew up building homes with my father during the summers in Gainesville, Florida. Although not LEED certified, these were really energy efficient homes. We won an Energy Star Award! My parents were hippies, which is why we were attuned to environmentalism and energy efficiency early on. I lived in a commune until I was four in upstate New York. Everything was hand-me-downs and busses turned into homes that linked to a trailer that linked to another house. So, that is the deep seated roots of our green thinking. These guys, I just managed to convince. Once you start working with good materials it all makes sense.
In your opinion, what is it that makes sense about going green?
Jesse: First off it makes sense for the people who build the stuff and then also for the people who live with it. Cutting into wood that contains formaldehyde shortens your lifespan. Why would you do that to yourself? As far as finishing goes there is no reason to inhale toxic fumes when there are water-based products do the trick. Then when it goes into someone’s home, it’s not off-gassing.
What about the cost? Does it cost more to use eco-friendly raw materials?
Jesse: In some cases, yes, but it’s about economies of scale. Early adopters like us and people who buy our stuff, create the market and pay a higher price. As awareness and demand grows, prices will decrease.
Nikki: But it varies. Water-based finishes for example cost about the same as traditional finishes. Then you have the case of Plyboo (plywood made out to bamboo). It’s a material that is far superior to Plywood. So its eco and more expensive but the quality is so much better that you end up with a finished product of higher quality.
In your design, do you think about the end-of-lifecycle — meaning, do you make special considerations in your designs to make them easier to dispose of or recycle?
Nikki: Most of our furniture is designed to be reused. It’s not designed to be disassembled and thrown away. In addition, many of our designs are modular and can move easily from space to space, which is a form of recycling.
To me your designs have a very modern, urban feel to them. Do you design specifically for urban spaces?
Nikki: All these pieces are really personal to us. They are all solutions for maximizing our cramped New York spaces or work-arounds for that weird pipe that sticks out of the wall for no apparent reason. You know what I mean?
Jesse: In small spaces, functionality is really important, too. We’ll say: This table is great, but you can only put stuff on top of it. How about if we made some hollow sections where things could be stored? Our stuff has been called “hyper-functional.” We have thrown away many designs because they lack function. When the space doesn’t do anything it feels decadent and starts to lose its appeal.
What is the story behind the Tetrad shelves?
Sam: A friend of ours had an alcove and wanted our help to design shelving that would fill up the space. We were using rectangular shaped boxes that we were stacking on top of each other. Asymmetrical, modular design seemed to be the solution. We mulled over the specifics while playing video games and then we came up with the thought of doing “Tetris shelves.”
Nikki: No one was doing it yet! In the beginning we called them Tetris shelves, but we recently got a cease and desist order… which we are actually really proud of! The Webster dictionary definition of the set of shapes is Tetrad so we changed it to that.
You are currently selling through Vivavi. Who buys your stuff? Do you know?
Nikki: We started out with more of the Upper West Side couples with a higher price point who are interested in design and also like to support up-and-coming designers, but now we’re selling to more people out of state and even internationally, especially since we’ve started being able to make and sell our pieces at more affordable costs.
Sam: … and Rachel Weisz, to name drop…
Jesse: Video game designers in Seattle are a target market for Tetrad shelves.
An earlier Inhabitat post about these shelves sparked a lively debate, which largely revolved around the high price tag attached to the modules. What do you make of this criticism?
Nikki: It really pushed us to become more affordable. We realized that our customer base was not interested in some luxury shelves. They needed something more accessible. Since we design with our own needs in mind, people like us should be able to afford them.
Sam: To be making things only for people in a high income bracket just doesn’t fall in line with our ideals.
Jesse: This past year we have been focusing on smaller price tag products. Using technology helps bring our costs down. Some of the things we’ve designed can now be built in using computer numerically controlled routing. This means that the pieces get cut exactly to spec and then we assemble them here.
Sam: Kind of like mini-mass producing.
Would you ever consider outsourcing your manufacturing? If so, where would you send it?
Jesse: If you are going to shop out production, there is no reason to go out of state – it can be done right here in Brooklyn. Shipping costs might even make it more expensive. And there is the issue of CO2 emissions…By manufacturing locally you have the possibility to just go over and check out how things are going at that shop. It’s harder to do that if you are dealing with China or even North Carolina.
Nikki: Brooklyn is cool; we like it here and identify with this place. Sam drives around the neighborhood looking for shops that can do some of the things that we are not equipped to do in our relatively small shop.
Sam: Yes, I’m constantly searching to expand our network of fabricators. I’m a big rubber necker. If I see something interesting I’ll poke my head in and say, “Hey, how’s it going? You’ve got a shop. What are you building in here?” Then walk in, check it out. People are supportive and like to help each other out. It’s a community. It’s our community.