Brooklyn is a city of artists and makers, and there’s no celebration of its creative spirit quite like the annual BKLYN DESIGNS fair. From modern heirloom furniture and artistic lighting to sustainable surfacing and handmade accessories, the show will feature inspiring work from emerging designers and established brands hailing from all corners of the borough.
This year, BKLYN DESIGNS will be held in the the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint, from Friday, May 6 through Sunday, May 8, and will feature a variety of activities for the aesthetically minded of all ages. Attendees can shop at the BKLYN BUYS marketplace and pop-up shops featuring modern design goods, attend workshops on textiles and 3D printing, or listen to panel discussions on a variety of subjects relating to design, architecture and technology.
For artists, there will be onsite consultations and portfolio reviews. Kids and adults can interact with installations, and there are drinks to be had at various cafés and bars featuring wares from local vendors.
But the real attraction, of course, is the artists themselves. Let’s meet some of the artists, designers, and companies that epitomize what it means to live the creative life in Brooklyn.
Many Brooklyn artists — maybe most — come from somewhere else. A small town, maybe, or a suburb, or even another country. They come to New York to be discovered.
Mark Jupiter is not one of them. The designer of handmade, custom furniture is a fourth-generation New Yorker.
“My mom’s from Sunnyside, and my dad’s dad was a house flipper, from the late ’20s through the early ’40s,” he says. “They moved around all over the place. My grandfather would buy old houses bring them back to life. He did a lot of the restoration work himself, and my dad learned how to make furniture through that whole process.”
Like many Brooklynites at the time, the Jupiters aspired to move to Manhattan. Mark grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1970s.
“It was a very, very different place than it is now,” he says. “I was mugging bait back then. I lived on West End Avenue and I couldn’t make it to Central Park without being chased by a gang or mugged. I would try and would just have to turn back because it would just be like running into a fire.”
Mark spent much of his childhood helping his father around the shop, and learned a lot about making furniture and woodworking in general. Like many sons, he decided he wasn’t going to go into his father’s business, following his own path until it led him back to where he started.
“I came straight to Dumbo, about nine years ago now,” he says. “I met my wife, got married, we had a kid. I was building custom homes at the time, essentially the greenest homes in the country. I built the first LEED platinum homes in seven different states around the Northeast.”
He survived the housing crisis, but decided he was ready for a change. He found a shop about a half block from his home, and started making custom furniture.
After three and a half years, business is booming. He and his eight-person crew have made furniture for Google, Twitter, Snapchat, and Amplify. If you grab a burger at Shake Shack, you’ve probably sat at one of his reclaimed wood tables.
Jupiter spends most of his days within a radius of less than a half-mile: working, going with his family to the park, or grabbing a drink with other artists at 68 Jay Street. But if you ask him how Brooklyn influences his work, he doesn’t have an easy answer.
“I don’t know if there’s a Brooklyn aesthetic,” he says. “I think we live here so we’re influenced by it. I think that every locale has a collective unconscious when it comes to design. We don’t know why gray is coming. Someone starts it and the thought wave spreads throughout the whole community.”
While Jupiter admits that rough and tumble nature of Brooklyn’s past probably has some influence on him, he is careful to point out that he is equally influenced by the present, and what his customers are looking for. Whether he’s building a conference table for a tech startup or a dining room set for a private residence, every piece starts with the client and ends with a unique piece.
“If I’m making you a custom dining table,” he says, “I’m not thinking of anything when I meet you. First we have a conversation. It’s like making you a tailor-made suit. It’s just yours; the fabric is picked just for you. It might be fabric that already exists, like the wood already exists, but I’m going to make it to something that never existed before.”
This year will mark Jupiter’s third year at BKLYN DESIGNS. (One year, he even hosted a Pratt exhibition in his shop.) He’s not one for crowds, but he enjoys checking out the work of his peers.
“People want to use their hands more now,” he says. “There are generations of computer-trained people now that are just realizing how bad that is for your life and your body. Sitting at a computer all day is just as bad as smoking. Bankers and lawyers ask me if they can intern… you know, work for free. Just so they can make something and have meaning.”
It’s a feeling Jupiter understands well.
“When I’m back in the machine room, making something, I’m whistling. I’m singing. I’m just happy. And then having a successful company behind it just makes me feel good.”
Susan Doban of Think Fabricate and Doban Architecture
The idea of becoming an architect came to Susan Doban when she was doing laps in the pool of the National Capital YMCA.
Though she had always been interested in the visual arts, Doban was an English major at Harvard. After she graduated, she went to D.C. to work on the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Then one day she went for a swim, had a vision of her new career, and soon she was off to Columbia for graduate school.
“I had to take calculus,” says Doban. “At Columbia, I’d say about half of my class didn’t study architecture as undergraduates. and they made a conscious effort to have people like that.”
It was in the Columbia architecture program that she met her husband, Geoffrey Doban, who now works with her. After working for various architects, and after her first daughter, Susan decided that she didn’t fit in at a large Manhattan firm.
Eleven years ago, she started working from her own office in Brooklyn. Since then, Doban Architecture has won awards for such diverse projects as several buildings and interiors in New Rochelle’s Monroe College or the Fairway market in Red Hook. They even designed a modernist sukkah for Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope.
In 2009, largely inspired by her involvement with BKLYN DESIGNS, Doban spun off a new furniture design business called Think Fabricate.
“I’m very active in the Chamber — I’m actually on the board — but at the time I was going to BKLYN DESIGNS more as an architect looking for things to use in projects,” she says.
Think Fabricate has won design awards of its own. Their “Wall*nut Medicine Cabinet XL” won the Best of Year 2013 Award from Interior Design, and they created a set of dinner plates that were accepted into the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection in 2010.
The awards are nice, but it’s the culture of creativity that most appeals to Doban. The boundaries between her architecture and design firms seem a bit porous.
“Some of the things we do for Think Fabricate evolve from projects, some of them evolve from other needs, or just our own design inspiration,” she says. “We do work at many, many scales. Like right now in the office we could be designing a piece of furniture, or a college master plan, or apartment buildings. We’re working on the largest pre-kindergarten in Mayor de Blasio’s program, here in Brooklyn.”
Doban adds that her staff of 11 — three of whom are builders working out of their shop in Greenpoint — seem to enjoy the opportunity to work on such a wide range of projects. After hours, they get together to listen to each other’s presentations on design topics ranging from war artifacts, to whether to simulate or restore old terracotta details.
Living in Brooklyn gives the designers inspiration from the past, present and future. It’s a place where restoration and innovation share space. From her home in Park Slope, blocks away from the Barclays Center, Doban has a front row seat to the tension between old and new.
But does this Harvard-educated Massachusetts woman see herself as a local?
“I consider myself a Brooklynite,” she says. “It’s been over 25 years now. Does that count? I think it counts.”
Gina Argento of Broadway Stages
If you’re wondering how film production facilities relate to Brooklyn design, you probably haven’t been on the set of Madam Secretary. In a soundstage on a Greenpoint side street, the offices of the U.S. Department of State have been re-created in dizzying detail. There’s “mahogany” and “marble” everywhere, and if you look out the window you can see the D.C. skyline, with a different backdrop for day and night scenes.
“Aren’t the marble tiles great?” the tour guide asks, indicating the floor. “That’s painted wood.”
With a million and a half square feet of space spread across sound stages in Brooklyn, not to mention facilities in Queens and an upcoming complex in Staten Island, Broadway Stages is a major player in the New York film industry. The list of shows filming on their sound stages looks a lot like your Netflix queue: The Good Wife, Blue Bloods, Unforgettable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, Billions, Mr. Robot. Baz Luhrman is currently filming The Getdown in their Glendale facility, and on location in East New York. The Marvel Comics Netflix series, including Jessica Jones and Daredevil, all film here.
So how did Brooklyn become one of America’s most vital film production centers?
In 1983, Tony Argento, with the help of his father, bought a dilapidated movie theater on Broadway in Astoria and turned it into a sound stage.
“My brother grew up two blocks away from Kaufman Studios,” says Broadway Stages president Gina Argento. “He was always around film. So after graduating college, when he tried to get a job in the film industry and it didn’t work out, he decided to build his own sound stage.”
Soon Tony had more business than he could handle. Broadway Stages expanded to 21st Street in Long Island City. When that neighborhood became too expensive, they moved to Greenpoint, in an old pots and pans factory, where their central office is today.
It’s out of this office that Gina and her small staff of seven see to the needs of the 42 sound stages and all the office space that goes with each production.
“We obtain properties — we either buy or rent — to build a soundstage out of it, and in addition to sound stages now we build about 20,000 square feet of support space,” says Argento. “We also book the jobs in, and we get the clients acquainted with the neighborhood. We have maps that we give out and we talk about all the local businesses we have nearby and how important it is to spend locally.”
The economic effect these productions have on Brooklyn neighborhoods can be enormous. Local crews get work, restaurants and shops get more traffic. And if a location scout decides they want to use your restaurant or your living room for a day’s shoot, your compensation can be a windfall.
Gina Argento is also dedicated to giving back to the community in more direct ways. She and her staff organize, sponsor and volunteer for park cleanups, after-school programs, clothing and food drives, and educational initiatives. They have a working farm on the building, where Kimmy Schmidt films, and solar panels on most of their studios provide up to 30 percent of their energy needs.
In the end, it’s the films and shows themselves that go out into the world and get people from all over excited to come to Brooklyn. Argento tells the story of French tourists who showed up in this industrial part of Greenpoint because they were big fans of the show Unforgettable and its star Poppy Montgomery.
“I brought them over to the set to see the show, and I actually got to introduce them to Poppy Montgomery,” she says. “That kind of story is what the film and television industry is doing here. It’s exposing everything overseas and people want to come here. We have a hotel that opened up here in an industrial area. Half a block away from one of our film studios. In the middle of nowhere. And it’s always at full capacity.”
Broadway Stages has been a longtime supporter of BKLYN DESIGNS, almost as long as they’ve been a supporter of Brooklyn and its communities.
Come and meet these three innovators and dozens more Brooklyn artists and makers at BKLYN Designs. For all the details on where to go and the full lineup of events and exhibitors, check out the BKLYN Designs website.