“It’s supposed to be difficult.”
Dylan Davis × Ladies & Gentlemen Studio × Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
Dylan is a co-founder of Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, a multifaceted design studio based in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. He and his partner Jean Lee started the studio in 2010. Their philosophy embraces the value of opposites through a mix of warm minimalism, playful austerity and simple sophistication.
RE: HIS READING LIST
We’re reading a lot about modernism right now because Furnishing Utopia is now focusing on modernism. We’re trying to look across the spectrum of that period, so I’ve been reading about Ludwig Hilberseimer — he was an urban planner who worked with Mies van der Rohe to envision a modern city and its suburbs. But I’m also reading essays from The Last Whole Earth Catalog to learn about the countercultural elements that were rebelling against modernism. I’m trying to look at both sides to get at the root of what that time period was really about. In a lot of ways, both sides had similar intentions but they were deeply at odds with each other in practice.
RE: HIS NOT-SO-WEIRD HABIT
I eat popcorn every afternoon. Kinda weird but it’s the best snack and it never gets old.
RE: WHO WE SHOULD BE PAYING ATTENTION TO
New York artist-designer Allan Wexler. We met Allan when we were students in Rome and were thrilled to reconnect with him when we came to New York. He and his wife are collaborators and really thoughtful, out-of-the-box thinkers. Their work exists at this intersection of design, art and architecture, and is beautifully considered and poetic but hard for people to categorize, so I think there’s been less attention on the work than it deserves. He’s definitely worth a serious look — so refreshing even though some of his pieces are 30+ years old.
RE: FAVE HOME DECOR
When we moved to New York, we downsized our living by design and necessity. We have a 500 square foot, one-bedroom apartment not far from our studio. We’ve intentionally been sort of minimal about the space and don’t buy many home decor items because nothing seems to suit the size and proportion of our small space. Instead, we’ve built simple things to suit our needs.
Recently we made this really simple set of three equally sized, wall-mounted plywood boxes that we’ve evenly spaced on the wall — inspired by Donald Judd. We’re using them to show books and the minimal things that we do have — not in a way that entirely maximizes the wall space — but in a way that gives the items space and prominence. With the added negative space, it feels more like an open composition than a heavy bookshelf.
These moments of space and breathing are essential in a small space, versus optimizing every nook and cranny to store more stuff.
We’ve used this spirit across the apartment, having fun making deductive decisions about the right things and then living with them. We’ve actually had to make a few things out of necessity. With no overhead lighting or even a ceiling electrical box (a very common condition in NYC), we designed and made this lamp that attaches to the wall and reaches out to illuminate the whole room. It has since become a product of ours — the Iso series.
We originally designed it for our apartment because we were literally sitting in the dark before it.
RE: THE BEST ADVICE HE EVER GOT
There was a moment when Jason Miller approached us, pretty early in our studio’s history, and asked us to design something for Roll & Hill. It was this huge honor for us — we didn’t even actually know why he was asking us because we hadn’t had much exposure then. We spent a long time coming up with ideas and coming forward with things we thought Roll & Hill would really like, only to have the ideas not capture their attention. Eventually, Jason came to us and simply said:
“Guys, I came to you because I wanted a Ladies & Gentlemen design, not a design that you think would fit our company.”
That was the first moment when we realized that we had any sort of design language that was distinctly ours. That moment of advice... maybe not incredibly profound, was actually incredibly empowering. He was essentially giving us permission to “Be yourself” and that was a very pivotal moment for us. Shortly after that we came out with the Shape Up line, which is very different from other things that Roll & Hill was doing then, and they were super into it. It was a good lesson.
RE: THE JOYS / CHALLENGES OF COLLABORATION
We do a lot of collaboration and it’s kind of a signature part of our approach to design. We initially started off doing very straightforward “We’ll work with this person to make this thing” collaborations. But over the years, the collaborations we’re doing have become a lot deeper and multifaceted and there’s different people involved. Maybe we’re collaborating with artists that we like to work with, along with a company that we like to work with, and tying that to a particular marketing initiative or something.
I think that has resulted in some really amazing projects and it’s resulted in some moments where we realized there’s a sweet spot beyond which you get too many people involved or become overly prescriptive about how that collaboration should work and it doesn’t end up working. So I think there’s a sweet spot in terms of allowing it to not feel forced and allowing it to flow and each entity having its own moment of individuality in that process. We’ve definitely started to set up different frameworks so it’s like, “This is the space that we’re giving to this person and we’re not going to dictate it and we’re not going to let them dictate to us what our portion is.” We’ve found it works a lot better that way, to not control everything and not get too complicated about it.
RE: THE VALUE OF GETTING HANDS-ON
This isn’t for everyone but we have always found that the minute that we get hands-on about a design challenge, it’s the fastest route to reality. So if we’re thinking about something, the faster we can get to actually making some semblance of that, with our hands, in three dimensions, it (a) resolves if that that’s a good idea or not, and (b) often leads to more good ideas. More so than by drawing or using CAD.
The quicker you get out of your head and into reality, the better.
It’s definitely a key tactic of ours. It’s so simple but a lot of people don’t do it and we don’t even do it all the time because “reality” can be a little scary.
RE: OVERCOMING DOUBT AND INSECURITY
It really helps to be a couple or, you know, two people designing. There are so many moments where maybe Jean’s not confident about something or I’m not confident about something and the other person helps you through that. We have this rule in the studio that any idea or big decision that we’re going forward with, we both have to be 100 percent “yes” about it. There are some moments where we definitely try to sway each other one way or another but at a certain point if you don’t like this direction, we just let it go. And I think that when you’re on your own, each decision is a little bit harder to make because you don’t have someone else being the devil’s advocate. Or a cheerleader!
There was a product that we made a while ago. It was a serving tray and it had this wooden bottom, with aluminum sides. I was super excited — it was my idea. I made a model and took it to Jean and she wasn’t quite as into it as I was. So we just spent a lot of time talking about what might make it better. It’s rarely a “No,” like an absolute “No, and I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” It’s like, “There is something missing in this idea.” In the end, it ended up being my aluminum side — it was all the same color but it was made out of four parts. Just changing the color of two of the parts and making it this composition of colors and materials made that product really special. That came from Jean not feeling 100 percent about it. So it’s always felt like out of the tension comes a better result. We have confidence in the process even though it can sometimes be a bit straining or initially hurt someone’s feeling a little bit. But we both know at this point that it’s for the good of the final product.
RE: A MAXIM HE LIVES BY
I have one that I “invented” when we moved to New York. We moved from Seattle, where things are very easy and you can go at whatever pace you want. It’s very comfortable. But, you know, we moved to New York to challenge ourselves, and literally everything is more challenging here, from getting your mail to walking out your front door. So it kind of became this thing that I would sarcastically say, but also literally say to myself when I’m having a hard morning. Just telling myself,
“It’s supposed to be difficult.”
It has a certain amount of negativity when you first speak it, but it’s not meant to be an excuse or anything, it’s meant to enforce the idea that good things require effort and perseverance and you’ve got to expect that and embrace it. If things come too easily then you’re probably not challenging yourself enough.
RE: HIS MOST IMPORTANT ROUTINES
I’m a super morning person. Well, I’m not super, but I do my best work in the morning. I have a morning routine that consists of eating a specific meal and exercising and doing specific things that I always do at the same time. And that kind of just sets me up for the day. I enjoy doing that — I’ve always done it that way. And then, at the beginning of each week, I plan out my week with blocks of time in Google Calendar. That helps me digest the very big to-do list that I have going at all times. It just spells out the week so I don’t have to think about what I’m doing from moment to moment. I’m pretty regimented about that stuff, which is completely different from Jean.
I’m also trying to be present during my morning. Even when I’m taking a shower, being very focused on taking a shower. I actually find that sets me up to do better, more concentrated work when I am working. I’ll get songs that come into my head and I’ll even try to stop it from coming into my head. It’s something I’m trying right now.
RE: HIS IDEAL ENVIRONMENT
I’m not an extremely tidy person but I have come to realize that when you start a process or start a day, it’s important to have a clean slate. So we have a rule in the studio that any of the essential work tables and our desks get cleared off at the end of the day. When you come in the next day, you have a blank slate. We have these desks that are like our Shaker desks — they close up. Everything gets closed up and when you come in the next day, part of the ritual is to open up this desk. As a result, at any moment when you want to work on a project, a table is available to work on. For me personally, it’s been really good.
RE: CAFFEINE, ALCOHOL, ET AL.
Other than caffeine, I don’t really work well using substances. It doesn’t seem to work — well, at least not for work. But I actually don’t drink coffee and I’m really sensitive to caffeine. It’s not that I don’t have caffeine at all but I only use it when I need it. So if I need a push, I’ll have something like a tea. Or recently, I’ve been drinking a lot of caffeinated water because it’s a whole new thing. It really gets me going because I don’t drink it everyday. This brand, it's called Phocus and it’s spelled like the Vietnamese soup. I’ve been drinking it and it really does seem to create focus. Maybe it’s a placebo? I don’t know.
RE: HOW HE USES CALDERA
So, unlike a lot of people who are responding to the long version on Instagram, the small Caldera is the perfect size for our small living room. We don’t really have room for a regular couch so we made a sofa that’s sized for our space. There’s no room for a regular-sized coffee table so we’re using it as a coffee table. It typically has a couple of books on it that we’re currently reading or want to read. It usually houses the iPad that we watch Netflix on. We don’t have a television or anything so it kind of just becomes like a little platform for these things that represent leisure.
For more on Dylan and Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, head here.