Offsite by Sight Unseen

New York

21 May 2014

For many years, New York's design week was dominated by ICFF.

A trade fair hosted in May each year, ICFF provided an opportunity for brands to show their works, but offered little support to smaller, more avant-garde studios. In recent years however, things in the city have developed.

In 2013, much of the city's design activities were organised under the umbrella banner of NYCxDesign, a move that presented a coherent identity for a citywide design week for the first time. This was joined by the launch of new initiatives, not least the Collective collectible design fair.

Yet a groundswell of young designers exhibiting during the city's design week had already begun several years previously. One of the initiators of this was NoHo Design District, a cluster of shows and displays that provided a platform for the city's younger designers. Founded by Monica Khemsurov and Jill Singer, the editors of online design magazine Sight Unseen it became a touchstone of New York's design scene.

This year however Khemsurov and Singer took the step of retiring NoHo Design District, replacing it with Offsite. Housed in an old factory off of Manhattan's Lafayette Street, the exhibition – which ran earlier in May – displayed work by New York practices such as Chorin, Ladies & Gentlemen, Calico Wallpaper and Moving Mountains. Below, Singer discusses the exhibition and the development of New York's design scene.

You ran NoHo Design District for four years, which was well received. How does this new project relate to that?

It’s the same concept, but on a much larger scale. We were in NoHo originally because we had good relationships with a lot of the people who already had stores there. Five years ago when we started it, it was such a nice up-and-coming neighbourhood, but now it’s established, so there just wasn’t really any real estate left that we felt could let us curate anything of substance. It’s so developed there. So we had to move.

What's the new space like?

Much bigger. It's almost 20,000 square feet. It used to be some sort of factory and its still zoned for manufacturing. It’s corporate offices on the upper level. But it’s stuck in New York rezoning, so it was free for when we wanted it. It’s a landmark building with beautiful brick archways and concrete floors.

Why change the name though?

Well, we knew we wanted to bring the Sight Unseen name into it, because people weren’t necessarily making the connection that Monica and I were the people behind NoHo Design District. Then we just lucked into this amazing space. We could take everything that we’d done before and turn it up several notches. We've done pop-up shops and exhibitions before, but now everything is under the same roof, which is really nice.

How do you curate it? There seems to be an emphasis on relatively young practices?

It’s just Monica and my point of view and we keep a running file all year of who we want to approach. We had this one event that used to be called NoHo Next, which was about emerging designers, so we’ve always had a focus on that and we always wanted to bring in young designers. So we start with that and email a bunch of people to see if they want to submit a proposal.

New York’s design scene seems to be becoming more organised. There’s NYCxDesign, Collective and now NoHo is in a more singular form as Offsite. Why do you think that change is happening?

I guess about five years ago a grassroots effort started among the New York design community. One of the reasons Monica and I started NoHo was because we would go to other fairs like Milan and London. We’d have so much fun and it would be such a good experience and then we’d ask people if they were coming to New York. “Er, No.” The Europeans thought there was nothing to see here, and we got tired of being seen as a second-class design week. So we started five years ago, Wanted Design started four years ago. Collective and NYCxDesign started last year. So I think there’s definitely something bubbling here and the design scene has organised itself. But a lot of the change has been extremely grassroots.

Why is that?

Well I think it’s because of a phenomenon that I assume is happening elsewhere too: after the economy crashed people realised they needed to do things on their own a little bit more than they’d done before and it gave rise to a culture of studios producing their own work and selling it on their web shop. It’s just spawned this very creative, maker-orientated culture, with people sharing recourses and that sort of thing. The city’s design community seems a lot larger than it has in the past.

Does that give rise to a distinctive character for New York’s design scene?

I think it’s become a lot harder to say anywhere has a distinctive character. Everyone in design is seeing the same work through the internet and Instagram. It’s not that design has become homogenised exactly, because there’s a variety of work being done, but it’s harder to say "Well that's obviously from such and such."