Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Kat Slootsky
All Other Images Courtesy of Workstead
I visited Workstead at their main office in South Brooklyn in the Can Factory, which could be the epicenter of the Brooklyn design moment.
Workstead took up residency here after humble beginnings in a Brooklyn home office designing a kitchen “not bigger than this table.” That’s according to the principal designer, Ryan Mahoney, who I talked to along with senior designer, Nadine Lynch. Currently, Workstead is a firm that will design your interior and also build everything that is put into it. And what they don’t build, they will find. The motive, it seems, is to do whatever it takes to tell the right story for the space. To accomplish this, they have the office in the Can Factory as well as a satellite office in Charleston where they manufacture everything from light fixtures to furniture to case goods. Workstead also has relationships with countless craftspeople in Brooklyn and the wherewithal to hire locally when they are doing jobs outside of the city.
The entire endeavor that began with the aforementioned tiny kitchen was inaugurated right at the dawn of the recession, in those heady days as the bond market was just wrapping up collapsing in 2009. The core group of RISD graduates, Mahoney, Stefanie Brechbuehler, and Robert Highsmith (the latter two now heading up the Charleston office), decided that a financial crisis was the perfect time to abandon job security and go it alone. Mahoney recalls, “We all still had jobs, so it wasn’t out of necessity. We wanted to do something creative and there was this entrepreneurial spirit happening.” Lately, there seems to be talk in the ether that when things get crappy, people get scrappy. Maybe it’s magical thinking as we seem to stand on a precipice if a crapscape, but whatever the case in 2009, the financial crash gave us Workstead.
From the home office in Cobble Hill, they moved to a storefront on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. Then they just dodged the hurricane by moving to the Can Factory where they bopped around a bit between studios before settling in their current office.
Nadine joined the team not long after Workstead was formed. A graduate of The New York School of Interior Design, she was the first non-RISD team member, but she’s not strictly the interior design specialist. As she puts it, “We all kind of dabble in everything.”
It does come down to functionality and how the client’s going to use that space, whether it’s residential or hospitality. That directs the story that we’re trying to create. A lot of our design is based off of very smart functional designs, not just design to have a design. So a lot of the story comes down to the functionality of the project. - Nadine Lynch, Senior Designer
I first became aware of the firm after being completely taken in by their “Lodge” collection of light fixtures, which were created as an offshoot of their design of the actual Rivertown Lodge in Hudson, New York.
Naturally, I was curious to learn about the Lodge itself. Lynch recalls that “It used to be a motel — it had a very seedy past — first it was a movie theater.” Mahoney adds, “then it was a Chinese restaurant.” Lynch elaborates: “It was a squatting house for a second.” Ray Pirkle and Kim Bucci — the lodge owners — originally came to Workstead about redesigning the space into the Rivertown Lodge after seeing the house that Workstead partners Highsmith and Brechbuehler renovated for themselves. Mahoney shows me a picture of the delightfully modest home among the trees. “They bought it, and it was covered up with asbestos materials. But luckily all these materials protected what was underneath, so they ripped everything up and finished it. This was published on a blog and the clients saw it.” You can see the traces of this initial inspiration throughout the Rivertown Lodge, which Workstead designed from soup to nuts. I knew that Workstead created lighting collections out their projects, and the Lodge is a special example because they created every single light fixture for the whole hotel, and almost all of these are now available for purchase.
As for the furnishings, Mahoney tells me, “It’s a mix of things we made, and furniture and other pieces that we discovered, including both vintage pieces and a lot of things that were created by local manufacturers.”
In the course of taking me through the lodge and a few other projects — including a Tribeca loft which glows brilliantly from the light off the Hudson — I learned a lot about their process and its underlying strategy, which comes down to considering a space’s context and culling out its story. For Mahoney, “It’s not one thing. Things are always playing off of each other, and you want that to tell a story and be interesting. Sometimes one thing plays off another, juxtaposing different things together. And sometimes you want that piece of history, and we mix new and old pieces of furniture together, so they speak to each other and have a conversation.” Lynch elaborates on this idea, adding, “It does come down to functionality and how the client’s going to use that space, whether it’s residential or hospitality. That directs the story that we’re trying to create. A lot of our design is based off of very smart functional designs, not just design to have a design. So a lot of the story comes down to the functionality of the project.”
In the case of Rivertown Lodge, the story tapped into a certain version of Americana that spans time. Mahoney tells me, “What we were aiming for was an almost an Americana in muted primaries. This chair has these muted primaries in it. That was the direction we were going for, so it felt like it belonged in that location, in that space. It felt like it had something to do with that area, and spoke to the past a little bit, but was also a more modern interpretation.”
There are many projects on the horizon for Workstead, enough to imply a frenzy that is belied by the placid mood of the office. Two of the upcoming project will offer the designers a chance to tackle something new: creating additions to already existing buildings. Lynch notes the particular difficulty of this new challenge: “It has to have an identity of its own. It can’t just be a copy of the older building. You don’t want to just mimic the original or it just looks very Disney and makebelieve. So the challenge is to respect that but also finding a modern way of merging the two.”
I scoffed privately at the idea that these guys would engage in mimicry. Clearly originals, clearly committed to not only the design but the backstory behind it, it’s no small wonder they’ve come so far since the first tiny kitchen.