“It’s supposed to be difficult.”

“It’s supposed to be difficult.”

Posted by Bench Bookkeeping on

Dylan is a co-founder of Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, a multi-faceted design studio based in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood. He and his partner Jean Lee started the studio in 2010. Their philosophy embraces opposites through a mix of warm minimalism, playful austerity, and simple sophistication.

We asked Dylan some questions. This is what he had to say. 


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, so we’ve been reading about Ludwig Hilberseimer who was an urban planner who worked with Mies van der Rohe. But I'm also reading about the countercultural elements that were against modernism. So, a copy of the Last Whole Earth catalog that has a lot of essays that are very anti-modernism. I'm trying to get both sides of that to get at the root of what that time period was really about.


New York designer Allan Wexler. We met Allan when we were students and reconnected with him when we came to New York. He and his wife are collaborative, even though he does work under his own name as well. They're both really thoughtful and out-of-the-box thinkers. They are at this intersection of design, art and architecture, but really none of those at the same time. I feel like his work will become more and more appreciated as time goes on, but for now, he’s underappreciated.


I eat popcorn everyday in the studio. It's a weird thing. It’s my snack.


This is a hard one for some reason. When we moved to New York, we obviously downsized our space and now our space is much smaller. We have a 500 square foot, one bedroom apartment. We’ve intentionally been sort of minimal about the space and we end up not buying very much stuff. Which is a weird thing because in Seattle, we were always buying different vintage things. 

Recently we made these really simple three equal size boxes that we've sort of spaced out evenly on the wall. So it’s almost like a Judd-like installation. We’re using those to show the minimal things that we do have - not in a way that entirely maximizes the space - but that optimizes them fitting nicely in the space. That's been the name of the game for our space, considering that it's so small.

It’s kind of fun to make the right thing and then live with it.

There have actually been a few things that we’ve made out of necessity. There was this lamp we made for our apartment, which had a very specific condition where there weren't any electrical boxes in the ceiling and there were no lights in the ceiling either. So we made this lamp that attaches to the wall and reaches out into the space, and it has since become a product of ours. It's called the Iso series. It was originally in our apartment because we needed it. 


There was a moment early in the studio 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. We spent a long time coming up with ideas and coming forward with things we thought Roll & Hill would really like and he came back after a couple rounds of him not really going for anything and 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 where we really realized that we had any sort of capital and a design language that was ours. That moment of advice... I mean, it wasn't like a particular piece of advice, it was more like, “Be yourself” kind of advice — 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 does, and they were super into it. It was a good lesson.


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.


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. I think 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.


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.


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.


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 and 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.


The hands-on approach, which I already spoke to, is good for creative block. But also switching mediums. So if we're trying to come up with ideas, maybe it's going to a sketch. If that doesn't yield any results, going to make a little model or switching from clay to wood or something. Just not getting too fixated on making a specific method work. Sometimes that switch allows you to think of different things.


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.


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 but 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.


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. 

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