Furniture and product designer Brad Ascalon calls himself a rational designer and even though he initially wanted to work in the music industry, a heart to heart with his artistic father during a career setback started him on a path toward industrial design and he’s never looked back. He confesses that while he loves design work, the regular rejection that comes with the territory has sometimes felt like being dumped. He’s currently embroiled in a love/hate relationship with New York City, and his new hobbies include playing bluegrass music and whittling corn cob pipes. Listen:
What is your earliest memory?
For some reason I remember throwing a rock at my uncle Danny when I was a little kid out at my family’s cottage in the Hamptons. I got mad at him for some reason (couldn’t tell you why) and happened to have a rock in my hand. He definitely didn’t let that slide. I’ve calmed down since then. He has too I think.
How do you feel about democratic design?
I think that design on all levels is important and necessary, even at the highest price points. In an ideal world, everyone can afford great design. But cost is a combination of factors that don’t always lean to the benefit of everyone, particularly when the issues of quality and craftsmanship come into play. What I can’t stomach is the idea that knock off designs are somehow validated and considered to be “democratic” because the originals are costlier. That’s an absurd argument that infuriates me. You’ll buy a dozen fake Emeco Navy chairs in the life span of original one.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
Designer Mark Goetz was my furniture professor in graduate school at Pratt. He noticed early on that I hadn’t yet broken out of my in-the-box design thinking. He said “Don’t design a chair. Design an object that you sit on.” Those simple words flipped my way of thinking about design as a whole. That chair no longer had to have four legs, a horizontal seat and a back. It could now be anything I could possibly imagine.
Another professor at Pratt, Bruce Hannah, once told me “If John Deere wants to revolutionize the lawn mower, should they ask someone who’s designed a hundred lawn mowers in the past, or someone who’s never designed a single one?”
Both lessons taught me that there’s tremendous value in naïveté, or at least in not allowing one’s preconceived notions cloud a potential design solution. These words of wisdom shifted how I approach every design problem to this day.
How do you record your ideas?
With the sloppy sketches in a hundred sketchbooks and sheets of loose paper scattered all across my life.
What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?
We’ve been doing a lot of work in the US and in Scandinavia over the past few years, for some great heritage brands. So my love for solid wood and the craftsmanship around the material grows deeper each day...so much so that I recently got a beautiful wood whittling set for my birthday from my wife’s grandmother. When the weather gets nice, you’ll find me whittling blocks of wood on the front porch of my country home.
What book is on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason. The man is brilliant and should have been this country’s President. A great book I recently finished is a sci-fi thriller called Nexus by Ramez Naam. It’s not at all my genre of choice, but someone recommended it, and I couldn’t put it down.
Why is authenticity in design important?
Authentic design has so much meaning embedded in it, so many questions that are answered through a process unique to every designer and manufacturer. It carries all of the context that simply vanishes with the introduction of fake goods. Knock offs not only cheapen the physical object a designer sets out to create, it cheapens that entire experience and every decision that is made along the way for the sake of a market that only sees our craft as superficial and an exercise in styling. What we do is clearly so much more than that.
Favorite restaurant in your city?
That’s always changing. Last year I hit Quality Meats for the first time (with a fellow actor/comedian Clever guest of yours). Blown away...by the restaurant and the company.
What might we find on your desk right now?
On my main desk, a giant pile of sketches and notes for two ongoing furniture collections I’m working on, as well as sketches for a Turkish glass company I’m working with. On my other desks, piles of prototypes I’ve been working on and haven’t put into storage yet.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?
It’s always the one I’m working on at the moment. If it isn’t complete, it’s still malleable. I can change it. Once it’s in the market, it’s set in stone and I tend to second guess certain decisions.
What are the last five songs you listened to?
The Pixies - Monkey Gone to Heaven
Echo and the Bunnymen - The Killing Moon
Tommy Emmanuel - Guitar Boogie
Dire Straits - Sultans of Swing
The Great Void (AKA my brother, Josh Ascalon) - Time One
Check out this song that Brad wrote back in the day with his band, Footsteps:
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