Unless you know where to look, you may miss the action in one of New York's most dynamic design districts
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Albert Hadley has visited DUMBO.
It may be hard to picture the grand old man of interior design—who divides his time between New York's Upper East Side and Southport, Connecticut—in the Brooklyn warehouse district Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. But try. "I found it exciting. I was fascinated by the idea of an area blossoming with creative people," says Hadley, the 82-year-old former partner of Sister Parish. Hadley is designing a Connecticut house with a series of torchères by metal artist Carol Bruns, so he arranged to visit her studio at 61 Pearl Street, the kind of building where bicycles are chained to radiators and tenants hang up signs complaining about garbage in the hallways.
Naturally, Hadley phoned ahead. Unlike other design districts, which announce their intentions at street level, DUMBO operates behind closed doors. If you show up without an appointment, you may find yourself disappointed. Indeed, it's easy to wander the cobblestone streets, taking in the Manhattan skyline but little else. (The Empire State Building is perfectly framed by the Manhattan Bridge's east anchorage. So what if you have to stand in the middle of Washington Street for just the right angle?) Though developer David Walentas and his son, Jed, have been selling luxury condos and lofts in the neighborhood for more than a decade, DUMBO still feels at loose ends.
True, the new ABC Carpet & Home at 20 Jay Street will up the ante, luring shoppers with Mitchell Gold sofas and vintage Arne Jacobson chairs. And the DUMBO General Store, recently moved to 111 Front Street, could be the hippest eatery in New York: an art-supply shop with a couple of communal tables where delicious soups and sandwiches are served along with paint and brushes. But most of those brushes disappear into buildings without lobby directories or working intercoms. Be sure to bring a cell phone.
Vito Acconci—the performance artist turned architect, now designing products for Alessi—arrived here 25 years ago. Ever since, DUMBO's large industrial spaces and anything-goes attitude about what happens in them have been attracting intrepid creators. Abigail Shachat, a Manhattan interior designer who has commissioned various pieces from Bruns, points out DUMBO's appeal to artisans whose work may be too noisy or dangerous for more established districts. The most common sign on DUMBO doorways is "Knock Loud," in deference to the power tools invariably screeching on the other side.
Della Valle + Bernheimer Design has been turning out award-winning architecture from a Jay Street suite since 1996. Christopher Coleman moved his interior design business to 70 Washington Street three years ago. "It's like being in a very creative college dormitory," he says. "On my floor there's a cabinetmaker we use. On the floor above us, there's a drapery workroom we love. There's a metal shop across the street and a woman who makes glass curtains. It's an endless supply of new sources and talent."
Says Christopher Jewett, who manages a high-end carpentry shop as well as painting and designing furniture, "Everyone in DUMBO is cross training." Indeed, it's hard to find anyone who's settled on a single career. With rents still relatively low for New York, there's no hurry to declare a major. So Bruns, who specializes in bronze sculpture besides being a painter, has done furniture for Alan Tanksley, Robert Couturier, and Jed Johnson Associates, forged lanterns for Thierry Despont, and clad walls in nickel for Vicente Wolf. Ethan Ames, a furniture maker who designs high-end roof decks, too, is busy turning out tables and benches for interior designer Diana Viñoly to install in a Manhattan town house. Ames shares space with Mike Conlon, who builds tables of welded metal, and three other designers; Ames and Conlon occasionally collaborate on admirable spec pieces.
Most of those pieces end up on the other side of the East River. For years, the neighborhood's motto could have been: "DUMBO makes. Manhattan takes." But more and more, the designers commissioning pieces are not only across the river but also down the corridor. Craig Konyk, an architect and exhibition designer with a sleek space at 61 Pearl Street, is hoping to collaborate with lighting designer David Weeks; the two know each other from the elevator. Then there's Coleman, who has a number of Brooklyn residential projects in the works.
Last year, Coleman turned part of his 2,000 square feet into a showroom, selling pieces he designed or restored. He says he's been "amazed by the amount of traffic." Still, everyone in DUMBO knows there's room for improvement, though it's the absence of a Starbucks that makes locals proud. Konyk, who arrived in 1994, says, "It's like SoHo in about 1982. DUMBO has the right feeling, right now."
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