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Nouveau Brooklyn

A creative wave is rolling west from an unexpected place. Young eco-friendly designers are leading a movement that feels more California than East Coast.

March 02, 2006|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE fashionably coiffed woman of a certain age stares curiously at sawdust-covered Bart Bettencourt and Carlos Salgado as they have their picture taken on striped benches on North 6th Street.

"Oh, are you in a band?" she inquires.

Not quite. Bettencourt and Salgado do call themselves Scrapile, a worthy rocker name, but this duo makes recycled wood furniture, not music. In the low-rent, semi-industrial neighborhood on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, scrappy young architects and crafts artisans are forging a 21st century design movement.

Summoning the example of Charles and Ray Eames, who led a midcentury design revolution in Southern California 50 years ago, the Williamsburg set -- some self-taught, some educated at New York art academies such as Parsons and Pratt, and some formerly apprenticed to industrial designer Karim Rashid -- are form-follows-function modernists.

What binds them is design that is ecologically sensitive and reflects the possibilities of the California lifestyle. Turning their back on Manhattan to follow design developments in Europe and the West Coast, they share a cheeky wit summed up by the name of the neighborhood shop and hangout that shows their work: the Future Perfect.

For L.A.'s cutting-edge home decor retailers such as Show in Los Feliz, Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood has become the most important resource in New York for bold new designs. Show owner Brad Cook estimates that nearly a third of his merchandise comes from the emerging design destination.

"I go to New York specifically to meet with Brooklyn designers," says Laser Rosenberg of L.A.'s Homework, which has sold Williamsburg-based architect Matt Gagnon's light fixtures to clients here and abroad since 1999. "That's where artists can afford to live now and it's where the freshest designs -- furniture that is pared down but sophisticated and thought-provoking -- are coming from."

Rosenberg's L.A. clients, many of them transplanted New Yorkers, are attracted to the Brooklyn designs for their minimalist forms and interesting materials. They work equally well in Hollywood Hills Case Study homes and converted old industrial spaces in downtown L.A., Rosenberg says, and the fact that many pieces are handmade in limited quantities adds exclusivity to bragging rights.

Brooklyn designer Alex Valich, a partner with wife Christine Warren in redstr/collective, feels a kinship with Angelenos. "Our ideal consumer is someone young in Hollywood who wants something new and individual," he says. "The nature of our businesses is the same; we are all looking for the next interesting project. Brooklyn designers could easily create beautiful things that make tons of money. We've already done that for other people."

Some, such as 32-year-old Ruby Metzner of hivemindesign, serve two masters. In addition to creating furniture and interiors with partner Sather Duke, 28, Metzner has a full-time position working on the Essential Home collection for Kmart, which also employs two former hivemindesign staffers.

"I am learning things that can't be taught in school or as an underground designer," Metzner says of her corporate experience.

As flattering as it might be to design for the same national chain as Martha Stewart, she adds, "I started worrying that I would be blacklisted from the Williamsburg scene for betraying the cause and selling out."

Metzner has reason to take pause. "Brooklyn is an alternative to the commercial marketplaces in New York City," Rosenberg says. "They're there to do business but it feels like a community."

It is more than a community, Metzner says.

"It's an exciting, closely connected social scene," she says of the gallery openings, poker games, studio parties and gathering at Zablozki's Bar on the first Friday of every month. "People work hard and socialize hard, but that sparks a passion that becomes part of whatever you design."

Dave Alhadeff, the 31-year-old owner of the Future Perfect, might be considered the matchmaker between art and commerce in Williamsburg, showcasing dozens of Brooklyn designers. His brick-walled store, which opened in 2003, is a champion of local design, creating a growing list of success stories: Jason Miller, whose porcelain stag horn pendant lights are a fixture at Twentieth in Los Angeles and kick-started the craze for antler chandeliers; and Sarah Cihat, the designer of Fifty-Cents dishware, colorful silhouettes glazed onto thrift store plates.

"It all started when David opened shop," Valich says. "Before that, we were all working in our little pods all over Williamsburg. The Future Perfect gave us a place to show and to go."

Valich, a first-generation Croatian, raised in Brooklyn and schooled in graphic design, first met Los Angeles shopkeeper Cook at the Future Perfect. They struck up a conversation, and soon the Spindarella, an updated early American pedestal table made from recycled paper, was in the front window of Cook's Vermont Avenue store.

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