Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Daniel Seung Lee
If you’ve ever studied dialectics — and if you’re interested in architecture and design, I bet you probably have (so I better be careful here) — you’ll find a lot to like with this new Pelle collection.
Of course, the essence of the collection is a dialog between Pelle and Erie Basin. There’s also the dialectic investigation of the past vs the present, the pomo vs the mid-century “mo.” There’s the dialectic between the large scale of the furniture and the small scale of jewelry. Most interestingly, there is the dialectic the collection has with itself: it appears first as a furniture collection and then again as a collection of jewelry that’s is in dialog with the original furniture collection. Talking to Jean and Oliver Pelle, it’s evident that this all just came about through the natural course of the creative process, but when you take a step back, the collection has an intricate, layered genius about it. And when you take a step closer, you see a gorgeous collection of furniture and jewelry that both embodies the past and transcends time.
Pelle is the lighting design studio of designers and former architects Jean and Oliver Pelle. Erie Basin is Russell Whitmore’s antique store and jewelry line. We were only able to speak with the Pelle half of the collaboration, but they certainly had a lot of flattering things to say about Whitmore: “We used to be neighbors with Russell when we were in Red Hook in 2012. We always liked his shop. It was initially just an antique shop, so he curates all kinds of paintings and furniture, sculpture, and jewelry and he’s been focusing more on the jewelry part of it. Always very interesting and curated. In 2014 he started making his own jewelry collection as well. We know him quite well and always came to shop and talked and bought a painting or two. December last year we were trying to figure out what to do for this year’s design week.”
Referring back to the large- vs small-scale binary mentioned above, Pelle — with their background in architecture — brought the large to the conversation, and Whitmore was responsible for the small. According to Oliver, “[Russell] comes from a world where he works with really small things, and he was interested in seeing what happens when he blows it up. Our training is architectural, so for us, it was kind of the opposite.”
More than his expertise with working in miniature, it was Whitmore’s historical sensibility as an enfant terrible antiquarian that Jean and Oliver kept returning to as essential to the collaboration. Jean recollects their time as neighbors in Red Hook: “We had so many conversations at his shop. We’d drop in and always talk about a piece in his shop for hours, and he’d delve into a certain piece whether it was a ring or a snuff box from Austria in the 20s. He was so interested and we were so interested, and we thought, let’s do this. Let’s talk about this some more.” The reason that Whitmore’s historical expertise is so important is because, in their dialog with history, the collaborators needed to simultaneously avoid making straight-up simulations of historical objects and also avoid making a post-modern pastiche of historical signifiers. As Jean puts it, “We were really interested in pushing a modern design sensibility. I don’t think we were interested in simulating designs of the past or creating something antiquated or vintage. We wanted to create something new that felt old or had some of those sensibilities from the past.”
Our work is sometimes different from other contemporaries in that there's a decorative element in it...A lot of other contemporary design studios practice a very minimal modern aesthetic, so I think that we generally are very open to the notion of bringing an extra element or a layering element rather than stripping them down. -Oliver Pelle
While Pelle continually gave props to Whitmore as the historian of the group, Pelle’s uniquely decorative approach was what allowed the collection to break away from contemporary norms. As Oliver describes it, “Our work is sometimes different from other contemporaries in that there’s a decorative element in it…A lot of other contemporary design studios practice a very minimal modern aesthetic, so I think that we generally are very open to the notion of bringing an extra element or a layering element rather than stripping them down.” You can see this clearly in the “Past Presence” collection, but it comes across most sublimely in their delicately beautiful Lure Chandelier, covered with individually hand-crafted paper flowers that need to be touched to be believed.
Jean and Oliver take me through their studio where these unique designs are concocted. It consists of a showroom in the front and a production studio in the back where their product is fabricated and assembled together with the pieces that they have custom made. Adjacent to the production studio, they show me the nook where new designs are dreamed up. The process evidently begins with drawings that become paper models that are then rendered on a computer and then sent out for prototyping. But this description of the design process seems to leave out one of the key agonies that the team labors over, namely their meticulous choice of materials, which they discuss the way 90s music zines used to obsess over bands. The designers are acutely aware of what type of marble is in style and when it’s important to buck the trend. The result is a chromium jade dimmer dial on the Silver Veil Table Lamp that makes an already excellent piece stand out. There’s also the Dark Moon Sconce, in which the brass is made to match the marble elements by way of a specially formulated acid treatment. But it is Oliver’s description of the discussions behind the mahogany Fin Chair that really underscores why the focus on materials was so important to the project: “At first this was upholstered, then it was aluminum; each new material changed the meaning of the piece. When it was upholstered with fabric, it started to look immediately mid-century. playing with materials helped balance it looking like a period piece vs. it looking like a modern interpretation. At some point, it was all blackened steel, and I think that would have read very differently than it reads now when it has elements of Art Deco in it.”
All of these elements — the history, the materiality, and the discourse between Pelle and Erie Basin — add up to a very special collection of furniture and lighting that then transforms into a delightful collection of jewelry.