10 Questions with Workstead
As one of the most relevant American interior design studios today, Workstead is powered by a constantly growing client list and a tireless expansion of their creative horizons. Stefanie Brechbuehler, Robert Andrew Highsmith, and Ryan Mahoney excel at creating spaces that feel effortlessly sophisticated. Their successful formula takes a mix of historic aesthetics and gently modernises them, adding muted but rich colours, textures, and natural materials, with an eye to craftsmanship and the smallest of details.
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How did it all begin for Workstead? How did you all meet?
Brechbuehler: Ryan and I actually met on the first day of architecture school. We both went to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). We had orientation and literally the first person I noticed was Ryan, leaning against the column with his green sneakers. And so we ended up meeting that day and were basically attached from then on. Robert was actually two years behind us, so we did not really know him. And it was not until my thesis year that we ran into each other at a party, where we spoke to each other for the first time.
How did this all lead to the starting of your own business? When did you decide that you wanted to work with each other?
Highsmith: Well, I graduated in 2008 and they graduated in 2006. Ryan went back to Connecticut, the place where he spent part of his time growing up, and worked with an architecture Studio. Stefanie ended up having a job in Utah, working for an architect and professor at the university in Springdale. And when I graduated, I moved to New York—because Stefanie moved there, I guess. We sort of started dating during grad school. Stefanie ended up moving from Utah to New York for her career. She always had in her mind that she wanted to start her own company. Stefanie worked for Ginsberg, Roman and Williams when she decided to start Workstead. And because I was in New York and freelancing, we started the company together. Then Ryan came and joined six months later. And then we started our first residential projects.
The interior design was the first branch of the business then?
Highsmith: Yes. Our first project was published in Dwell so we thought, "Oh there is something here." So we started with smaller residential projects. Simultaneous to that I was collecting vintage lighting and was really interested in antiques. So we started repurposing old light fixtures and eventually making our own designs and selling those to our interior-design clients. Probably a year or two into officially starting the studio we had developed our first, what I would call, design products in terms of lighting. We were really able to replicate and reproduce and sell not only to our own clients but also other interior designers.
The two sides of the company have grown in different ways. The interior side has really grown to do more commercial work. We just finished our third hotel project; we are doing a coffee shop right now. We have done a bakery. We are doing a wine bar. We have done a hair salon. It's a very diverse group of projects. The products are a little bit more straightforward; we have 21 lamps in our collection now.
How did you figure out your style or what you are?
Highsmith: I feel like we are still figuring it out.
Brechbuehler: I do not think we have figured it out.
Highsmith: I think through our education and what we were taught about the process of design, we discovered that we had to be intuitive with things. And also from the context of being in Brooklyn. And having a lot of manufacturers and fabricators at our fingertips.
Brechbuehler: Being in Brooklyn, during that time when the recession began, they called it the makers' movement. And we were, without knowing it, part of that whole scene of people. We were out in Brooklyn, some were being laid off, some had left, some had just graduated. People were opening up little studios, and being scrappy and crafty, and meeting up with their fellow RISD or other schoolmates and kind of figuring out different parts of design. And that was really a cool place to be and that really inspired us. So the background of Brooklyn is quite important for our roots and starts. Especially with the makers and craftsmen.
How did you find them? Were they friends of yours?
Brechbuehler: We definitely team up with a lot of people that we know through our own network of people. Either from school or from the neighborhood or whatever. It is a small community here in New York that knows each other. And then we also reach out to new people. We met this guy Markus Bartenschlager, a fellow German guy, and he did the first kitchen we ever designed, The Sliding Kitchen in Brooklyn. The kitchens he does for us are just incredible.
Highsmith: With a lot of these people we go to them early on during the design process and it is really a conversation. About how to create something together, rather than just, you know, emailing someone a set of drawings and say “Make it for us.”
Mahoney: I don't think I design work that is prescriptive. I think that we do have a point of view, but a lot of it is evolving and a lot of it is based on the context and based on the project itself. Where it is located, the people we meet, the people we work with. I think we really try and take all of those things in and filter them through our own sensibilities.
Why do you think past times can still speak to us? Is the past something that is quite important and influential?
Brechbuehler: I think very much so. We are renovating a house from the 1950s in Charleston right now. When it was built, it was very similar to a Brooklyn brownstone but is more grand; it's quite huge. So there are a lot of old moldings and parts left over that are tied to it. So we try to restore a lot of original parts, and the things we are layering in are inspired by the designs present in that time and area. We are inventing it with our own take on it. In this project, we are doing a giant glass and wood vitrine that is part of the kitchen, and it is almost directly influenced by this kind of old English vitrine that came over to Charleston from England. We are very inspired by things of the past, for sure. But we would never replicate that; the past is just for inspiration.
Robert, you described earlier that your school has influenced the way you see things. Does your personal interest in vintage furniture come from there?
Highsmith: I mean we all probably have different influences. I think there is a common thing that happened at RISD. We were all there before the dawn of the hyper-digital, hyper-visualized world, so we were still making little models with chipboard, and we were doing lots of really experimental things with materials. So I think that probably influences our desire to have a more tactile quality to the work that we are doing.
Personally, I can point to specific things in my early life that created that sense for me. My grandfather was an architect and my grandmother was a painter. They lived in this beautiful modern house, but it was all made of stone and glass, and it was very warm and very inviting. They chain-smoked and they had a fire lit probably every time I walked in there. They had an amazing collection of Danish midcentury furniture in the middle of nowhere in Eastern North Carolina. So I'm personally trying to recreate that when possible—that sense of home, that I can't find in most rather sterile spaces.
Wood is very present in all of your interiors. Why is that?
Wood is warm. To me, warmth is one of the main reasons for using wood. That and the fact that is a live material, that has a richness to it. If you look at the rings in a tree trunk, you can actually see influences of what has happened that year to the tree. So to us, it is almost like embedding these little stories in the pieces that we are making that really excites us.
Highsmith: It is just the dialogue between the material qualities and this interesting utility, and how pushing those two things together, like a more minimal approach to how these should function versus a more luxurious application of the material. I think that tension is very interesting to us.
Mahoney: We are interested in how the materials we use change over time and develop a patina.
Do you think there is something nostalgic coming up in interior design?
Mahoney: I think it is about appreciating things about the past, but I always feel like we have to look towards the future. I do not feel like we are nostalgic in the sense that is purely about nostalgia. I feel like we are trying to look forward. It is important to look forward. I think there are a lot of reasons culturally why we are taking a nod from the past. But you always have to keep your eyes ahead and I think we try and do that.
A person who starts creating his or her own space is often completely overwhelmed. What do you think is one of the first things they should look at in a room? Do you have any advice for them?
Brechbuehler: Organize. Seriously. I could go into someone’s house right now and do a lot by just organizing their things. We also ask our clients lots of questions like “Are you messy? Are you clean? Do you have a nice bunch of books?"—because these things are important to think about to find the right solution.
Mahoney: I would say the other recommendation is lighting. Lighting can transform a space. You know, we always have sconces, floor lamps, table lamps, ambient light. I think it changes how you perceive space.
Text by Marius Thies, Images by Matthew Williams