MORNING RAIN HAS momentarily washed the grime from Houston Street outside the showroom of Dune, New York City’s up-and-coming furniture design and manufacturing firm. Inside, between slurps of iced coffee at the Dune conference table, president Richard Shemtov (above left) and newly hired design director, Nick Dine (above right), are discussing their plans to make a big splash on the New York City furniture scene. They’re just about to sign a lease on a new 2,500 sq.ft. showroom and design studio space in the TriBeCa district. Their Urburbia line of furniture, which won the Editors Award for “New Designer” at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, is now being manufactured to order, and they’re stirring up plans to expand the line by collaborating with young designers in Europe and the United States. “If you look at other companies in New York, there’s nothing like this,” Dine says. “I think this is really going to kick some major ass.” One refreshing characteristic about Shemtov, 30, and Dine, 35, is that their remarks aren’t measured or even rehearsed, as is often the case with older, more experienced designers and business owners. Their fight talk is fearlessly hurled around, each bold attack interrupting the next in a kind of stereophonic indictment of the stodgy furniture industry.
“There are a few New York showrooms that carry nice products, but I think the ones that get a lot of play really have no competition,” Dine says. “If they were anywhere else in the world they would not be regarded very…
“Most of the furniture in New York is imported from Italy,” Shemtov interrupts. “We don’t knock the Italian furniture. The problem is you have to wait 14 to 20 weeks to get it.”
“Even for Ligne Roset, which is supposedly accessible and designdriven, you have to wait a tremendous amount of time…” Dine adds. “It’s a very staid company,” Shemtov says. “They don’t change their designs often, they don’t innovate…”
And so on. American furniture manufacturers, at least in Shemtov’s and Dine’s eyes, have been lulled into complacency by allowing the contract market, with its giant orders and conservative aesthetics, to call the shots. This leads to marketing-driven manufacturing, which-as Dine puts it-was destroying the American car industry until Chrysler finally woke up and broke the compulsive pattern. Dine and Shemtov say the creative deficit in contract furniture is evident in the standard “cookiecutter” cubicles that predominate American offices. It’s exacerbated the split between domestic and contract furniture design.
Dune, though only two years old with one manufacturing facility in Brooklyn, attempts to correct that division by creating furniture that’s equally suited for the home and office-and by pursuing a design-driven approach to innovation, where quality, not cost, is the bottom line. Dune furniture will be made to order, and the business will be bolstered by revenue from the kind of retail-, restaurant- and bar-interior design and fabrication projects that have sustained Shemtov and Dines respective businesses to date. Eventually, however, Shemtov hopes to be presiding over a company the size of Knoll.
BOTH DINE AND SHEMTOv have benefitted from the legacies of their fathers. Shemtov’s father is a mechanical engineer whose ferocious entrepreneurial drive spurred his son to start a New York City-based furnishings and fixtures manufacturing business, I.D.S., at the tender age of 21. Dine is the youngest son of the renowned American pop artist Jim Dine, a relation which, among other plusses, gave him the opportunity to live rent-free in the center of London for two years, where he honed his design skills after graduating from the Royal College of Art. One of Dines father’s patrons, Peter Palumbo, owned a large apartment on a site scheduled for demolition, and simply handed over the keys on the understanding that Dine vacate the premises when the bulldozers arrived. “I had a studio and a parking space in the center of London,” Dine says. “It was totally incredible. I had to take an elevator and then walk up two flights of stairs and over the catwalks over all of these buildings to get to this apartment. It was like James Bond.”
In 1994, Dine won a commission to redesign a bar and launched his own interior-design firm, Dinersans. While looking for an outfit capable of prototyping fittings for one particular job, he was introduced to Shemtov and his fixtures-manufacturing firm LD.S. Shemtov liked Dines aesthetic approach, and Dine liked Shemtov’s quality control. They discussed the idea of launching a line of original furniture. Shemtov, who had studied interior design at Parsons School of Art, took action. In in 1998, he formed a subsidiary, Dune, and began developing ideas for a collection of pieces for the ideal urban home, which became the Urburbia line. This past August, Dine signed on as design director.
The spirit of the Urburbia collection is youthful and optimistic, capitalizing on the contemporary taste for the dean lines of mid-century modern furniture, though with a more lavish and less utilitarian feel than, say, the classic Eames pieces. The designers’ inspiration comes from organic forms and materials, and exploration and refinement of such post-war Scandinavian and Italian designers as Ame Jacobsen, Hans Wegner and Carlo Mollino.
Urburbia’s prices are definitely way beyond the Ikea set-as much as five times more-but Shemtov has a rationale for this that fits neatly with the minimalist zeitgeist. “Instead of fim-lishing your whole house from Ikea, maybe you buy one or two quality pieces that will last,” he says. “We find that people today would rather own fewer pieces and have a more minimal place with good stuff.”
Whether the young, fashionable furniture shoppers Shemtov has in mind will be willing to fork out up to five times as much as they’re used to paying at Ikea for an Urburbia chair remains to be seen. The hope is that the healthy economy, the rising interest in high-end design and the burgeoning of young design talent out there will drive the demand.
Urburbia’s crowning achievement has been to bring together the work of not two but six up-and-coming designers (Shemtov, Dine, Harry Allen, Jeffrey Bernett, David Khouri and Michael Solis) and still achieve a cohesive whole. Shemtov gave each designer an object and a premise-to create pieces for the limited spaces of a city dwelling-and then unified the results with a distinctive toolbox of materials. Steel, walnut and white lacquer predominate.
Many of the pieces are multifunctional, aesthetically evoking the spirit of the 1960s spy movie while satisfying some of the practical requirements of city living. Harry Allen’s room divider contains a flip-down bed; Dines compact Cyborg sideboard eschews all knobs and handles for push-activated secret drawers and doors; and David Khouri’s half upholstered Bosco chair doubles as a plain dining chair. The piece de resistance is 31-year-old Michael Solis’ ingenious Four Forty coffee table, which features a secret compartment (in walnut) that’s revealed by sliding the two white lacquered wings of the tabletop open; it holds 440 CDs or all the magazines, coffee cups, ashtrays and paraphernalia you can sweep in when an unexpected guest buzzes the building’s intercom.
The fact that six different designers responded so harmoniously to Shemtov’s call clearly reflects their familiarity with the aesthetic challenges of living in tiny digs. It also reflects Shemtov’s strengths as an art director. Although Urburbia isn’t revolutionary, it does demonstrate that American furniture can be well-made and cool-looking, fashionable and utilitarian.
The Dune ethos is perhaps to purvey an aesthetic in which, to paraphrase a now-hackneyed Le Corbusier phrase, “less does more.” It’s tempting to conclude that somehow this is tied to the Internet boom, that the generation embracing smart, miniaturized, multifunctional technology is looking for the same values in its furniture. Solis-who recently moved from New York City to his native stomping grounds in Dallas, where he will continue to contribute to Dune’s line-even speaks the same language. “I like the interaction of objects,” he says. “All of my work plays the same role in that it must be touched, moved and changed.” As an example, his Defender stool for Dune, named after the vintage video game, is hexagonal in shape so that a group of stools can be maneuvered like pixels to form different shapes.
THE MORNING MEETING AT DUNE is curtailed as Shemtov and Dine hurry off to inspect their new premises and negotiate the terms of the lease. They disappear down a side street, amid tweeting cell phones and a “My car or yours?” debate. They have all the marks and manners of Silicon Alley pioneers, except that their product isn’t virtual.