What do the objects you own say about you?

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What do the objects you own say about you?
Jill Singer, left, and Monica Khemsurov, founders of the Sight Unseen design website and the authors of “How to Live With Objects,” in Los Angeles, Nov. 9, 2022. Their book proposes a new “manual for living,” Khemsurov said, meant to loosen up the fusty rules of decor. (Maiwenn Raoult/The New York Times)

by Aileen Kwun

NEW YORK, NY.- “You can only afford so much sofa,” Monica Khemsurov said, speaking of her new book, “How to Live With Objects.” The book, by Khemsurov and Jill Singer, was published this month by Clarkson Potter, and it proposes a new “manual for living,” she said, meant to loosen up the fusty rules of decor. Instead of focusing on the idea of a perfectly appointed interior, it steers the conversation toward the personal objects that truly make a home.

But how do you define an object? Khemsurov and Singer, in plainly practical terms, simply refer to objects as physical design works that can easily be collected, and allow for meaningful expression and a bit of permission to indulge.

There are considerations of cost and space, to be sure (particularly if renting in a dense, urban city). One may be able to be a bit more daring at the object scale — unencumbered by the functional needs of a workhorse item such as a dining table. Items such as a vase, a set of flatware, or even a sculptural lamp or chair would pass the object muster, as they carry “a wide variety, both in terms of aesthetics and price points,” Khemsurov said.

As editors of interior design website Sight Unseen, Khemsurov, 43, and Singer, 44, have been both arbiters and archivists of contemporary design. They’ve championed eclectic, experimental work and acted as a divining rod for the social media generation, for whom design has not been a niche interest, but an integral part of a hypervisual, increasingly self-broadcast lifestyle.

The site was founded in 2009, less than a year before the start of Instagram, a platform that Khemsurov said has been “the biggest puzzle piece in what brought design to a wider audience.” Sight Unseen has been noted for identifying big aesthetic trends before they reach a mass cultural moment.

Big crazes from the past several years have included checkerboard patterns, millennial pink, terrazzo floors, all things Memphis, squiggles and Ettore Sottsass Jr., as epitomized in the recent clamoring over the Ultrafragola, called “the most famous mirror on Instagram.”

A rarefied, radical item once considered futuristic in its material technology and even lurid in its wavy, sensual curves — a current reedition of the 1970 Sottsass design, from the original manufacturer, Poltranova, can cost upward of $10,000 — the mirror has now been circulated so widely (at least as an image) that it has become a hallmark of what TikTokers now refer to as “avant-basic” style (internet shorthand for avant-garde gone mainstream).

And where shelter and interior design magazines have long sold the aspirational dream of a manicured home — impeccably styled and furnished by a professional interior designer — Khemsurov and Singer’s focus has often been on the objects, the creative process and the designers.

“When we first started, the concept was to show people a side of design and making that they didn’t necessarily have access to,” Khemsurov said. “The idea was to bring everyone behind the scenes and show them people’s studios and personal collections — sights they couldn’t or wouldn’t normally see, in a literal sense.” During such visits, the objects would invariably become the focus, only partly out of necessity; as a startup, Sight Unseen couldn’t afford to hire photographers to properly shoot a whole room or interior.

“We’ve always been interested in what objects tell about the person who owns them,” Singer said, as well as the thinking and process behind its production, “what the object says about how it came into being, who it was made by and how it shows why the maker chose the materials they did.”

Khemsurov, a contributing editor to T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Singer, who stumbled into design as journalists, met while working as editors at I.D., a trade magazine for the industrial design profession that folded in 2010.

They began Sight Unseen as a two-person blog, writing and shooting their own material. Over the years, it has become a network of contributors and a lifestyle brand encompassing pop-up events, online retail, product and furniture collections as well as brand collaborations. It has also hosted an annual fair of emerging and independent talent, called Offsite, that served as a launchpad for independent design companies such as B.Zippy, Fort Standard, Roll & Hill, Tantuvi and more during its five-year run.

The book isn’t an anthology of Sight Unseen’s 13 years, the authors said, but it continues in the site’s spirit, with helpful sourcing tips, research guides, inspiring homes and entertaining anecdotes from vintage dealers, curators, artists and independent designers.

“I was actually never interested in writing a book,” Khemsurov said. “I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s too much work!’”

A literary agent approached the editors during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, and Khemsurov, hunkered down in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, changed her mind. “I was home alone,” she said. “I don’t have a family, and I was looking at all the objects in my house and thinking, ‘Thanks for keeping me company.’ The objects were telling me little stories, evoking memories.”

The sentiment is shared by many others who are interviewed or quoted in the book. “If you invite a few objects into your house, it’s the same as inviting a few people over,” wrote Matylda Krzykowski, a curator in Berlin who shares a plastic hunk of cheese and a bread-shaped pillow (which she affectionately calls Bready) as among her two favorites. “It has the shape of a character; both of these objects are characters, in a way,” she wrote. “Characters of my interior.”

There is also an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary objects throughout, of personal belongings and creations, and of items culled from the catalogs and listings of Khemsurov and Singer’s favorite retailers, auction houses and galleries. Examples include the Ekstrem, a spidery, ergonomic chair by Norwegian designer Terje Ekstrom in 1984 and recently brought back into production by Varier; a rare Harry Bertoia teapot; and a one-off wooden bed frame with a squiggly headboard that designer Pat Kim made for his own bedroom.

Many of the objects in the book defy conventional notions of beauty or comfort, in favor of an artistic statement, such as an awesomely grotesque “Antipastissuebox,” made by artist Ellen Pong and meticulously draped with sheets of cold cuts, cheese and olives rendered in shiny glazed clay. Also uncomfortable and noteworthy: a long, fuzzy purple bench by Dutch designer Tijmen Smeulders, who conceived it as “some kind of creature.”

In a section titled “Sentimental Objects,” writer and curator Su Wu, 40, shares a tour of the Mexico City home and gallery that she shares with her husband, sculptor Alma Allen, and their two children. The space was converted from a former community theater, and Wu said everything in her home had been given by a friend, or was found with or is reminiscent of a friend.

Wu, a longtime Sight Unseen collaborator, met Khemsurov and Singer online in the early 2010s while running a blog called I’m Revolting, which featured unique and anonymous works of art and craft. “I had been writing this blog, sort of in this act of loneliness, reaching out across the ether,” Wu said. “They found it and took a chance on me, and were generous and kind with me, when they had no reason to be. I really owe my career to them, and I think I’m not the only one.”

Wu noted that people will often “say something is ‘very Sight Unseen,’ and you will know exactly what that person means.”

David Aldaheff, 48, founder of the influential American design gallery Future Perfect, said, “The way I think about Sight Unseen is like an adjective that supports a whole typology of design.” He described it as a style that has “a postmodern influence but is definitely contemporary, very cutting-edge, often emerging talent,” and nods a bit to the glam era of the 1930s and ’70s. Although seismic brands such as Apple and Target have raised a mainstream awareness and interest in design over the past two decades, he added, “having a pretty strong position on contemporary design was still a relatively outlandish concept in 2009.”

Emmanuel Olunkwa, 28, editor-in-chief of Pin-Up magazine, considers the editors to be “compasses of change” with an approach to design that “is more social.” Olunkwa, a self-described member of the “Tumblr generation,” also designs furniture that has been featured in Sight Unseen.

But how do the founders of Sight Unseen define the “Sight Unseen look”?

“It’s really ineffable in some ways, and it’s come back to us, when people say things are ‘so Sight Unseen,’” Singer said. “It can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There is just some weird, undefinable quality that’s hard to explain.”

In Khemsurov’s estimation, “It’s just interesting enough, but not too crazy.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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