Designing the Ephemeral with Jill Singer from Sight Unseen
Sight Unseen started as an online magazine, uncovering what’s new and next in design. They’ve since branched out, producing awesome offline events and brand collaborations. For our 31st Truthtellers and Troublemakers Salon, co-founder and editor-in-chief Jill Singer visited the penthouse to tell us about the many ways design can be used to enrich experiences, create memorable activations, and engage with new audiences all around the world.
Why did you start Sight Unseen?
I’m a journalist by trade, and my partner, Monica, and I were working at a design magazine called ID. We had often discussed what would we do if we left, and had talked about doing a print magazine, which didn’t seem financially feasible. We ended up leaving the magazine at the same time. It was a Friday, and we actually had tickets to go to the Milan Furniture Fair that Monday. So we came up with Sight Unseen over the weekend. We drew up these really, really cheesy business cards, came up with a name, and bought a URL all in the space of about 48 hours.
And why did you stick with design?
What we liked at ID was working with emerging designers, and going and seeing their studios. We grew up with a new generation of designers that was becoming really important at the time. We were all at the same point in our careers and we knew we had this great network we could work with.
How did you start getting into activations?
About six months after we started the website, we started gathering together a bunch of interesting designers and presenting their work in real life. A lot of online entities are now like, "How can I bring my brand to life IRL?" And we were lucky that we figured that out from the beginning — frankly, mostly out of sense of boredom. We had gone to other design weeks all over the world and thought they were much more interesting than what was happening in New York at the time. We wanted to be the ones who brought that sense of excitement to New York City.
How has your focus changed over the years?
At the beginning, we were really interested in the personalities and makers behind the designs: going into their spaces, where they lived, where they worked, figuring out what their inspirations were. When I go back and look at old stories, they're maybe a little more personal. But over the years, with the rise of Instagram and a greater awareness of our brand in general, it’s become more of a place to go for daily inspiration, a place to figure out where the trends are going. We still highlight a lot of emerging designers.
How often do you do events?
Our biggest event is during New York Design Week, and it's taken a LOT of different forms. The business plan has always been no business plan, which is the case with a lot of businesses like ours! It grew organically. We followed our interests and were like, "Oh, let's do this and see if this works." But from the beginning we’ve always had this big showcase in May. I’d say we do events about six to eight times per year.
You mentioned, also, the mixture of collaborations with brands and individual designers.
Yeah, it's always been a mix. Our design week event has always focused on individual design presentations. Sometime brands come to us and want to show and we come up with a concept for them, and sometimes, with designers who can't afford to show, we go out and find a sponsor for them, like Levi’s.
Who else have you worked with?
We've often work with brands to either throw a party or create an installation in their showroom or store. We've also worked with brands like Refinery29 — we have this network of designers, so people often call on us to use those people to bring something unique to their event. So Refinery29 has their really cool 29Rooms event, and we provide the lounge furniture. We go out to a bunch of designers and say, "Hey, can you give us five benches and two tables and chairs," and see what happens from that.
What does it take to be represented by Sight Unseen as a designer?
First and foremost, we’re looking for people who are great designers with an interesting, original point of view. It's become so important to be able to understand how to present yourself and to photograph your work beautifully. And to know that you might not be featured if it’s not. Our curation is very much based on our gut. I mean, we do look at fashion and other mediums to see what’s coming down the pike for design. But a lot of it is just: Is this good? Is this beautiful? Will people like it?
Let’s talk about designing ephemeral spaces: temporary, transitory ones, as opposed to homes and living spaces.
Yes, a design festival is really the epitome of that. There's a big, high-end, luxury furniture fair every year in New York called ICFF. And it’s great for what it is. But as with any trade show, you go in and there's just so much stuff and it's not necessarily presented, even if the objects themselves are cool. So each year we've done Sight Unseen OFFSITE, we've become stricter and stricter about presentation. You have to make a space that people will want to spend time in. Don't just say, "Here's my new stuff," with a concrete floor and white wall. And some of our designers have created incredible environments. One last year, by Eny Lee Parker, was compared to a dentist’s waiting room in heaven, or a David Lynch film set. The fact that the space reminded people of those things meant that it was really provocative and triggered an emotional response, which should be the point of anything like this. If not, then what are people there for? Why do they want to purchase your furniture? They really want to see it in context, to envision it in their own lives.
Do you give ever designers visual references?
We don't ever say it has to make people feel a certain way, but it does have to make them feel something. What kind of response does it trigger in us? Will that translate to the greater population? For instance, Eny Lee is so good at synthesizing trends. She can veer toward millennial pink, but it doesn't make you want to say ugh, no more of this. She's got velvet going on, but none of it's too overwhelming. Some designers have such an amazing sense of proportion and color. And I just love it when they come to us and say things like, "I used this color because it reminds me of my grandma," or something like that. That’s when it's clear they have a real point of view. In designing ephemeral spaces, I think that's the most important thing. You can have a super-stylized space, but if it doesn't have that personal point of view behind it, it feels fake or staged.
Can you give us another example that demonstrates that integrated point of view?
For Collective Design, we showed four emerging designers as part of our showcase. This was interesting because we partnered with a wallpaper brand — because we needed money — and we wanted a sponsor who could actually add something aesthetically to the presentation. So we went to Designtex, a wallpaper company where you can digitally print whatever pattern you want, and they worked with each of the designers to create a wallpaper design that would complement the furniture on view.
You’ve also integrated technology into your spaces in an interesting way…
Yes, this was an interesting project we did. We were approached by Twyla, an online art purveyor based in Austin. They wanted to show at Sight Unseen OFFSITE and we didn't want them to just hang their art on the wall — and they didn't either. So we paired them with this guy Tom Hancocks, who creates interiors in 3D, and we turned those into a virtual-reality experience for this. So you saw the art on the wall and then you put on the VR goggles and you saw the art in an interior that had been designed to reflect the themes of the color palette of the art on view. VR has so many implications for interior design. So much of the hurdle for interior design is the client not being able to visualize what it's going to look like in the end result. And of course the problem right now with VR is money. You have to hire someone to render an interior and it costs a lot. But potentially, as it becomes a bigger and bigger thing, it'll just be what you do, to give your client a walkthrough of what you're envisioning for the space.
Tell us about the Sight Unseen Instagram, and how it took off like crazy.
We were late adopters, so we're lucky that it’s taken off. I don't think we were on until January 2013. We were featured at some point by Instagram, which took us from 15,000 to 50,000 followers. That was around the same time we launched Sight Unseen Offsite in 2014. The combination of being featured and having a new audience, and then creating this physical activation in New York — people were like, "Ohhh, I get what Sight Unseen is now." That really made us take off in terms of brand awareness. Since then, it's been completely organic.
How do you come up with your vision? What are you most inspired by?
It really depends on the project. People often hire Sight Unseen because they're trying to attract our young, design-focused audience. For instance, we were working with this Italian brand. They’d just undergone a brand overhaul and their stuff was much cooler than it used to be, but not everyone knew this yet. We chose a few young design brands with super-poppy, colorful stuff that matched the brand's offerings and brought in a styling team to make it all look amazing, and that’s how it worked for that brand.
Do you have designers in every country or in every continent?
We're starting to. We’re the least plugged into Asia; that' a hard nut to crack for us. But Australia's becoming a huge market for us. And South America. There are more and more designers coming out of Brazil.
What was the idea behind Sight Unseen Offsite?
We've been doing design events from the beginning, they used to be little interventions in a single neighborhood, in Noho. We had a hub space where we put a couple different pop-up shops and curated exhibitions, and then we went into different stores in the neighborhood. Sight Unseen Offsite was basically us getting tired of that model and wanting to put everything into one space and to just have this amazing immersive experience. Now we’re turning away from that because we're tired of running a trade show. The thing we liked about Noho was the weird sense of discovery, like you were on a fun scavenger hunt. I think people are looking to us to create a different experience. So even though the trade show was successful, we're going to pivot into something different. We're hopefully going to work with Opening Ceremony, and places like Totokaelo, to present a lot of smaller shows all over lower Manhattan.
What are some of your favorite trends right now?
I think it's important for everything to be in context. The so-called Millennial aesthetic right now is interesting and pretty. But anything like that is more interesting when it's clear that someone has an awareness of what's come before it. I think it's important to educate yourself about design history no matter what direction you're going. Pink is a beautiful color; it's a great neutral. But we don't need to see that many more photoshoots with pink backgrounds. We're constantly looking for the next interesting color.
Do you find all these trends exhausting?
Yes. The life cycle of trends has become crazy, crazy fast. And I think it's primarily due to fashion, how fast fashion is at this point. Mustard has already practically gone through the entire lifecycle! And it just showed up a year ago.
Words by Jill Singer and The Editors. All photos courtesy of Sight Unseen.