For this month’s Where I Work, we’re in Brooklyn in the Red Hook neighborhood to visit the office and studio of PELLE Designs. Formed in 2011 by Jean and Oliver Pelle, a design duo who met at the Yale School of Architecture, the pair have made a name for themselves with their bubble cluster light fixtures, stone-shaped glycerin soaps, to their sculptural candle holders, while also staying busy with architectural and interior projects. Both principals bring a solid architecture background to the table which prominently shows in everything they design, even everyday objects. Go for a spin through their waterfront studio to see where this multidisciplinary team makes it all happen.
What is your typical work style?
We like to work mostly in a more regimented way. We try to plan and schedule the work so we can anticipate what will be happening weeks or months ahead of time. We use a shared Google calendar that is open for editing to everyone in the studio and all of our appointments, tasks, and to-do items are listed and color coded into the calendar. We also have a team meeting at the beginning of every week to go over the workload, as well as any office/housekeeping issues that we need to address.
Despite all the planning, there is always a mad rush towards deadlines. We make a lot of decisions closer to the finish line. We have three employees who are the point persons for the light, soap, and office/administration areas of the business. We’ve all learned to be flexible over time and now everyone moves easily between the various studios depending on what deadline is approaching.
What’s your studio environment like?
Our studio is generally well-organized with always a bit of working mess. Jean really likes the idea that everything in the studio has a place where it should go. So we end up with a lot of clear plastic bins that have labels on them. The labels are not always up to date but we try. The label maker is a very satisfying tool. We constantly tinker with the spaces – adding shelves, more lighting, or just reorganizing. We adapt the spaces to the needs of the current project with a soundtrack of NPR and Spotify/Pandora. The soundtrack is mostly democratic with an occasional tendency to minimal techno.
How is your office organized/arranged?
We started out with one skinny and long space in a warehouse building when we first moved to Red Hook. When our company grew and our neighbors moved out of their studio spaces, we leased the two adjacent studios late last year that have the same long, skinny footprint. Right around the time of signing, all three studio spaces flooded with over 4 feet of water from Sandy. After that, we decided to put a lot of energy and thought into the layout of our new studio space. We conjoined the three spaces into a sequence of different rooms with different functions – they are connected by large openings located at the ends of the rooms. The main entrance is into an open office space where we have all of our desks, computers, conference table, pinup boards, cabinets and library.
Adjacent to this space is the lighting studio, where the walls are lined top to bottom with wood shelves for lighting parts and high tables for lighting assembly. Running along the center of the lighting studio are metal pipes onto which the lights hang from and an anti-fatigue mat below. We put in double doors for the movement of huge wood crates that contain our larger light fixtures. At the other end of this space is our shipping station where we package orders that go out. On the opposite side of this space, we have various sized and colored backdrop rolls installed so that we can do product photography.
The third space is through the French doors and is generally our prototyping/workroom. It is been overtaken with soap production for most of this year, but we still make other things in the space such as architectural models, wood candle holders, and other prototyping projects.
On the second floor, we have our PELLE Showroom that has a separate entrance on the other side of the building. Our showroom has on display our entire line of lighting, furniture and accessories. It’s quite detached from our studio space, but we go there regularly for showroom appointments or times when we need a quiet place to talk or sketch.
How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?
We’ve been at this location for about 3-1/2 years now. Jean started out at the Gowanus Studio Space after leaving her architectural job in the summer of 2008. Oliver left his architectural job in very late 2010 and joined Jean to form PELLE in early 2011. Although we’ve been at the same location for close to 4 years, we’ve occupied our newly expanded studio since January 2013.
If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?
We always wish we had more space and more tools. And for peace of mind it would be great if it was above the floodplain.
Is there an office pet?
No. Our daughter showing up after her day at preschool is the comic relief.
How do you record ideas?
These days, Oliver prefers to sketch on trace paper and Jean uses sketchbooks. Trace paper is thin and endless whereas a sketchbook makes for a more organized bound document. Oliver likes to keep the sketches on the table until he can figure out what they show, Jean carries her current sketchbook around with her.
Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?
We just put up a pinup board last week as we are gearing up for new projects, but we just keep our work all around us. We have models or sketches pinned on the walls, or in drawers or somewhere scanned in the computer.
What kind of design objects might you have scattered about the space?
We have some early prototypes hanging around. Here is an old Quadrat study model from 1996!
Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?
We have a lot of small tools around in our lighting studio that we use to build the lights. Along with that are some testing equipment that we have to test our lights for UL conformance. Then there is a shelf full of other woodworking tools that we have collected over the years, like routers, nail guns, sanders and the like that are not being used on a constant basis. We are working on getting a proper wood/metal shop organized, but for now, we use our loading dock for any spraying and woodworking we need to do.
What tool do you most enjoy using in the design process?
Since we actively work on architecture as well as product design, the tools vary.
Oliver: I work best by modeling an idea after an initial sketch. For that I love my Olfa knife.
Jean: My sketchbook and pen. I then take the drawing studies into 3D and I usually model them with physical materials.
Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell me about your tech arsenal/devices.
We recently had our studio networked so that we can all use the same files. We use Dropbox for our file management with a local back-up hard drive. We all have PCs at our desks, one printer/scanner to share, and an iPad for showroom appointments or for meetings outside of the office. We are constantly reaching for our Canon EOS Rebel T3i digital camera to document our work and of course, our handy iPhone cameras.
What design software do you use, and for what?
The software varies depending on the task. If we are working on presentation materials (either for the web or for print) we use the Adobe Suite (Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign). When we work on our architectural projects we use AutoCAD for the more typical drawings we have to prepare, i.e., floor plans and elevations. We also use Rhino for 3D studies in either architectural projects or new product designs. For our lighting, we use primarily SolidWorks to get all the geometries sorted out.
Do you have a favorite piece or collection that you’ve designed?
We currently are really into our Quadrat series in conjunction with the tabletop pieces that go with it. But then again, we recently had a professional photo shoot of our Bubble Chandeliers that made us see them in a brand new light. We really want to start something new so it seems best to not be too nostalgic about our work.
When did you feel like you “made it”? With what design? At what moment/circumstances?
We really appreciate the attention that some of our work has gotten over the past years. Still, we are a very young company – only two and half years at this point – and we certainly don’t think we have ‘made it’. It felt great to have our Dorit Candle Holders and our Soap Stones to be included at the MoMA Design Store this year. Collaborating with West Elm in the last few months for custom holiday Soap Stones was a big learning experience for us as well. We feel there is much more in store for us and we can’t wait to get there.
Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?
We are currently working on an architectural project – a full redesign and renovation of a private residence in New Hope, PA. The bones of the project are the stone ruins of an old cotton mill from the 18th century. During the 1960s, a new house structure was built into the stone walls of the mill. The house was quite unique when it was built and even received a Progressive Architecture Award in 1964. It is on a really incredible site and the house has been a special project for us.
What’s on your desk right now?
Oliver: It is sort of a mess and a bit dirty because there is always dust raining from our ceiling. I don’t really like storing things away but I like keeping them around. When it gets too bad, I clean up. I call it creative procrastination. I am also a coffee mug collector.
Jean: There’s always a pile of paperwork it seems and I am always filing. Other than that, my laptop, camera, and phone are a constant presence as is my mailbox, calculator, and notepads.
Do any of your designs live in your home or personal life?
Often, our designs originate in response to a certain need we have in our apartment. We would look for certain furniture pieces and don’t see what we are looking for. Our Entry console is one of those pieces. The prototype is in our entry hallway and it has been the keeper of all our little things you would need a place for: coins, pens, keys, chargers, batteries, mail etc. The Quadrat originated in a former design challenge but it got developed to its current state because we did not really like most coffee and side tables. We also finally installed a Bubble Chandelier in our own apartment. It is good to see how they behave and how they feel to live with. Our daughter also really likes the Soap Stones. It’s a good way to get her to wash her hands.