The Collaborative Studio Reimagining Lighting Design
“Choices are very much our thing,” says Nick Ozemba, the co-founder, with Felicia Hung, of the Brooklyn-based lighting design studio In Common With. The five-year-old brand’s ethos is evident in its 2,500-square-foot production room, part of its newly expanded home near Gowanus Canal. Lining the walls are hundreds of fixture components in an array of elemental shapes and materials: There are goblet- and hat-shaped shades bearing the imprint of hand-molded clay; towering, weighty conical bases with voluptuous glazed surfaces; and pieces with a more polished, machine-made appearance. Light models named after their basic forms — Disc, Dome, Pyramid — recur in pendant, table and floor variations, with a plethora of possibilities in material, finish and wiring. The overall effect is of both precision and abundance.
Hung and Ozemba, both 31, met as students at Rhode Island School of Design, and after graduating moved to New York where they gained experience designing products and interiors, respectively, at established firms. Working on larger contract projects, Ozemba realized how challenging it was to find special design pieces within budget, especially if larger quantities were required. Once the two friends were ready to launch a business together (something Ozemba says “was always going to happen”), the decision of what type of product to make was almost incidental; their primary goal was to create a scalable yet flexible production system — and that lent itself well to lighting. “We had to find a way to structure the manufacturing so we could produce at a higher quantity but assemble each item to order,” Ozemba says. “Everything had to be reproducible but completely distinct every single time.”
True to its name, the studio has been a communitarian endeavor from day one. “We started with the idea of collaborating with others; it’s what sets us apart,” Hung says. Each collection is created in conjunction with skilled partners, from metalsmiths and ceramists to glassblowers and engineers. “Our philosophy is that the production process informs the product. We never say, ‘this is what we need, please make it for us,’” Ozemba adds. “Instead, we have a general idea, ask our partners, ‘How would you make this?’ and work with them to realize it.” The end product emerges from patient research, prototype development and observation. “We spend hours in our vendors’ workshops,” Hung explains. “We think and design based on how things are made, what the material wants to be and how we can push that into different ways to create a product.”
This thoughtful approach has paid off: In just over four years, In Common With’s lights have become a favorite of some of the most in-demand interior designers of the moment, including Giancarlo Valle and Ariel Ashe and Reinaldo Leandro of Ashe Leandro. The studio’s star product, the Up Down sconce — available in more than 1,000 permutations — can be found in buzz-worthy restaurants and hotels from Ibiza to Australia. And last week, In Common With marked a double milestone: the launch of its latest collection, Flora, and the addition of precious space for its design, sales and production staff of 13. The new workshop is one of two separate units the studio now occupies in a century-old brick building under the Smith-Ninth Street elevated subway tracks. Half of the 1,000-square-foot space that once housed In Common With’s entire operation has been turned into the brand’s first showroom, now open by appointment.
During a recent visit, the founders came across as both down to earth and coyly proud of what they’ve accomplished. While Hung, the pair’s slightly more reserved half, laid out the brand’s strategy, Ozemba, with a laugh, described In Common With’s penchant for manifold combinations as “very Missy Elliott — put your thing down, flip it and reverse it.” He added, “it is important to us that people can make our fixtures their own.” But despite their aim to break barriers through scale, Ozemba and Hung are aware that accessibility is relative; the brand’s simple sconces start at $375 but more elaborate designs can cost several times that, in part because of the manual labor involved.
The 20 pieces in the Flora line fall into the second category; they represent a new leap for the studio, a shift from its signature earthy, utilitarian aesthetic to something more exuberant. The collection was created with the New York-based French American designer Sophie Lou Jacobsen, who is known for her joyful, bendy carafes, vases and stemware made in colorful glass. “There was a lot of overlap in our histories, our influences and the mind-set with which we approach things,” Ozemba says. Where previous collections skewed minimal, Flora is whimsical, its glass forms evoking flowers in some instances, skirts or jellyfish in others; one unapologetically romantic chandelier is made up of curved brass arms capped with small shades that resemble inverted tulips. The surprising shapes were informed by fazzoletto, a technique developed in second-century Rome and revived by the Italian glass masters Paolo Venini and Fulvio Bianconi in the 1940s (the artist Dale Chihuly later popularized it stateside). Fazzoletto means “handkerchief” — finished products resemble draped fabric — and involves spinning a cuplike form in high heat before allowing gravity to set the distinctive flared edges into place.
Flora may be an aesthetic outlier for the designers, but its genesis hints at the studio’s ongoing evolution, according to Ozemba. “Our earlier work was about using industrial techniques to do something new; now we’re contemporizing an age-old craft” — a relevant pursuit at a time when glassmaking’s future as an art form is uncertain. The duo is also planning to expand into furniture. “More and more we’re thinking about the type of space that inspires us and how we can insert what we make back into that context,” Ozemba says.The showroom offers a glimpse of this vision: The designers have appointed a staged living area with a mix of contemporary and vintage items in shades of brown, including a Mario Bellini sofa and a Milo Baughman coffee table. It’s simultaneously rich and relaxed, timeless and of its time — perfectly calibrated to let the lighting shine.