Our friend Matthew Chrislip is a designer who works under the studio name Dowland. He has a small “pop-up shop” happening at the fantastic store C’H’C’M located at 2 Bond Street right now, but it’s not really a pop-up shop… it’s something much more interesting than that. We were psyched about it and his practice in general so we decided to ask him some questions.
RO/LU – We know you through our friends Brian and Elizabeth (Various Projects, Project No. 8, Arratia Beer) and I know you’ve worked on some of our collabs with them. Amazing people. Are you still involved there or does this new work represent a new time for you?
Matthew Chrislip – I’ve been working with Brian and Elizabeth for about three years now. Our first connection was through my independent design work, actually. Four years ago I produced a small collection of quilted neckties that I was making in my apartment, and Brian and Elizabeth carried the ties at Project No. 8. The collection actually started and ended at their Orchard Street store. They placed a small order, those sold out, they placed a second order, those also sold out… And then I was too busy with grad school to keep up with the extremely slow task of quilting individual neckties.
It wasn’t until a few months after I stopped producing the ties that I first met Brian face to face. I asked if he and Elizabeth would consider hiring me for the summer between my two years of grad school, and they generously made room for me in their design practice of two. It turned out to be a great fit. We all think and work very similarly. There always seems to be easy understanding and quick consensus.
One of my first projects as a member of the Various Projects team was our collaboration for your residency at the Walker in 2012. I helped Brian and Elizabeth design the garment for ‘Participation as Performance,’ and I also worked with Brian to design the ‘Partial Instructions’ guide and edit the accompanying video. It was career-affirming to be in the middle of all of that. Prototyping on my sewing machine, shooting the prototypes on my partner and creating illustrations from those photos, even acting as the ‘dresser’ in the video. The project touched on so many of the disciplines that I was already involved with.
Brian and Elizabeth have always been very supportive and encouraging of my independent practice, which has continued the whole time that I’ve worked with them. So yes, I’m still involved with Various Projects, and no, this isn’t really a new direction for me. But I’m about to move from New York to London, so who knows how much of that will change in the coming months. I suspect I’ll always be connected somehow to Brian and Elizabeth.
RO/LU – I guess I always assumed you were a designer but our communications were usually about whatever work was at hand. What is your background and how do you describe yourself, this new project and your future?
I’ve been employed as a designer since I was 16 years old, which makes 17 years now of off-and-on design practice. I started doing web design as a kid in the mid-90s, and from there I pivoted toward general graphic design practice. I studied Graphic Design and French Studies at Brigham Young University, and after a few years of freelancing in New York—mostly as a book designer—I enrolled in the Graphic Design MFA program at Yale. At this point, I don’t really identify as a graphic designer. I just think of myself as a designer. Of, you know, stuff. By now that list of “stuff” includes graphic design, products, clothing, environments, and research. (And a bit of teaching, too, including a class at Parsons that I co-taught with my friend Jessica Svendsen.)
I officially launched my independent studio practice—Dowland—back in 2008, but most of what I’ve done in that time has happened very quietly and slowly. I’m the accidental poster child of the slow movement, I guess. My imminent move from New York has got me scrambling to finish a lot of projects, though, so hopefully this slow burn will quickly grow into something a bit more… consuming.
RO/LU – Before we talk about The Dowland Shop and the upcoming show, can you talk about some of the other work on your site? The blocks!? <3
Yes—the TYLR Blocks. Speaking of slow. I came up with the shapes and concept about six years ago, just after my first nephew was born. His name is Tyler. The blocks are pretty typical of the way that I work. Visually, my work can seem almost obvious. Definitely simple, usually understated, and generally pretty quiet. The forms are meticulous and almost obsessively intentional. And yet, at least to my eye, there’s a natural and matter-of-fact quality to the aesthetic choices. But underneath each project is a strong conceptual framework.
With the TYLR Blocks, the driving motivation was to identify the simplest geometric forms that are open / dynamic / reactive / incomplete. Meaning, not closed / static / inert / complete. I wanted forms that really beg to be manipulated, added to, and subtracted from. Working on a basic cubic grid, I came upon the two shapes that comprise the system. They can teach so much—construction, mathematics, balance, volume, texture, pattern, harmony, and friction—and yet they’re almost completely non-representational, and infinitely scalable. They remind me of a line about Montessori education that David Reinfurt once quoted in an essay: Everything is in everything.
I hope to make them into furniture, too.
Now, finally, after six years, I’m making moves to have the blocks produced. But I’ve yet to figure out the financial side of it, so maybe you’ll see the TYLR Blocks on Kickstarter sometime soon.
And speaking of David Reinfurt: Another recent project of mine is designing and publishing a second draft of my grad school thesis writing (which was never really published itself). To this day, I’m not sure that anyone has read actually read my entire thesis text, so I wanted to force the ideas out into the light and see if they thrive or shrivel. With that goal in mind, I invited David to read and make notes on a few sections of the thesis text, and I’ve typeset his notes alongside my original text. In a few places, I’ve even indulged in some back talk, responding to David’s notes and trying to engage in a more circular dialogue. The process has been a lot of fun. Our conversation starts with my thesis work, which revolved around the design cultures of what I’ve taken to calling “separated individuals” (hermits, monks, and the like), and then spins off into strange and alien territory. Between the two of us, we cover fashion theory, gravitational attraction, methods of diagramming, mathematical rounding, a little Wittgenstein, some George Nakashima… even Carl Sagan and J.Crew. It might be interesting only to me and David, but I’m excited to wrap up this project soon and see if anyone else can stand to read it.
Beyond my own design projects, I’ve recently paired up with my partner, Michael Hall, to create an entity that we call +Partners. We use this moniker to focus on projects relating to the design and preservation of environments and places. Our first project was to lead a (successful!) campaign to win landmark designation for a clock tower near our apartment in Long Island City.
I like to work broadly.
RO/LU – We also love Sweetu and his shop C’H’C’M! How did this Pop-Up shop come about.
Sweetu’s shop shares a space on Bond Street in New York with the Various Projects studio, so he was one of the first people to hear about The Dowland Shop. He was also the second person to make a purchase. Initially, I was just selling online. But one day I started talking with Sweetu about my idea to create a display unit that would function as the physical presence for The Dowland Shop, traveling around other spaces as a pop-up, and he offered to let me put it in C’H’C’M. His shop is sharp and whip smart, but not at all pretentious. It’s a great place for my inaugural pop-up.
RO/LU – OH and BTW! Those amazing weavings that Sweetu’s wife does! they are in the back ground of a couple of these shots. They look spiritually indebted to Agnes Martin’s work? LOVE them. What’s her name again?
Her name is Nicole Patel—and yes, her work is beautiful! It feels a bit conceited of me to insert my pop-up right there in the middle of her work, but she and Sweetu are forgiving. And I think Nicole said she likes my display unit, so maybe I shouldn’t feel too bad.
RO/LU – Is it just the one piece that is for sale? The socks?
The Dowland Shop is framed on a few loose concepts, but the primary idea is to sell only one product at a time, in limited quantities. I found the first product even before I had the idea for the shop. I was visiting my sister and her family (my niece and nephews) in Warsaw over the New Year’s holiday and found the socks in a department store. There’s something so dead-on in their design. I immediately bought a pair for myself and a pair for Brian. The socks are now Edition 1 of the shop.
Another principle behind The Dowland Shop is to create a quiet/loud parallel narrative that runs alongside each product that I sell. The shop is my first retail project, and the only project I’ve undertaken that requires me to play the role of designer-as-curator. It’s not a role that I’m naturally comfortable with. I prefer to design and self-produce every piece from top to bottom. So creating a parallel narrative is, in part, a way for me to stay actively engaged in the creative process.
With the socks, this quiet/loud parallel narrative is Poland’s involvement in the CIA’s program of extraordinary rendition and torture after 9/11. Presumably because they imagined that the US government would reward them for their cooperation, Polish officials allowed the CIA to operate a black site not far from Warsaw. Well, their cooperation was eventually exposed, and Poland was censured by the European Court of Human Rights and forced to pay out $262,000 to two former inmates of the secret prison. Meanwhile, neither the CIA nor any of its officials have been charged for their involvement. The point of including this narrative is to muddy the waters of consumption a bit. What extreme agreements constitute the relationship between the US and Poland, between the US and any country? What is traded, and what is the currency? I want the consumer to wonder whether or not they’re actually supposed to buy what I’m selling.
RO/LU – And finally, and this is important, who was the first collector to acquire this piece?
Someone with impeccable taste, obviously, but maybe also a little bit of an ego? Either way, I’m glad he was so generous in inviting me to do this interview with him!
Thanks so much Matthew!
We’re inspired by the serious/playful, broad/refined, smart/simple, strong/humility present in his work and it gives us another lens with which to think about teaching and learning… and smiling!
In the spirit of David Reinfurt’s quote, what would anything be without everything else?
Please enjoy your time and space.