Anna Carnick chats with the Brooklyn design trio.

Souda Pops!

By Anna Carnick

Named for the Japanese word for “oh yeah,” Brooklyn-based design studio Souda (pronounced soh-duh) is the collaborative project of Parsons grads Isaac Friedman-Heiman, Shaun Kasperbauer, and Luft Tanaka. The trio launched their collective just months after graduating, in 2012. Fast forward less than two years, and Souda has already made a name for itself thanks to unexpected, process-driven designs like the texturized Kawa series, a collection of handmade porcelain bowls, vases, and lighting slip cast in reusable leather molds.

Working from a former nightclub-turned-studio in Bushwick (when they arrived, the only things left “were old, shade-less sconces placed every ten feet with red light bulbs and remnants of a vinyl couch that we hastily removed”), Souda does much of its own production in-house, including woodwork and ceramics. The studio also collaborates with local machinists, woodworkers, and metal shops on various components. The resulting lineup is elegantly quirky, warmly intimate, and, as Souda notes, “made to last—both physically and aesthetically.”

We sat down with Souda to learn more about their backgrounds, their process, what it’s like to be a young studio working in New York right now, and the trio’s plans for the coming year.

Anna Carnick: What should people know about Souda?

Shaun Kasperbauer: Souda is a manufacturing company that makes furniture, lighting, and home décor. Our line combines objects that are made by hand and pieces that are industrially produced. We love to work with a variety of materials— sometimes in quite unorthodox ways. The resulting products are communicative, tactile, and well engineered.

AC: How did you three meet?

Luft Tanaka: We met in the product design department at Parsons. There were only about 60 students in our year, so everyone in our department became relatively well acquainted, and we had a number of classes and critiques together. There was a nice collaborative spirit among all our classmates. All the students really rooted for each other to do well.

AC: How exactly did you begin working together?

Isaac Friedman-Heiman: In the spring of 2012, during our senior year, we started discussing the prospect of renting a commercial space together. At the time, we each had a growing collection of tools at our apartments, and living and working in the same spaces was pretty hectic; there was a lot of sawdust in our living rooms. We ended up finding a 1,500-square-foot studio on Craigslist. We got the keys to the space two weeks after graduating, and spent the next six months renovating, developing a small collection of objects, and laying out a rough business model.

We didn’t necessarily plan to [form a company] when we moved into the space, but within the first six months, we found that we all worked really well together. We also realized that by working collaboratively, there was a lot more accountability and we were able to work off each other’s strengths. It felt like a natural fit.

AC: What inspires you as a trio? As individuals?

We like the fact that we come at projects from different perspectives. We think it makes the products we release infinitely better.

IFH: We tend to find inspiration all over the place. One personality trait that we all have in common is our curiosity. We will walk into a space that we’ve never been in and look at every thing on every shelf. When we walk out, one of us will comment on having really liked a light fixture or some little tchotchke, and we’ll have all noticed the item and discuss the piece for the entire train ride back to our apartments.

More specifically, on occasion, we also take group field trips to other shops and studios. We find it really inspirational to see how other people design and make things—especially when it’s a really different type of company from Souda. Our most recent field trip was to the Steinway Piano Factory in Queens. They have a guided tour of their production facility. Luft scheduled a tour for the three of us months in advance. We were by far the youngest people on the tour, but among the most excited.

AC: Souda has already earned a reputation for experimenting with production methods, such as leather and spandex molded pieces. What can you tell us about this aspect of your collective?

IFH: We started the company with a lot of enthusiasm, great educations, and very limited resources when compared to many of the companies we exhibit alongside. In many ways, our lack of capital really encouraged us to play around with materials and processes that were quite unusual. I think as we continue to grow, we hope to build upon this and start more actively combining more machine- and hand-made parts, objects, etc. We are relatively modern aesthetically, but we don’t think that modern has to mean devoid of anything produced by hand. We joke that our aesthetic is a bit “hippy spaceship.”

Kawa Pendant Series Courtesy of Souda

AC: How would you describe your working collaboration?

SK: We tend to wear many hats. Isaac manages the majority of the in-house production and studio organization and designs our exhibition displays. Luft manages the production of our ceramics and does a lot of our sourcing and product development, along with graphics. I focus on the marketing and business development and help with product development and engineering. At different points, though, we all tend to do each other’s jobs.  We all have similar skill sets, but different strengths and weaknesses. We generally try to allow each other to focus on the aspects of the business that we most enjoy and that we are good at. It’s taken some time to figure out, but finding our individual roles has really started to work itself out.

AC: What’s most important to you as designers at this point in your careers?

IFH: We all want to make sure that Souda is able to grow and flourish, but we’d like to also give ourselves room to grow individually as designers. We don’t think it’s critical that the three of us become more-or-less one person with regards to design. We like the fact that we come at projects from different perspectives. We think it makes the products we release infinitely better when we all agree despite having our own opinions.

AC: How would you describe the New York design scene at this moment in time?

LT: We are all pretty excited about New York design right now. There seems to be a lot of momentum. America hasn’t been known as much of a hotbed of design for furniture and décor since the midcentury, with a few exceptions. It seems like the American market is becoming increasingly design savvy and American design has started to attract an increasingly international audience.

The combination of these things makes the market feel huge… and the spirit of collaboration is really apparent as a result.

AC: What has your particular experience as a young studio working in New York been like so far?

Our aesthetic is a bit hippy spaceship.

SK: NYC is an amazing place to work. The amount of networking opportunities and the number of talented people here is vast. It’s really helpful to be in the midst of the collective momentum and the collaborative spirit of the design scene here.

In the short period that we have been in the design business, we’ve made friends with a lot of talented people. It’s been so great to see how much everyone encourages and helps one another. We’ll constantly talk about new products, opportunities, marketing strategies, business models, etc. with other designers who are both our competitors and our friends. We’ve had other designers directly introduce us to retailers we now work with and interior designers who now spec our products.

The city is, of course, an expensive place to operate a business, but along with that comes access to a large audience. While there would be exciting aspects of producing pieces that are much more democratic in terms of their price points, it would be difficult to make it work with the overhead that comes with being a small business in New York City.

Kawa Vessel © Courtney Reagor

In regard to how this affects Souda, our present products are relatively limited in size. We work in a studio on the second floor (spaces with loading docks are pricey!), which means that our pieces are all relatively small and able to be somewhat easily shipped. It doesn’t seem that unusual for a new business to have to work within limitations, but NYC certainly comes with its own specific set of challenges.

AC: Goals for the coming year?

SK: 2014 has already been a busy year for us, and, with any luck, that will continue. In the next six months, we are planning to release several new products. We felt there were a few things missing from our present line as a result of us starting out right out of school, with limited resources. We are looking forward to filling in some of the gaps and we’re super excited about the pieces we are planning to release. We have a lot of work yet to do, so it will be a busy next few months, but I think it should be fun to see how everything unfolds.

AC: Any dream projects that you can share with us?

IFH: The concept of home is relatively strong for all of us, so we would each like the chance to design our own. It’s hard not be transient in NYC—especially when you’re young and apartments here get expensive fast. Having the chance to reside in one location for a much longer duration and really get the chance to explore designing the space—that would be a (short-term) dream project for each of us.

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.