Matter Made still life featuring Arca, Abal, Discus and Puffball.

Matter Made

In Conversation with Jamie Gray

Following on from the recent launch of American brand Matter Made at SCP, our editor Duncan Riches talked to founder and creative director Jamie Gray. They discuss how the company began, how it has evolved, and what we can expect from it in the future.

Note: DR (Duncan Riches), JG (Jamie Gray).

DR

Can we go right back to the beginning of Matter Made, how did it all start?

JG

Matter opened in 2003 in Brooklyn. It started as a lifestyle store, design was definitely at the fore, but we also sold gifts, books, mostly about architecture, but we also sold some fashion. I sold everything. If I liked a pair of jeans, I would sell them. I had a stack of jeans there at one point. It was really everything, truly lifestyle. If I liked a hand cream, I would sell that. As it grew, things developed. There was always a gallery space out the back, which was always a component of it, which allowed us to show work that wasn’t necessarily anchored to design. There were a range of things that I showed and got behind culturally, in terms of what I thought was relevant at the time. As it grew, design became more and more ‘the thing’. Shortly after opening up in Brooklyn, I found a spot in Manhattan, and when that opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it. When that opened, it became closer to what it is today. A design destination. When I first opened there was a different demographic in Brooklyn, a lot of our audience are from there, but certainly when I opened in Manhattan it became really apparent how disparate my audiences were, in terms of Brooklyn vs Manhattan. Pretty quickly after opening up in Manhattan, which was also when I started to manufacture, Brooklyn became the most obvious thing to cut loose.

Abal mirror by Studio Matter Made
Slon table by Ana Kras and Puffball by Faye Toogood for Matter Made

DR

Was there a eureka moment in regards to manufacturing? It’s quite a commitment to go into it. How did it evolve?

JG

It was actually a really gradual process, I had no idea what I was doing. At some point I knew I wanted to begin manufacturing. There were holes in the market, I saw an opportunity to make and manufacture things that weren’t being made and work with people who I thought were not being acknowledged, whose work was relevant and important at the time. Especially American designers. There weren’t a lot of manufacturing opportunities for American designers at that moment. So, things kind of evolved. It started like a laboratory for manufacturing, which was my education in it.

"I saw an opportunity to make and manufacture things that weren't being made and work with people who I thought were not being acknowledged, whose work was relevant and important at the time. Especially American designers."

Jamie Gray
Clamp stool by Visibility for Matter Made

DR

How did you approach manufacturing, in terms of how and where you would get things made?

JG

As I started manufacturing, the idea was initially that I was an American brand, working with American designers, and we would make everything as local as possible. At the same time I wanted to manufacture challenging work. I didn’t want to make simple, easy work. So when you start looking for the perfect metal spinner, or someone who has a four-axis mill, who can produce these more complex parts, it becomes more and more challenging. So local became national. Now we are looking for manufacturing partners wherever we can in the US, to help us make whatever it is we are making, whether we are casting something in metal, or machining something in metal, or spinning metal, or making wood furniture. We are looking everywhere from the West to East coast. Early on really, everything we made was so expensive to produce, so complex in its form. They were so expensive to make, that meant they were so expensive on the retail side, that there was very little market. Not all of the pieces lent themselves to being editions, or one-off pieces. So it was challenging, it was an education in starting in manufacturing. As things started to really slowly evolve, I started finding production elsewhere, up in Canada, overseas, in Europe and Asia, wherever we could find it. That really opened up a different world, it was like we could really make anything. And at the same time that evolved into the idea that we could be an American brand that works with designers from around the world. This whole idea which began as an American brand, that was hyper-focused on this insular idea of all American designers and manufacturing, became more of an idea of being an American brand with an international vision.

DR

The story is very similar to what happened with SCP in the 80s and 90s, and with a few other British companies in that period. It’s interesting to think about why design scenes have a renaissance, like the scene in New York. Speaking to other NY based designers, a few have mentioned how the Rhode Island Design School was getting something right, that was also feeding into the whole scene.

JG

Yeah, it’s maybe something about stars aligning. You have the perfect school or institution, which is ripe and ready, with great professors, and you have this audience of students that come in, who take in all this information, then start churning out work, and people start to take notice, and it slowly blossoms into this thing in New York, where suddenly all these RISD students are showing work in New York. At the same time a new design fair called Brooklyn Designs pops up, and all these other local designers start showing their work. It was a kind of stars aligned moment.

Arca portable by Philippe Malouin for Matter Made
Arca portable by Philippe Malouin for Matter Made

"This whole idea which began as an American brand, that was hyper-focused on this insular idea of all American designers and manufacturing, became more of an idea of being an American brand with an international vision."

Jamie Gray

DR

From a European perspective, the energy and freshness of the NY design scene over the last two decades has been great to see. It seems like a scene unburdened with the weight of design history. What does the sense look and feel like now?

JG

I think right now we are just trying to come back from a really strange year and a half. Typically, although there is nothing typical about how this all comes together. I have been at this for nearly 20 years, so I know designers and the industry pretty well and am connected with a great many people in the industry. So, things find their way to me, or I find my way to them, through media, friends, recommendations, things come every which way. I work very intuitively, I rarely think ‘oh I should get in touch with this person to make an x, y or z.’ It happens more naturally and organically, which I like. Designers often ask if I have a brief, which I sometimes do, but I am more intrigued by what designers are already making and what they are being inspired by, or what they are working on. Sometimes the brief can take longer and does not flow so well.

Matter Made still life with Arca and Discuss
Matter Made still life with Discus, Oca and Abal

"Designers often ask if I have a brief, which I sometimes do, but I am more intrigued by what designers are already making and what they are being inspired by, or what they are working on."

Jamie Gray

DR

What are you thinking about now and for the future?

JG

I think I have always liked making systems-based products. So continuing to make thoughtful gestures is an imperative. I never want to produce more than is necessary. So I think whenever working on a project I am asking, do we really need this? What does it do differently from anything else out there? Does it offer something fresh, a new perspective? Can it evolve somehow, can it change over time? As we continue to grow and develop products, everything we make we try to work out at the beginning of development, can we build a circular system into this? If over time, lighting elements change, can we replace them with something new? Can we upgrade it? Can we take parts back and replace them with upgradable parts? It’s not something we talk about much, because we haven’t really implemented it, but it is something as we develop products we are always thinking about. Life expectancy or life span of a product, and at what point and when can we start implementing this idea of a circular economy within our infrastructure.

DR

That’s a really nice element that has come to the fore in the high-end part of the industry. The pandemic has seemed to focus people’s minds on quality and longevity.

JG

I think a pervasive part of what I do is the idea of not putting anything out in the world that is future waste, that will find its way into landfill. I think that should be a component of the manufacturing of anything at this point.

Champ stools by Visibility and Oca planters by Sergio Rodrigues for Matter Made

DR

What is the mood on the ground in New York?

JG

I think it’s mixed. A lot of businesses have gone under, a lot are still struggling to stay afloat. I think a lot of home goods based businesses have thrived, because many people were at home. That has definitely kept us afloat. There was a noticeable shift from more commercial projects to more residential projects during this time. I think it is still a mix. I think there are some struggles, but it has also presented opportunities for new businesses to spring up. There is this idea that if you are not able to survive this period, then maybe time is up and the door is open for new creativity and new energy. I’ve always loved watching that in New York. Neighbourhood’s change and shift and the types of businesses that pop up in certain areas ebb and flow, and seeing new creative energy sprout is always good.

"There is this idea, that if you are not able to survive this period, then maybe time is up and the door is open for new creativity and new energy. I've always loved watching that in New York. Neighbourhood's change and shift and the types of businesses that pop up in certain areas ebb and flow, and seeing new creative energy sprout is always good."

Jamie Gray
Jamie Grey, founder of Matter Made

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A big thank you to Jamie Gray and the team at Matter Made for making this content possible.

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