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05.07.2008
The Growth Industry
For young designers trying to launch a practice, learning the business side of things can be tough. Around the city, several design incubators are there to help: providing access to everything from prototyping machines and video editing rooms to marketing advice, these group homes are helping the next generation of artists and creative entrepreneurs.
Teresita and Samuel Cochran's GROW, a network of photovoltaic and wind-generating panels in the shape of climbing ivy, was developed at the Pratt Design Incubator.
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

On Thomson Avenue in Long Island City, a white stone-facade building announces its affiliation with a massive billboard: IDCNY. The International Design Center building was one of the factories erected by Michael Degnon, a contractor known for building the first subway tunnel and the Cape Cod Canal. Following the model of the Bush Terminal Market in Brooklyn, Degnon decided to provide companies with manufacturing facilities that gave full access to transportation: Rail lines went right up to the buildings for easy loading and distribution.

While Degnon’s venture went under by the end of World War I, on a smaller scale, his ideas live on in a design incubator in the IDCNY building called NY Designs. One of several around the city, NY Designs was set up to give creative entrepreneurs support for their businesses, and provides relatively low-cost space, equipment, courses, workshops, and business advice. Their goals may be different—some trying to encourage local employment, others promoting sustainable design—but all result in helping new businesses stay in New York. Unlike Degnon’s model, though, where large-scale manufacturing was the focus, design incubators are directed toward firms of fewer than a dozen employees. The result is a sort of hive of designers, manufacturers, and advertising firms that can cull ideas from each other. While some require a formal entry application to increase the chances of a business succeeding, others are less structured and more geared toward providing artists with needed space and tools.

A project of the CUNY Economic Development Corporation and LaGuardia Community College, which also uses the building for classrooms and offices, NY Designs intends “to help emerging designers grow their business and create design jobs and resources for the design community,” said Jane Tabachnick, director of the program. She pointed out that while tenants have many advantages in renting there, most of the facilities are available to all New York designers. Studios run from 135 to 1,082 square feet for $260 to $1,600 per month. Fourteen of the group’s 19 studios are rented.

The design center’s spacious reception area is furnished with Eames steel-and-plywood cabinets and red Herman Miller sofas, but the industrial feel is very much present in three gargantuan elevators on one end of the floor. (Legend has it that in Degnon’s day, a train car could be rolled into the elevator, lifted to the appropriate floor, filled, lowered, and then hooked up to a train for quick delivery around the country.) On either side of the floor are meeting rooms furnished with tables, chairs, multimedia projectors, and a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard wall. That down-low quality is welcomed by current tenants like Manuel Saez, previously design director for the furniture company Human Scale. When Saez, who won the 2007 iDA Product Designer of the Year award, decided to start his own firm, he chose to rent an office in Long Island City after learning the price and all the amenities for tenants. Plus, he said, the view was a selling point: His tall windows look like a picture postcard of midtown Manhattan. Before moving his studio in January, Saez had to present his business plan to the NY Designs board, who assessed its viability.

Pratt Institute founded a similar organization in 2002, the Pratt Design Incubator. It was a natural fit for the school, with dozens of design students and faculty members on campus. Steven S. Matt was admitted into the program in October 2007 when Pratt’s president, Thomas Shutte, learned that Matt had been traveling the country in search of initiatives meant to encourage sustainability. His business, One Earth, will let users log on to a website that tells them where to find environmentally-friendly groups in their area. Want to recycle print cartridges? Look under “Reduce Toxicity” and the name of a local recycling center appears. “We’re eliminating excuses!” he said. “No one can say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Matt and his incubator colleagues meet every two weeks to talk about their challenges and share knowledge and contacts. There he’s met brother-and-sister team Teresita and Samuel Cochran, the founders of SMIT (Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology). Their first project, GROW, is featured in the recent Design and the Elastic Mind show at the Museum of Modern Art. It consists of flexible solar panels in the shape of ivy leaves made of film photovoltaics. The flapping panels can generate wind and solar energy and, the firm hopes, be integrated into architectural design.

One of Pratt’s first incubator tenants, SMIT used their Brooklyn campus office to develop a prototype while learning the basics of running a creative business. Kelly Talcott, an intellectual property lawyer and mentor in the Pratt program, has helped the Cochrans protect their ideas. “I think the incubator provides a start-up business with a level of guidance and nurturing that is difficult to reproduce out in the wild,” Talcott said. “You get to take advantage of resources that you would otherwise not have.”

While places like Pratt and NY Designs have affiliations with established schools, 3rd Ward in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn was started by two artists, Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt who, after attending the Museum School in Boston, were disconcerted by the obstacles to making art in New York. They decided to come up with a solution of their own, what marketing director Nikki Bagli calls “a one-stop shop for artists.” Renting out the bottom floor of an industrial building—20,000 square feet of space—the two founded 3rd Ward in May 2006 in an attempt to create affordable studio space that would give artists freedom to think big, as Bagli put it.

Todd McCollister, a member for almost two years, finds that all the artists he knows at 3rd Ward have tended to make work on a larger scale than most people who are bound to studios in their apartments. McCollister himself joined 3rd Ward when he was asked to build cabinets for the Daedalus Foundation. Though he took the job to support his work as a sculptor, he soon received other furniture orders and has never been without work since. “I don’t know where else I could’ve started the business with so little risk and capital,” he said.

Angela Starita