Powers of Two: Detroit Designers Aratani + Fay on Furniture, Function and the Art of Objects
Imagine the surface of a clock that subtly indents where there should be shameless numerals, the cushion of a chair comprised of foam that twists into plushy shape, a lamp without a lampshade inside a floating cloud of wire—a world where objects become more whimsical, less didactic display.
If this all sounds a bit trippy, imagine finding it in suburban Detroit—within a blanched-white warehouse in Pontiac, Michigan. Here, the designs of Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay are born, get fed and, when their behavior calls for it, get put in a calm timeout for a bit. Here is where a new way of sitting and sleeping are reimagined day after day.
“I came to realize that I wanted to explore my own design,” says Aratani, who originally hails from Chiba, a prefecture of Tokyo, “rather than any company’s. I like to make more artful objects, rather than machine-made editions.” After working for an industrial office-furniture firm called Okamura in Japan, Aratani moved to Michigan to study 3D design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “I changed my path to something more artful, sculptural but still functional, in home furniture rather than office furniture.”
Aratani met her creative partner, Evan, during the studio-based program whose furniture program had brought them both to Motor City. Raised four hours north of Detroit in Traverse City—“right on the water”—Fay had earlier studied furniture design at Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids. While Fay was on the path to become an architect, a watercolor instructor in his hometown suggested he consider product design.
“I had already been tinkering with furniture in my garage—rebuilding pieces, making new pieces,” he recalls. Fay’s watercolors were ultimately included in the portfolio that he assembled years later in applying to Cranbrook. “I wanted to create my own voice, and Cranbrook has a long legacy, especially in furniture design—in creating innovative designs in the industry.”
Under the tutelage of Scott Klinker, head of the 3D design department and a furniture designer of some renown, it didn’t take long for Aratani and Fay to find each other. Mutually interested in hands-on craft and conceptual design, the two traveled to Eindhoven, Netherlands, after their first year to intern at Kiki & Joost. “When we came back to Cranbrook, we started soundboarding ideas off each other pretty insistently,” says Fay. “But Eindhoven is when we started to realize that we had some real common ideas about design. Our languages really started to overlap. By the time we graduated, we had decided to show together and share a studio to make things easier.”
After graduating in 2016, they premiered as a single studio at the Interior Design Show in Toronto. “We still have projects that we maintain separate authorship on, but now we also do full collaborations,” says Fay, citing their mutual inspiration in the figure of Harry Bertoia. “A lot of people know him for his Diamond chair that he did for Knoll, but in actuality, he was a more prolific sculptor. He ended up designing an iconic piece of furniture that is still contemporary.” Aratani counts textile designer Ruth Adler and industrial designer and painter Ray Eames as influences.
“Both have great ideas for colors, with hand-drawn qualities. Both also seemed happy their entire lives, and I admire them.” Fusing a sensual, sculptural sensibility with the desire to create fully functional domestic objects, in practice the pair are attracted to what they call “irregularity in design.”
“When we design, we don’t jump to the final form,” explains Fay. “Rather, we like to develop the way of making something. We like to pursue intuitive ways of making and construction. Our spontaneous forms come through in the process.”
“Irregularity and spontaneous building in expressive art in furniture design are key,” adds Aratani. “This is very healthy to me—to express my voice this way.”
For their Roommate lamp, delicate wire is hand-bent into variegated circles, then assembled into a loose sphere around a naked bulb. “There’s no technical drawing or real planning that goes behind it,” says Fay. “It’s just an intuitive decision to put each part where it goes to realize a final form.”
The same philosophy informs Arantai + Fay’s sumptuous Lawless series of beds, benches and chairs. Each piece of steel tube is welded and brass-braised together in a spontaneous way to complete a metal structure into which upholstery will later be woven. “One reason we choose this design process is to reveal our hands’ process to our clients and viewers,” asserts Aratani. “They know it’s one of a kind. We give our labor, love and time. Our efforts are shown in the result. This is the ideal product versus mass-produced objects.”
Indeed, just a single bed takes a whole three months to construct. A king-size polyurethane foam mattress is cut into strips, their edges rounded over—forming between 11 and 18 sections resembling springy pasta noodles. In the final stage, after upholstering and hand stitching each individual section closed, the pair intuitively wrap the foam around the metal frame, resulting in what appears to be a cross between an amorphous rubber band ball and supersized strands of DNA.
Sinuously crafted yet strangely comfy, the Lawless pieces do more than defy convention. “In the end, it’s just me working with these materials one-to-one,” Fay says. “It’s a bodily movement that involves my entire body wrapping and tucking these foam sections.” To clarify, Aratani injects, “We’re really trying to instill the spontaneous feeling of the sketch into the final form—more of an expressive art form rather than a stagnant piece of design.”
In the Button-Up chair, a womblike cylinder of 100-percent wool creates what looks like a cozy escape nook from the harried nature of public life—a “welcome home,” as Aratani puts it, not unlike the common Japanese salutation “tadaima” issued to anyone entering a home before removing their shoes. When the chair’s edges are folded back, it reveals hand-sewn ruffles that envelop the person seated inside, at once decadent and simple.
“We’re always prototyping new ideas,” says Fay. “Some of the models we come back to, even if the first time they don’t totally work out.” While working on a piece of seating made of natural sponges, the form they developed didn’t initially “sit” well with an American market.
“To a Japanese market, it might have done decently. Here, it wasn’t the right proportions. But we recently had a curator at our studio who had really keen interest toward the sponge seating typology. So we’re going to give it another shot.”
The enduring experimental ethos of their furniture design feels refreshing in a world where the bottom line tends to be all one sets her bottom on. “We try not to force ideas,” Fay continues. “We want to discover something in the process along the way. If something isn’t coming to us or reaching out or screaming at us, we’re not going to keep pushing and prodding.”
Aratani distinguishes their creative approach from what she saw growing up. “In Japanese culture, there are less expressive, artful pieces because of their market, where it’s not as good as a creator to have an individual voice. My chance to do that is actually larger in the United States.” At the same time, her Eastern perspective informs everything she draws and makes. “As a Japanese person, my eyes are very detail oriented, which is a good match with Evan. He’s very intuitive for an American man. Our intention for expressive, artful furniture is the same.”
As for sticking to their Pontiac studio, both creators are clearly in it for the run. “There’s an attitude in Detroit that you can do anything,” says Fay. “It’s not the best city for everyone, but it’s an interesting time to be here as a young designer. It’s great to be part of a community that has that mentality that if you want to make it happen, you can. You can’t build off the backs of others, so you have to make everything yourself.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.