November 26, 2023The discreet facade of Anna Karlin’s home base on New York City’s Lower East Side says it all. Although the multidisciplinary designer has just launched a long-awaited collection of lighting and furniture, you won’t see her cylindrical bar cabinet or otherworldly lamps in the recessed windows of the storefront that has been her design studio and workshop for the past five years.
Instead, passersby might glimpse abstract clay sculptures or handblown glass forms that haven’t quite decided what they want to become. “They’re developing pieces, not finished products,” says Karlin, who has been making furniture and objects since 2012 but often refers to herself as a sculptor at heart. “We always put prototypes or experiments in the window rather than product. That is much more relevant to what goes on here.”
Indeed, the creative ferment in Karlin’s 4,000-square-foot space — where a staff of eight, including designers, craftspeople and a sales team, are spread over two floors — is apparent right on her desk, which is usually covered in clay and modeling paste. Her immensely original designs for lighting, furniture and fine jewelry often begin there, in a literally hands-on way. “A design sort of evolves” as she works, Karlin says. “Shapes find their homes, rather than the other way around. I’ll be making something, exploring something, and it will say, ‘Oh, I’m a bar cabinet’ or ‘I’m a light.’ ” She works across categories, making absolutely no distinction between art and design. “The lines are completely blurred for me,” she says. Beyond furniture and lighting, her studio practice also encompasses art direction and interiors.
Karlin can’t say exactly which piece came first in her unnamed new collection, which was three years in the making and debuted on 1stDibs this fall. It’s especially strong on lighting, made of varied materials and ranging from pendants and sconces to floor and table lamps, all existing as works of art in a room, illuminated or not. The collection also includes a tapestry headboard, wrought-iron counter stools and a cylindrical bar cabinet inspired by antique Swedish stoves, a totemic object covered in chunky ceramic tiles bearing a mysterious glyph-like motif. “It’s not like I set out with a master plan: ‘I’m going to do these pieces in these categories,’ ” Karlin says. “I have three sketchbooks on the go at all times. I don’t work start to finish on a single piece.” And she doesn’t design objects in isolation. “It’s an ongoing conversation. One piece informs another. That’s how the collection builds.”
Karlin was “in an Arts and Crafts world,” as she puts it, when she created the stylized floral design for the Field headboard. It began as a painting before being digitized and eventually rendered in wool and linen. “Next to it, I didn’t want anything organic or floral. I wanted something hard-edged, like the Plinth 01,” she says, referring to her columnar travertine floor lamp, from which emerges a softly glowing acrylic tube suspended on bronzed-steel tubes. “If I’ve done something that feels organic and soft, then the next has to be angular and hard — that’s when the objects come alive.” Other designs, like the free-form Squidge lamp and sconce, arose out of Karlin’s desire to explore cast glass, a material new to her.
Karlin’s intuitive approach is well illustrated by the evolution of the Lantern Stack, a vertical lineup of fiberglass forms that runs floor to ceiling along an antiqued-steel tube. “The shapes started more organic and morphed into a harder rendition in the creative process,” the designer says. “As you’re exploring and making, the right answers find themselves.”
That’s not unlike the way Karlin, as a child growing up in London — long before she attended the prestigious Central Saint Martins arts and design college and the Glasgow School of Art — produced reams of puzzle-like drawings, filling page after page with color. “I’ve never been representational: ‘I’m going to draw a flower,’ ” she says. Instead, starting at around age seven, she created what she calls “thematic worlds,” once using a marker and paint to cover the walls and ceiling of her tiny bedroom in cow print after being taken to a Claes Oldenburg exhibition and later going through what she describes as a pink-and-turquoise “Moroccan phase.” “Looking at what I do now, it’s very similar,” Karlin says. “I was finding my shapes and my language.”
Like the work itself, Karlin’s palette of materials is unconfined. She searches the globe for the specialties of various regions. Carved stone may come from Italy, other stone components from Portugal, depending on the texture she wants for a particular purpose. The crewelwork for the Field headboard was produced in India. For the bar cabinet, Karlin used ceramic tiles she found in Oakland, California, that have the intentionally uneven glaze and finish she sought. Once parts and materials are sourced, they’re brought together for fabrication and finishing by skilled wood- and metalworkers in Karlin’s studio.
If you happen to be out walking in New York and notice intriguingly unfinished artworks in the windows of a former print shop on Eldridge Street, you might be tempted to impulsively ring the small brass doorbell. Although the studio also serves as a by-appointment showroom, chances are, says Karlin, you won’t be turned away.