When it comes to contemporary design, Jill Singer and Monica Khemsurov know it all. The duo launched the online magazine and platform, Sight Unseen to curate and feature new designers and trends from around the globe and they've been doing it for over a decade now. We chat with the founders of this go-to publication on making it in editorial, design trends and inspiration.
You both previously worked as editors at I.D. Magazine, what made you decide to switch gears and launch Sight Unseen?
We left I.D. together in 2009 and started Sight Unseen within 48 hours of leaving. It was not a good time for magazines — this was around the time Gourmet and Met Home shuttered — and I.D. would go on to close six months after we left. We were intrigued by the possibilities of starting something online, in addition to the fact that it was the most financially feasible way to start up. We had always been interested in the more narrative, behind-the-scenes aspects of design and that was very much a focus at the beginning. We also understood there was room for a publication that covered design in a more personal, intimate, and accessible way.
What was your main inspiration when starting off?
Apartamento had started maybe a year before we launched Sight Unseen. We were friendly with the founders and remember really admiring the authenticity and point of view they conveyed; we were also inspired by New York Magazine. Our art director actually asked us to name our inspirations when he was creating our logo, and here is a list we gave him of things we liked: "Science, weird ephemera, industrial things, Sweden, machines, tools, bikes, fashion, dresses, everyday things, generic packaging, foreign grocery stores, The New Yorker, nail polish, Art Deco, books, metal, plants.” :)
How do you discover new designers? And how do you go about selecting who to feature on Sight Unseen?
We attend design fairs, scour Instagram, and receive a LOT of submissions. We have a constant dialogue on email about whether things are too trendy, too overdone, too unresolved, or just right.
Sight Unseen initially launched as a digital magazine, but over the past few years you’ve explored bringing the brand to life in the physical world. Can you tell us a little bit about your different projects and the idea behind them?
We actually launched our first physical activation within six months of starting Sight Unseen! It was called the Noho Design District, and it was the precursor to Sight Unseen OFFSITE (our independent design showcase which just celebrated its fifth year). We have always been interested in making design accessible to a larger audience and in bringing the work of emerging or independent designers to light, so that is primarily what our real-world activations have focused on.
Do you think it’s still important for young designers to have physical spaces they can be discovered in?
Yes. Creating a cohesive presence online is still really important, but, like any other marketplace, Instagram has become somewhat oversaturated. It can be harder to find someone who really stands out. To have your work presented in a curated environment can mean attracting an entirely different audience — particularly in terms of people who might actually buy your stuff.
You’ve collaborated with major brands from Sonos to Refinery29 to Ikea, can you tell us a bit about how these collaborations came about? What was your favorite?
We are often approached by brands who want to reach our specific audience, but we’re always sure to only partner with brands who align with our values and who will let us create an end product that doesn’t compromise on our aesthetic or who we are as a brand. We love working with Sonos; they are our oldest and most loyal client, and we’ve been able to seamlessly do both editorial and physical activations with them. One of our favorite collaborations was helping Sonos grow awareness of their New York flagship. There are these house-shaped modules inside their store, and they let us invite 5 design teams to each throw a themed house party in each module. We also loved working with Arlo Skye to design a limited-edition suitcase.
Sight Unseen has built up a big presence during NYCxDesign through your design fair, OFFSITE, what made you launch this?
As I said, we were involved in showcasing the work of independent designers before Sight Unseen OFFSITE, but we made the decision to rebrand for a few reasons — most notably because people didn’t understand that we were behind our own New York Design Week initiative! Having our own name, Sight Unseen, in the title of the fair did a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of getting people to understand our aesthetic and our point of view. Sight Unseen really began to take off around then and became more of a creative consultancy than simply just an editorial platform. It’s been an amazing linchpin in the American Design community, helping to launch the careers of hundreds of designers
You’ve also recently launched your first shop at Greenpoint’s design hub, A/D/O, can you tell us a bit about this project and what it means for your brand?
There’s making design “accessible” in terms of demystifying its processes and talking about it in a way that anyone can enjoy or understand, which is something we’ve always aspired to do. But then there’s making design accessible in terms of showcasing things that people can actually afford, since so much of design is speculative, collectible, or expensive. A/D/O helps us achieve those more democratic goals, and it was also an interesting exercising in merging our more colorful inclinations with A/D/O's more industrial-focused, German aesthetic.
What are the most exciting big design trends you’re seeing at the moment?
We have never shied away from color, so right now we’re excited about a growing willingness to embrace and reinvent atypical “design” colors — yellow, cherry red, baby blue, etc.
Favorite designer at the moment?
We could never have just one! Some favorite newcomers include Jumbo, Odd Matter, Jessica Herrera, Objects of Common Interest, Thomas Barger, Max Enrich, Eny Lee Parker. Some longtime faves include Philippe Malouin, Jonah Takagi, German Ermics, Chen & Kai, Moving Mountains, Home Studios, Fredrik Paulsen, Ladies & Gentlemen, Fort Standard, Egg Collective, Rooms, Bower, Chris Stuart, Chris Wolston, Katie Stout… No, really, it’s too hard to choose!
One piece of advice for new designers starting out?
First, make your work look good in real life. But then, beg, borrow, steal, or barter to make your work look good in photos.
Aside from Sight Unseen, what are the best places to go for design inspiration?
Yellowtrace and The Design Files both publish great interiors. Wendy Goodman’s Design Hunting is always uncovering something lovely. Alex P. White’s Instagram is full of vintage gems, and our friend Dung Ngo (@misterngo) is super well-traveled and has an eye for color. PIN-UP Magazine, T Magazine, and Apartamento. Popeye Magazine in Japan.
Which are the best cities for design?
New York, Milan, London, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Cape Town. Also love Helsinki, Oslo, LA — and Porto!