To Ambra Medda, design is a wild and wonderful subject matter. After co-founding Design Miami in 2005 and directing that hugely influential international fair for for six years, Medda stepped down and shifted her focus to a different kind of programming. Originally imagined as a physical location with events, gallery space and a concept store, L'ArcoBaleno ("The Rainbow" in Italian) evolved instead into an online marketplace where editorial stories comingle with collectible design objects for sale. Unfazed by putting NASA, Zaha Hadid and Botswanan weavers in the same sentence, Medda curates a refreshingly inclusive view of design.
How do you find out about new designers?
A lot of it comes from word of mouth. I have a healthy network of designers, gallerists and other people that I've worked with. Designers are very hard-working and competitive, but they're also very generous and supportive. The community is quite giving. If I do a studio visit with a designer who's relatively established, they'll very openly say, "Please meet these young designers that are working for me." It's a whole circuit.
Also end-of-year shows. A lot of talent I pick up directly from design schools like the Royal College of Art, ECAL in Switzerland and the Design Academy Eindhoven. And then just walking around and poking your nose in places—it could be a corner store here in New York, or it could be some guy making traditional ceramics in Southern Italy. It doesn't have to be that far away. There's some pretty exotic stuff around the corner if you're prepared to open your eyes.
My main intent now is really to open up the discourse. Because I feel like we keep talking about the same designers. The magazines, the fairs, the system tends to highlight the safer choice. I don't know one designer from New Zealand, but I'm sure there's incredible craftsmanship happening there. Same thing with the Philippines. I'm excited to go and find out. Not just focus on Paris, Milan, and London—all cities that are compelling and that I will continue to visit—but go and discover new territories and completely unknown talent.
What kinds of design are you looking for at the moment?
I'm always looking for quality. Quality meaning care and dedication to the way this thing is made. It could be super high-tech, or it could be very low-fi and very crafty. Fresh. It has to come with that feeling of, "Wow, I've never seen this before." Not because it's out of this world or something that's completely unrecognizable—but you have to feel a sense of novelty, for sure.
Then I think the designer has to be interesting as a person. I'm interested in the whole story, from the city to the studio to the way that person lives or works, or the process behind the pieces that they make. The things that inspire them, the ideas that they represent. All of that stuff produces the reason why I'm there. I'm very motivated by people and the things that they make. If they're made well and I feel like they're promising, that's compelling.
Medda on a studio visit with the Dutch designer Maarten Baas
What's the best way for a designer to approach you?
They can just e-mail me. I'm not very difficult to get a hold of, and I'm always on the hunt. I'm quite receptive. An e-mail with images of the work is the best thing. I'll look at it, and if I'm impressed I'll want to know more. Then I'll e-mail them back and set up a meeting. Meeting in person is unbeatable, but I end up doing a lot of Skype if we're not in the same city.
And what should he or she not do?
One of the worst things is to send an oversize package and then ask for it back. That is a no-go. To send a stool. There's some FedEx man who's been hunting you down and then there's a message: "This is my new prototype for a stool, can you please send it back?" No, that's a nightmare. That's a little bit too much.
All of the logistical hurdles end up defining a lot of these whimsical, creative, wonderful relationships. The whole dialogue has to reorient itself over how to make this collaboration work. You have to find the right communication. You can have a super talented designer but then they're slow, or they don't understand that we need to ship this stuff. As great as the designer can be, or the relationship, or the story, there's a lot of practical stuff that needs to get sorted out. That's an important thing to point out to designers. The way you are corresponding, and how effective you are, and practical, and together, is a big defining part of whether things actually materialize or remain as just a great idea and a pleasant set of meetings. Not everything happens. My advice would be to think through all of the practical, logistical stuff: price, transport, shipping. All of that boring stuff becomes really critical.
Can you tell us about a recent successful collaboration with a young or emerging designer?
I'm currently working with Ana Kras, who's extremely talented. Maybe a year ago, a designer friend of mine said that I have to meet Ana. We both lived in the same city, and it was crazy that we hadn't met. I finally went to her studio and had this great visit. The space was wonderful, she was stunning, the light was perfect. The whole thing was enchanting; it was like a fairy tale. We sat and we talked for a long time. She needed advice about business. We had a very open conversation and then we started to think about the things we'd like to do together. I tend to be quite supportive, so it's not about what are you doing for me and what am I doing for you. It doesn't have to be a strict exchange. We'll go through all of the options and the things I think are most crucial for them to consider. I'll make introductions. I like meeting talent and opening doors for them. It doesn't have to be related to me working with them.
I obviously showed great interest in her work. We started e-mailing, and I said, "Why don't we sell one of your pieces on the site?" So we talked about size and color, and I did a few studio visits after that and we figured out what we wanted to do together. Now she's making some beautiful lamps for us. I need to send a photographer to take pictures of the pieces that are now finished, and the writers from our office are creating a story on Ana. There's always the content-creation side, the commercial side that is always happening. We'll send a photographer to take pictures of the designer and the studio, and then the products at the end of production process, and if we can we'll make a video. Then everything gets presented on the site.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.