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19th Century Furniture & Sculpture

In Conversation: Interior Designer Dani Arps and Sotheby's Sara Putterman

NEW YORK – Known for her sophisticated take on offices for startup companies, interior designer Dani Arps has a reputation for looking to the future while showing an appreciation for fine craftsmanship and influences from the past. “People who appreciate design don’t want what everyone else has,” she says. “In high-end residential nobody wants the same coffee table. In the same way, startups don’t want the same desk.” The New York-based Arps, who teamed up with Sotheby’s and Calico Wallpaper to create inspiring vignettes for the 9 June Collections: European Decorative Arts catalogue, sat down with associate specialist Sara Putterman to discuss her approach to work spaces, where antiques fit in and how to achieve the perfect minimalist look.

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DANI ARPS. PHOTO: MATTHEW SPROUT.

What drew you to specializing in startups?
It was a happy accident. In 2009 I began freelancing, and my first client was Code Academy. Because startups have a culture where the founders are often friends and have meet-ups once a month, I had it in the back of my mind that this could turn into something. Essentially they could visit each other’s spaces and say, “Hey, who does your office?”

Have you designed offices for other types of businesses as well?
One of my favourite clients, Day One Agency, is an advertising agency, and I’m currently working with a venture capital firm.

Do you see a difference? Is mainstream office culture being influenced by startup design?
Absolutely – it’s a huge trend. Like anything, it started niche and now more people are catching on. Even though they’re working in corporate environments, a lot of people still want a startup look.

What do you define a startup look to be?
There are startup requirements like stadium seating, hidden rooms and a free snack wall or bar. One of my clients, SeatGeek, has the ultimate startup office. I’m still finishing up little details in their space, but it has all those things as well as a wonderful layout in terms of balancing an open workspace and lounge areas. That’s another discussion – an open workspace is ideal for some, but not all.

Back in the day every office used to need a a globe, a Persian rug and an English desk. But now it seems people need a a beanbag and a whiteboard. What’s next in the typical office?
Definitely technology. Everything’s cordless. I just think it’s going to become super minimal.

But that makes me sad.
Yes and no, because as long as the items you do have are beautiful and well designed, having one striking desk and a beautiful chair can make a huge statement.

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ELIGIBLE, INTERIOR DESIGN BY DANI ARPS. PHOTO: CHRISTINA SHIELDS.

That’s what I like about the workspaces you’ve created. You don’t do the clichéd tree house or climbing wall. You don’t infantilize design elements, and seem to steer your clients towards more classic office design. Do you get pushback?
People don’t always know what they want, but they know how they want it to feel. They like how startups feel. The people who work there will often give me feedback about their ideal office space before we start. They like it to feel comfortable, because a lot of times these people are working 14-hour days. But comfort doesn’t mean having a ping-pong table. I try to push startups to grow with design as part of function and form.

I love the idea of taking something classic and giving it a new function. On your website you have a great photo of succulents growing out of champagne glasses. Have you been inspired by anything from Sotheby’s Collections auction that you might use in a new way?
Yes – all of those beautiful chandeliers. I like to have a standout moment or feature and build around that conceptually. I can imagine having a cluster of twelve or so of those fixtures hanging over a lunchroom. That would immediately elevate the room and draw your eye up.

You also use a lot of wood, especially as a wallcovering. I’ve read that Brooklyn is having a “wood Renaissance” as well, and that people are getting into learning about grain and history. Do you think there will be more interest in using mahogany and rosewood antiques in offices?
I hope so, because although I love the reclaimed trend, you have to be able to use it in a way that doesn’t become dated immediately. You can’t date mahogany and rosewood. You can’t date these classical, beautiful woods. If they’re used in a way that is timeless, they can fit in any design world.

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BREATHER, INTERIOR DESIGN BY DANI ARPS. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BREATHER.

In a sense the property we’re offering is the epitome of green design, in that it was produced 200 years ago. It’s being reused, it lasts, and it’s beautifully designed and made. I wonder if those qualities will lead people who are looking for lasting objects and statement pieces to consider antiques.
As much as minimalism is the direction design is going, I think it causes an appreciation for things that are long lasting. You want a piece of history and of these items that were so well made. Unfortunately, with a lot of the fast design out there, you can’t move with it because it immediately falls apart. There’s not as much attention to detail as you see in the pieces we’re working with in this auction.

Looping back to your point about technology, Bang and Olufsen, who is sponsoring our exhibition, has a new line where they’re collaborating with designers to create speakers. Some of the best new technology I’m seeing seems to pay attention to design.
Absolutely, I think a part of minimalism is an appreciation for good design. Because you have so few pieces that they have to look stunning in whatever space they’re in. I’m so excited they have speakers now that are beautiful, because they used to just be heavy blocks. Having technology that fits into your design aesthetic is ideal.

With minimalism also comes customization. If you’re going to have this minimal space, everything should be fully integrated; everything should be exactly how you want it. Customization is a huge trend right now. Calico Wallpaper (whose designs are featured in the vignettes for this auction’s catalogue) has picked up on that I think.
Definitely. They have this artisanal quality to the way they produce their product, and it’s so stunning. It’s like custom artwork for the space you’re designing, because they actually fit it to your wall. There are no seams, no repeat in pattern. It looks like a giant painting. I think in terms of design and minimalism, vendors that appreciate that type of quality aren’t that common.

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DAY ONE AGENCY, INTERIOR DESIGN BY DANI ARPS. PHOTO: MARIEL TYLER.

Finally, I wanted to talk about entrepreneurship. Something I found really interesting while working with you is there’s a surprising amount of connection between modern entrepreneurs and 18th-century furniture and cabinetmakers who were often trying to break away from the guild to start their own workshops. One of them is François Lieutaud, who is represented by a commode in our sale, made his own mounts even though he was only supposed to make the wooden carcass. To me, these are stories of someone trying to disrupt the industry.
I think there’s a huge connection there. That’s what almost all startup companies are about – disrupting the industry. They’re asking why are we doing it this way, because we can think of a better, faster or more interesting way to do this. Most of the startups I work with are maybe series B. They appreciate well-designed pieces, but they have to wait until they can afford them, because getting to that point takes time and money. That is maybe where Sotheby’s comes in – you teach people to appreciate these things. Once you know what goes into making furniture and designing these beautiful silhouettes, you have a true appreciation for it.

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