Sixteen years ago Roberto Gill, the founder and owner of CASA Kids Design Company, moved from TriBeca to Brooklyn because his rent was too high.
He discovered he was not alone.
Brooklyn has become a magnet for designers —173 new design firms were launched in Brooklyn between 2001 and 2009—the latest available data, according to a report by David Giles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York think tank. “These artists,” he says, “flock to Brooklyn.”
They have come to DUMBO, Greenpoint, Park Slope and Bushwick, setting up shop, Giles says, in old warehouse lofts abandoned by manufacturers. Brooklyn offers lower rents than Manhattan. But there is, something more at play says Fennie Chow, 28, a graduate student in the communications design department at Pratt Institute.
“Hipster culture is incredibly trendy at the moment and most people seem to think that all hipsters live in Brooklyn, preferably Williamsburg,” she says. “There is a stigma about Manhattan that it is too expensive, too corporate, too impersonal. She adds that Brooklyn has warmth and a neighborhood vibe that doesn’t make it feel so urban. Chow says designers are people who want to connect with each other and form a bond. Open spaces in Brooklyn provide that opportunity.
“In many ways, Brooklyn is the ‘new’ downtown, geographically better connected to Manhattan,” says Matilda McQuaid, deputy curatorial director and head oftextiles at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
Gill, 53, a father of two, launched his furniture company in 1992 because he liked the idea of being independent. He says when he was studying architecture at Harvard he did not know he could a make career out of design. “It was a discovery to realize that I love design,” he says with a smile. A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Gill plans to stay in Brooklyn and expand his design business. He recently designed a child’s room in Dumbo. His design consisted of a loft bed and a storage area. As a minimalist designer, he decided to use only a few colors. He says kids get easily tired of lots of colors and when they grow up they don’t like it. He says an average project usually costs somewhere from $8,000 to $10,000.
But business is not necessarily dependent on proximity to clients – nor on having office space, thanks to the Internet. In 2007, for instance, siblings Daniel Blanco, 32 and Claudia Blanco, 35 launched Magenta Creative Networks, a company that delivers motion graphics, print and media campaigns. In 2008, the siblings created a media campaign for New York City Health Department called, “ NYC Condoms: Get Some.”
They work from their apartment in Ditmas Park. “So, we are like the Internet, we can be everywhere, and team with other designers when the project requires it,” Daniel says. “We can be as small or big as necessary.”
Still, the recession has taken its toll on the design industry. Giles says design jobs have decreased since 2008. “Design companies depend on consumer spending,” Giles says. “ When consumer spending decreases—jobs decreases.” Gill, for one, has downsized his firm from four employees to two because, he says, business was slow.
But Giles adds that the recession did not have as much of an impact on the design industry as it had on other industries because the Internet has allowed designers to take advantage of rising consumer spending in places like China and India.
The decrease in the price of technology has also helped design firms in Brooklyn and other places. “Designers by nature are nimble and are smart to find new niches when old ones become obsolete or no longer pertinent to the time and economy,” says McQuaid.
Virtually all design firms have a web presence and use social media tools to communicate with their clients — Gill says the Internet drives 70 to 80 percent of his business. The developments in technology and lower cost of communications have also allowed more artists to become freelancers.
Esteban Perez, 29, is a freelance graphic designer with his own company, Hemi Studio. He has been living in Brooklyn for two years. He finds Brooklyn slower, quieter, a lot simpler than Manhattan. “Brooklyn’s design crowd looks for participation, social involvement and has a strong link as a small community,” says Perez.
Perez says as technology becomes more advanced, designers will have to become more creative as computers will be able to take care of menial jobs. Even though he is having a hard time finding bigger contracts, he remains optimistic about design industry and his colleagues.