Meet Chris Held, the designer behind furniture studio Nice Condo and Co-Curator of JONALDUDD, an NYC Design Week Exhibition. He talks about American municipal design and why handmade things are inherently human,
in a conversation with his wife and business partner,
Sara Graham.

Interview by Sara Graham.


SG: Talk a little bit about your education and background in design. We didn’t know eachother then…

CH: I went to Oregon College of Art and Craft from 2002-2006 and then I went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design from 2008-2010.

SG: What was happening in Design during that time and what inspired you either in your undergrad or MFA?

CH: I remember there being a big utilitarian movement of simple moves—elevating shipping crates with ornamentation and stuff like that. One of the designers that was inspiring at that time was Tobias Wong. He would package and brand New York City snowballs and sell them from his freezer. It was this cheeky commodification of ideas. He used thought exercises that used design as a medium.

SG:  Does that idea show up in your work now? 

CH: Not directly, it did when I was in grad school when I made a dry erase board in the form of a shipping pallet—using a CNC machine I drew a Persian rug pattern on it with dry erase markers, performatively erasing it for documentation. But now I’ve returned to the more craft elements of my education, things are not about being super clever anymore. 

SG: When you curate JONALDUDD, it seems like there’s a cleverness, a wink and a sense of humor or levity around Design Week. Where does that come from and why is that still important to you?


CH: The design world is a very moneyed luxury space, it’s ultra-commodified, which in a sense I appreciate, because unlike the art world, it’s okay to at least talk about the money. But I think most of the people participating in JONALDDUDD are on the ground level. They are people that are younger, just coming out of school and they have an interest in making their own work. It’s really creative and a bit working class. People are making weird narrative chairs because they are inspired to see it in the world. They're not like, “how can I dial up my portfolio of renderings so I can get a job at Knoll designing office chairs.”

SG: You hate office chairs.

CH: They are the ugliest chairs. I’ve never seen a good-looking office chair. Well, that’s not true, I’ve seen some but they aren't the comfortable ones. Office chairs look like a deconstructed praying mantis. They look insect-inspired!

SG: Well, you make beautiful furniture, but it’s not always ergonomic—

CH: It’s almost anti-ergonomic. It’s not anti it just doesn't consider ergonomics. Unless you consider having the table at the right height, things meet the minimal requirement for ergonomics, but mostly so it clearly signifies to the user exactly what it’s trying to be. The seat will be at 18” and the table will be at 30”—beyond that anything goes.

SG: But what happens when ergonomics lead design? And what leads yours?

CH: It’s fine for some people’s aesthetic. For mine, it compromises the profiles and lines.

SG: How would you describe the aesthetic of Nice Condo? 
CH: If Donald Judd was buried—entombed!—in the mausoleum from the movie Phantasm.

SG: HA! I love that movie. But you don’t use marble.

CH: Right, but the way that movie is shot…everything is graphic and symmetrical and has a kind of grandness in its flatness.

SG: Yeah, we watch a lot of ‘70s horror movies and always love the sets, the fashion, the cinematography, even when it’s low’s like an endless mine of inspiration. What are the top five inspirations behind Nice Condo, if you had to list them?

CH: Utilitarian chic, Art Deco facades, Hardcore/punk show flyers, American municipal design, and Dario Argento’s whole vibe.

SG: American municipal design is interesting. What about it informs your work and makes for good design in your opinion?

Municipal design in the wild via Nice Condo

CH: I wouldn't call it good design but I think it is underappreciated in it’s efforts to work within parameters and solve problems in a practical way. And it is almost in and of itself not a design effort, but on repeat applied to so many different interiors, I think it's worth looking at how those problems have been solved and why they've been solved that way. It's linoleum, wood paneling, painted cinder block, sturdy but banal furniture and no-nonsense graphics.

SG: It's very Nice Condo, actually.

CH: It's the opposite of design “twee.”

SG: Let’s talk about American design.You’ve traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and have done residencies there. What makes American design different and interesting these days? And what American trends in design could you really do without?

CH: A lot of the times those elements of municipal design are applied or overlaid into a building that had grander aspirations. You think of the place we got married and the contemporary municipal veneer laid onto this previously grand, neoclassical building. That combination makes municipal design interesting. 

You can go to a DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] but that form of municipal design alone isn't interesting. When it’s juxtaposed with what the space was intended to be, you see the system at work. It's actually when capitalism is so naked and evident—you see the country’s slide away from its proto-European roots, driven down into a naked and harsh survivalist capitalism reality of today. That tension between those two intentions is America. It's Franklin D. Roosevelt eroding into George W. Bush. It’s been pretty sad and Lord of the Flies since then. 

Bench repair at New York City Marriage Bureau

But to answer your other question, the design movement [in America that I can do without] has got to be that 1890s Industrial Revolution aesthetic. I never went to Europe and saw an Edison bulb hanging in a bar.

SG: Oh you are talking about the “1890s via 2013” movement.

CH: Maybe it also happened in London…

SG: So one trend that’s here to stay is sustainability. It touted everywhere, but brands and designers really are making an effort to be thoughtful about production from end to end. How does your practice address sustainability?

CH: I approach it from a quality rather than a material standpoint. I think that if you can make something that people are going to keep for a long time, that they won’t throw away, that's the greenest thing you can do aside from buying nothing. And with materials, I only use domestic hardwoods and high quality plywood. Everything is finished with Osmo, a natural low-VOC wood wax from Germany. 


Nice Condo, Belmont Dining Table, 2023

SG: Late capitalism and constant consumerism has made people settle for terrible quality in service of quick access and affordability. Nice Condo is a boutique model and all made-to-order. Why is that important for a buyer? How do you feel like makers like you and designers with this model are changing the market or counteracting this quick-and-fast landscape for buying furniture?

CH: There's some right-sizing people's expectations about how much things cost because what capitalism has done is created things in mass with slave and low-wage labor, then levered that labor to make a few people very rich and give an extraordinary amount of people very cheap items. So when consumers engage or see prices, they might write it off as luxury, but it's the real cost of a handmade thing.

SG: In addition to the societal and economic issues you just mentioned, why is it important that handmade goods still exist for people to enjoy, even with their expense?

CH: This is a very Adolf Loos kind of question. I think making things by hand is so inherent to who we are as human beings that it's almost odd to question it. We have this inherent desire to be creating and working with our hands and it brings people peace. It sounds corny, but it’s true.

SG: What about the objects themselves though, and the people who they are made for, with the ideas of beauty and craft at the core of the object? Why buy it?

CH:  For the same reason. As the maker it's not important to me that someone has something I made. But it's very important to the person who buys it. They are most often someone who doesn’t work with their hands, so this proximity to the process might fill a need they have. Handmade things carry a sense of individuality and people’s relationship to that tradition becomes part of their identity and story.

SG: What are some themes that show up in your work again and again?

CH: There is a need to feel like I understand the world. A lot of the utilitarian and pragmatic municipal design elements are there because they show the bones of something. They expose the way something goes together and for a moment, the world is not hidden from me.

Nice Condo Camp Chair, 2023
We walk around the world and so many things feel hidden and unknowable, but when you see a bolt that holds two things together you KNOW what's happening, you understand the forces at play and I find that very comforting. It’s exactly what it's telling you what it is, which is unfortunately kind of rare. Obfuscation is the norm.    It’s also probably an expression of my personality. I'm straightforward. Maybe to a fault.  


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