• 01

Cyrus Highsmith, a Wisconsin native, first joined Boston’s highly influential Font Bureau foundry in 1997 as a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Less than two decades later, he has become one of North America’s most important and expressive typographers. In an industry that has rapidly been overtaken by computer screens and pixels, Highsmith’s audacious, animated style and uniquely artistic design process have won him a legion of fans, including print newspaper guru Mario García, who calls him “one of today’s most dynamic and original voices in American type design.”

During his time studying graphic design, under RISD’s “very pure and modernist” approach, Highsmith started playing around with his own fonts, becoming more excited about making typefaces than using them. As a boy, he had dreamed of being a painter, not a leading font maker, and this passion was perhaps the secret to his success. “Drawing letters to me felt like a really pure way of drawing,” he says. “You just deal with shapes—black shapes and white shapes—and that’s all. That was very exciting to me.”

To this day, all of Highsmith’s typefaces, now numbering in the hundreds, more often than not begin with a sketch in one of his many notepads. The shelves of his studio in Providence are forested by the spines of dozens of Moleskines and other jotters. They are integral to his artistic technique.

A print featuring hand lettering by Highsmith
The end result (Eggwhite is pictured in the middle)

Instead of starting with a, b and c, Highsmith first doodles n, h, o and p, using an old Linotype method that dates back to the 1920s and ’30s. These four letters provide a mixture of round and straight shapes that create a perfect template for the rest of the alphabet. Next he simply copies, pastes and rotates. Highsmith will often start with lowercase letters, because, he says, “it’s where most of the personality is.” Some typefaces that he has designed have up to 50 variations, with different widths and weights, while others have only the standard roman, italic and bold versions. He lists his three most seminal typefaces as the charmingly clunky Eggwhite, the well-angled Amira and Antenna, his best seller.

So how do doodles in a sketchbook develop into a cohesive concept for 26 letters? “A typeface is part of a presentation of a story that works with pictures and text and colors and other typefaces,” Highsmith explains. “So I think, What is the story that is being told? I try to make that as specific as I can, even if it isn’t for a client. I come up with the idea on my own.”

Highsmith believes that every typeface should have a narrative. One of his most recent designs, Serge—a cute retro number that has more than a whiff of The Jetsons about it—came about when Highsmith imagined a typeface for a company that sells jet packs, “not for astronauts or anything, but for zipping over to get a coffee or going to a party,” he explains. Undoubtedly this narrative approach has helped his expressive, ever-so-slightly naive work for the Font Bureau become so popular: Highsmith has designed custom typefaces for the Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living, Men’s Health and El Universal. With these titles on his résumé, it’s clear that Highsmith’s style is one that excites print graphic designers in particular—which is perhaps unsurprising if you keep in mind that most of his fonts were conceived in sketchbooks. Will there be a place for his audacious, animated, characterful typography in a world of tablets and laptops? “It’s a very crucial time,” he says knowingly. “It’s at the very beginning of what can happen with that medium.”


The crafting process
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    Relay (2002) is a spirited series, inspired by a blend of both English art and US typography of the mid-20th century

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    Quiosco (2006) is a successful news typeface that is influenced by legendary font maker W. A. Dwiggins and his way of contrasting character outline with the counter shape

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    Serge (2013) is Highsmith’s most recent typeface, described as a “frisky, acrobatic face…with a lively, angular zest”

  • 02

“We are from Thailand; it’s in our culture to create and to give those creations a playful twist,” explains Ploypan Theerachai, cofounder of Thinkk, a Bangkok-based design studio. “Our aim is to devise a character of its own for each product that we design. We want to combine fun and functionality.”

Established by Theerachai and professional partner Decha Archjananun in 2008, Thinkk Studio has been pivotal in establishing a new look for Southeast Asian design—although the “Thai-ness” behind its minimalist items, with their fresh approach to simple lines and contrasting raw materials, may appear elusive at first glance.

“It is an exciting time for young designers from Southeast Asia,” says Theerachai, “the time to do something beyond the traditional.” Skilled manufacturers locally craft the studio’s functional yet playful collections of homeware and furniture. Blending elements of Scandinavian functionalism with the Thai “culture of smiles,” Thinkk Studio’s collections might well be as Scandinavian as Southeast Asian design can get.

Theerachai and Archjananun studied interior architecture together in Bangkok and founded Thinkk Studio upon graduating. “We trained as interior architects but shared an interest in product and furniture design,” says Theerachai. “We combined this interest with our desire to offer solutions to everyday problems through functionality. In that way, the human experience was—and still is—at the heart of our designs.”

The CONST desk lamp puts the fun into functional
The playful Merging Top vases

With their design philosophy and studio established, they both went off to Europe to pursue postgraduate studies in product design; Theerachai attended Konstfack in Stockholm, and Archjananun studied at ECAL in Lausanne. “During my time in Stockholm, I was immersed in the city’s taste,” explains Theerachai. “That Scandinavian celebration of simplicity, minimalism and functionality greatly influenced my style.”

The decision to move back to Bangkok and operate locally was a natural one. In Thailand, expert craftsmanship is easily accessible, as is an abundance of fine raw materials, such as wood and concrete. The combination of lightwood, lacquered metal, gray marble and raw concrete—found in signature products like the CONST desk lamp and the Truss vases—draws on both Thai craft and industry.
This play with contrast, with juxtaposing traditional and industrial materials, drives the creative duo. And not only does it inspire them; it has placed them on the global design map, too.


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    The Cover Crop outdoor lounger, commended by Elle Decoration Thailand, 2009–10

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    1-2-3 Sit, a flat-pack stool, 2010

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    Merging Top, a vase inspired by a spinning toy, 2012

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    The Cement Wood hanging lamp, 2013

  • 03

It is impossible to classify the work of Beirut-based Najla El Zein into a single category; instead, her spatial installations are known for blurring the boundaries between art, interior architecture and product design. Her artistic alchemy has set a blazing trail through the Middle Eastern design scene and beyond. “In my pieces, different things blend into one,” explains El Zein in her Beirut studio. “I like to describe myself as a storyteller who represents a theme in a three-dimensional way.”

Born in Beirut and raised in Paris, El Zein holds a master’s degree in interior architecture and product design from the École Camondo—a renowned Parisian institution that encouraged her to “bring the concept behind each project to the surface.”

A hanging installation made out of everyday objects
El Zein and a colleague at work in her Beirut studio

Since the foundation of her own art and design studio in Beirut in 2011, El Zein has worked on a series of commissions in the region, including numerous spatial installations and visual merchandising projects for local galleries and fashion boutiques. Dada to the core, El Zein’s portfolio has shown that her most reliable ally is the everyday object. In her work, fragments of mirrors, pieces of wool and other household items are given a second life. The lighting sculpture 6302 Spoons, for which El Zein carefully assembled thousands of spoons into an organic, mystical whole, is a most fitting example of her work. “I love to be able to showcase materials in a way that is different from what they were designed for,” says El Zein. “I want to promote the beauty of ordinary items. They give me the answer to what I’m looking to express.”

Indeed, El Zein’s self-description couldn’t be more accurate. In her installations, she does with materials what a writer does with words: she tells a story. With her studio still in infancy, she is already finding many people willing to listen.


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    Installation for the Maison Rabih Kayrouz boutique in Beirut, 2011

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    Artistic direction for the Skoun Gala at the Sursock Palace in Beirut, 2012

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    Installation for the London Design Festival at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013

  • 04

The Toronto-born designer Scot Laughton first made his name in the 1980s when Time named his arrow-shaped Strala light on its list of top 10 designs for 1987. In 2006, when he moved his family and studio to Hong Kong, little did the Canadian know how he would use his homegrown design prowess to help educate many people in Hong Kong and mainland China about the importance of good design—and its benefits.Laughton currently works as a senior teaching fellow at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design, and he has worked extensively with manufacturers in China—those that supply the world’s big furniture companies—helping them develop and market their own brands. Last year, however, Laughton’s pastoral tendencies reached a zenith with the unveiling of a project that he worked on with the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust.

Laughton working closely with a local artisan

The House for All Seasons project was kick-started by the Hong Kong–based architect John Lin in Shijia Village, in northeastern China. It is a totally self-sufficient brick edifice that Lin devised to show the local rural population that they could create their own homes with the skills and traditional building techniques they already had. A close creative collaborator, Laughton became involved with furnishing the abode. The project represents craft with a conscience, and it’s a source of pride for all those involved.
“The locals’ interpretation or idea of modern is a cement block,” Laughton explains. “We tried showing them that things in the past were good, that we can create a modern house using old processes.”
Laughton’s collection of prototypes for the house includes a chair, stool, bench, dining table, low table and sofa. When designing them, Laughton aimed to create items that local villagers could see themselves copying as well as executing simply. The mission was easier than he first imagined.
“I walked around the village, and there was this old guy making the classic old kung fu bench—the narrow top with four legs,” Laughton explains. “I thought, This is where the project is going to start, here with wooden furniture.”

All the pieces are produced from locally sourced chinaberry wood and contain no nuts, bolts or screws. Most design-minded people living in the West would lap up the pieces’ naive, hand-turned simplicity for their own homes, and the House for All Seasons has already won awards for its efforts. As China urbanizes at an astonishing rate (the government has said it plans to create 20 cities a year until 2025 to cope with migration), the House for All Seasons has admirably elevated the opinions that villagers have about traditional country life with the help of design.
“We demonstrated that their techniques could create usable and desirable furniture,” says Laughton.


Finished pieces on display in rural China
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    The arrow-shaped, postmodern Strala floor light, designed with Tom Deacon and named as one of Time’s top designs in 1987

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    The Canal sofa, 2002

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    The District furniture system, designed with Teknion in 2005

  • 05

Few countries have design as imbued in their culture as Finland. Yet for Linda Bergroth, a 35-year-old Finn, it was a semi-relocation to Paris a decade ago that helped forge her unique style as a multifaceted designer.

Bergroth started her career by studying furniture design at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, followed by a course in architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris-Malaquais. This unexpected Franco-Finnish educational and cultural alchemy is what distinguishes her work: “Paris and Helsinki are only three hours apart, but it’s true that there is a huge difference,” she explains.

Each of Bergroth’s projects is unified by her highly identifiable style: clean, pure Nordic design vividly brought to life with a funky palette more common to southern European style.

“When I’m in Paris, I’m seen as a very Scandinavian designer, but I like wood, white and then a splash of color,” she says. “I’m very passionate about color, the use of color or the lack of color.”
Bergroth attended a French-speaking school as a child, so moving to Paris was perhaps inevitable. There, she has worked on numerous landmark projects, including the design of Le Trabendo, a music venue, and Ostentatoire, a jewelry shop.

A private apartment designed by Bergroth in Helsinki, 2012
A characteristic burst of color in the Helsinki studio

Bergroth’s work has also made waves on her home turf: in 2012, during Helsinki’s reign as World Design Capital, Bergroth was named Design Forum Finland’s Young Designer of the Year. She has worked with Finnish design behemoths Artek and Marimekko, and in 2010 she collaborated with the Finnish company Kekkilä on a range of horticultural projects, including the now famous Garden Shed Rest. “It was designed as garden storage and a greenhouse but became huge when I got the prototype and made it my summerhouse,” she says. “I added a wooden floor in the greenhouse and put a bed inside. Those pictures have done the world tour!”

Iced in most of the year, Bergroth only makes it up to the idyllic summerhouse a couple of times a year during sojourns from France. Even though she is a successful designer living much of the year in Paris, it is clear that a love of the outdoors is something no Finn can ever shake.


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    Garden Shed Rest, a greenhouse and storage unit produced for Kekkilä with Ville Hara, 2010

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    Hel Yes! pop-up restaurants in Helsinki and London, 2010–11

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    Le Trabendo, a concert and music venue in Paris, 2012

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    Oasis and Floating Gardens, Fiskars Design Village, 2012