Furniture Studio thehighkey Humanizes Post-Industrial Design

Among other things, this Brooklyn-based practice crafts skatepark-inspired conversation pits

John Vieweg, founder of Brooklyn-based creative practice thehighkey, likens the American landscape to an infinite highway. “Most of American land is actually the space between two locations as opposed to the locations themselves which is really interesting,” he tells us. “This physical backend that underpins all of our material, all our construction, all of our labor, all of our shipping—I think this is a space that’s ripe for creation.”

While many people view concrete-clad cities, dilapidated warehouses and construction sites as pesky eyesores, Vieweg recognizes them as critical emblems that reflect today’s stale and inhuman landscape—as well as the ecosystems at work that give rise to them. But Vieweg does more than lament a demoralizing world; he re-contextualizes these spaces to create new, human-centered designs. This is the crux of Vieweg’s furniture studio.

Founded in 2020 and preparing to present at this year’s Art Basel Miami, thehighkey deals in unexpected forms and materials that acknowledge today’s alienating modernism, while exploring how it could better serve the people. From the “RELIEF” collection, the curvy Glove Couch is boucle-upholstered seating, made from industrial foam and plywood—materials commonly found in manufacturing. Aesthetically, it aptly applies relief to industrial implements via its organic curvature. Conceptually, it takes after the forms of throwie graffiti, transforming its round shape into functional and inviting furniture.

“thehighkey is my creative practice that stems from my lifelong experience of living in what I would call the spaces of post-industry,” says Vieweg. “The goal of modernism throughout the 20th century was to create a ruthlessly efficient urban infrastructure: highway systems, gridded streets, gridded neighborhoods, really uniform homogenized stuff to make society perform better. Actually, in a lot of ways, it made it perform worse and we deal with the externalities and the aftermath of that ghost infrastructure that’s been mostly abandoned.”

Having lived in various cities throughout his life—from Miami and Detroit to New Orleans and Brooklyn—Vieweg taps his own personal experiences of confronting post-industrialism to derive his designs. “That’s why I’m really interested in this urban condition and the ability to take it and re-envision the present differently. How can these spaces that have been traditionally anti-human or left people out bring people back together?” he says. “Furniture for me is very accessible. It’s a place where I can be highly personal and start to tell my stories.”

The modular conversation pit further synthesizes Vieweg’s experiences of living in an environment that prioritizes economy before people with his ethos to humanize space. Crafted from foam and urethane coating, the pit is a sunken lounge concept with geometries that are reminiscent of concrete skateparks: hips, ramps, bowls and pads. The design is an extension of Pierre Paulin’s iconic 1970 conversation pits which saw a revival during the pandemic.

“I was really interested in this idea of his timeless design and not overtly updating it but creating a spiritual successor,” explains Vieweg. “So the difference between Pierre Paulin’s design and this one is Paulin’s geometric design is just used for seating. I’m actually lopping off some of that and giving flat surfaces to store items. The pit becomes… I don’t want to say functional, but it becomes a little more of an environment, usable through a subtle change in geometry.”

Like the Glove Couch, the pit is made from industrial byproducts which endear another level of functionality. The pit can be used indoors as well as outdoors and then reconfigured in various ways.

While Vieweg isn’t much of a skater himself, he spent a lot of time in skate parks throughout his adolescent years living in Florida. Recalling Gainesville and Fort Lauderdale skateparks, he says, “I remember it being such a place of community even though I was complete trash. It wasn’t even about the function of skating, it was about bringing people together in this impactful way.” Here Vieweg locates the irony and brilliance of his design: post-industrial materials, while intended to be alienating, simultaneously create spaces for community. The sunken lounge cements this silver lining, utilizing these same materials as a space for gathering, conversation and engaging family and friends.

The founder continues, “At the end of the day, I’m making furniture and objects and shit for people to enjoy—and that’s the other half of it. Something can be philosophically significant and also just be fun.” The modular concept does both and then some.

I want this illuminated moment where everything is clear, where you can grasp what is happening

thehighkey’s unexpected designs feel relevant and exciting because the practice is built on understanding the current moment. The name itself, which refers to being at a high-up vantage point, characterizes the studio’s central mission. “I think of a view from an airplane, looking down at a sort of cultural context. Once you understand the contemporary moment and the context in which you can see it, that’s when you are most able to act as a creative,” he explains. “The quality of high-key photography is well-lit, light lights. So I want this illuminated moment where everything is clear, where you can grasp what is happening. From that point, I think you can become a responsible and effective creative.” thehighkey is undoubtedly both.

Images courtesy of thehighkey