An interview with Hardhat design - talking splitting time between NZ & NYC, co-working clubhouse MakeShift Society, and building a cabin the woods...

I'm not a secret squirrel about the fact that Jenny Miles and Nik Clifford of Hardhat are two of my favourite designers (you can see their work on Fancy here, here and here). But did you know they're both largely self-taught? And that they spend part of their year here in New Zealand and part of it in New York? Or that they're building a cabin in the woods? Read on...

Scenes from Jen and Nik's New York home - photography with thanks to Anna Schori

What are your backgrounds and where did you meet?
Nik: As a teen I was completely obsessed with photography, but after 2 years studying it, I knew it wasn't for me. After years in the wilderness (working for an arborist, selling crystals in asia, helping run a London cinema with Jen) I retrained in multimedia and began working doing design work for a startup in London. 

Jen: I studied art and design at A-level (16-18) but then got a bit sidetracked with an academic degree at UCL in London. As luck would have it I became very good friends with a photographer there who taught me a lot, and - strange but true - there was a dark room I could use whenever I wanted, for free, next to the bar in our halls of residence. I worked as visuals editor at the university magazine, then worked at the same cinema as Nik in the West End after I graduated (we actually met at a cafe job in Soho a few months prior). That started as a part-time job but quickly turned into a marketing manager role that involved a lot of in-house design. We were both studying design on the side at that point too, eventually getting full-time jobs in small agencies during the dot-com boom which meant figuring it out on the fly and on the job. It was nuts, but a lot of fun, and I learnt a hell of a lot in a short space of time. From there we both quickly decided to go it alone, setting up Hardhat in 2000.

You're living and working in NYC, but still spend time each year back home in NZ – that's got to be a dream held by so many NZ creatives!  
We’ve probably always wanted to work in careers that allowed us to be mobile, so when we started working in design we consciously chose to buy laptops and small mobile devices that would all fit into a bag. This gave us freedom and flexibility to travel, not just take 2 weeks holiday a year.

This means that while we might end up doing a bit of work while we're on 'holiday', we are able to spend 2 or more months in a different country each year, and can go away more often at the drop of a hat (we've been known to skip off spontaneously to Croatia for a few days, only to be found uploading files to a printer in the UK from a rocky beach on the adriatic between swims!)

New York has been a bit of a dream for us both for many years. In 2007, after 13+ years in London, we were feeling a bit jaded by the big city and needed a change, but moving from one intense city to another seemed like a bad idea. We decided, rather than move straight into more of the same in New York, to move to NZ (Nik's home country) for a while and set up studio there. Four years later, we'd come a long way, had cemented some really strong working relationships, were getting international recognition for our work, and were still feeling the pull of New York. The timing felt right at that point to expand to US shores.

Selfishly, we don't like the cold and want to avoid winters as much as possible, so the way we work now really is close to perfect: when we were in NZ we would spend a couple of months each year away from the NZ winter, basing ourselves in London over their summer, and now we're in NY we do the opposite.

It's really important for us to connect face-to-face with our clients, especially since we genuinely get on with them and many have become friends with many, so a couple of weeks just isn't enough to do that - we need enough time to see people more than once, to socialise with them, to really connect. So we make sure we spend a couple of months in New Zealand each year, with the plan to use New York as our primary base for the foreseeable future.

Jen and Nik visiting fave spots in their Brooklyn neighbourhood

Jen at work in their studio, co-working space Makeshift Society

How does NZ compare to Brooklyn (or greater New York) in terms of lifestyle and design community? 
So much is different; they could almost be polar opposites. We find being able to experience both is invigorating and inspiring creatively and personally.

New York is all about high energy, ballsy confidence, brashness, volume, a place of extremes and contradictions, of opposites colliding, and where the unexpected is the norm; you never know what you might see or hear next!

Inspiration is everywhere, which can be good and bad. You can't avoid being aware of current trends and fashions, and you can find inspiration whenever you step out the door; there are so many shows and talks and classes to go to. But this also means one is quite passive - it all comes to you, without having to go out and consciously search it out. Which can also become a dangerous distraction instead of being useful! We have to make a concerted effort to take time out and leave the city on a regular basis; not as easy to do as it is in NZ, but easy enough once you figure out some of the logistics!

NZ on the other hand is a place for space - physically and mentally. It allows us to stop and let all the inspiration crystallize and turn into something. We never underestimate the importance of allowing ideas & inspiration come from stepping away and finding space. It is a place that is more about nature, about quiet, subtlety, modesty. Things happen slower which can be frustrating but also a real relief, and something that can allow for an idea to really develop into something well rounded and thoughtful rather than spontaneous and quickly rushed out.

We've been lucky in that we've landed in an incredibly creative community here in Brooklyn; we have a lot of creative friends here already from both London and NZ, our studio Makeshift Society is a wonderful hub of creative people (Design*Sponge work out of here too). Even though NY is a big city, our corner of Brooklyn has a villagey feel and with a bit of effort you quickly get to know people pretty well, many of whom have been really supportive, helpful and encouraging. So in fact our little Brooklyn-based faction of the larger New York design community (which is huge, varied and far reaching) is really not that different from New Zealand!

 Hardhat's brilliant identity for Makeshift Society - creative clubhouse and co-working space

How did you get involved with Makeshift Society?
Jen had read about Makeshift Society opening in Brooklyn on Design*Sponge (Grace Bonney is friends with the Makeshift Society founder, Rena Tom). They were only in San Francisco at the time, with plans for the Brooklyn outpost, and fundraising on Kickstarter. A creative co-working space with a focus on communication and collaboration sounded like such a great concept that we reached out. 

It seemed like perfect timing; we were looking for a creative community, a work space, and new clients, and thanks to Rena being such a positive force who always wants to say yes, we ended up with all 3! We worked on their refreshed identity that was rolled out at the same time as their Brooklyn expansion, have office space here, and are part of a growing creative community. 

What are some of your favourite (large or small) elements of the new Makeshift space?
Apart from the regular and varied classes and events, and the ‘meet, greet, sip!’ evenings for members, we love the space itself; interior architect Bryan Boyer (also on the board of directors at MSS) has done a wonderful job creating a flexible and beautiful space. We love the nooks that allow us to change things up during the day – a sunny morning spot around a coffee table in the window, high stools around a shared counter table when we’re feeling more sociable, a cosy couch hidden towards the back of the space in the library (a great addition; members, non-members & publishers continue to gift us lots of books) – and the ‘cube’ upstairs is a lovely space; the whole front closes to create a private conference/meeting space, or open fully up to create a stage for events. The fact that the walls are painted with a clear whiteboard paint so it feels like you're drawing on the walls is an added bonus.

Makeshift Society photographs by interior architect Bryan Boyer

What's coming up for Hardhat? (What are you working on at the moment?)
We’ve been enjoying a slightly quieter time after a really busy summer, focusing on a few personal projects and collaborations including a stationery line with a West Coast-based (US) furniture amd homeware design studio, and opening titles for a documentary film in the making. As far as paid work is concerned, amongst other things we're working on an online store for one of our existing NZ clients, and pitching branding ideas to a London-based coffee company. Did we say it was a quiet time?! 

The summer was pretty crazy. We were working on packaging design for both a major national beauty chain under the Limited Brands umbrella as well as a gourmet popcorn company in Pittsburgh, as well as finishing off the design of LeeAnn Yare and Larnie Nicolson’s latest book Rooms to Love published by Penguin books.  Looking further ahead, a big personal project for next year is design and build and interior fit-out of our own off-grid cabin in the beautiful catskill mountains of upstate new york.

Jen and Nik designed the just-launched NZ interior ideas book, Rooms to Love 

Fave piece of NZ design/creative (from any discipline) you've seen in the past year or two?
Kelvin soh’s (DDMMYY) work for Triumph & Disaster was a favorite of ours, kayak1 from our friend Jamie McLellan is absolutely stunning, and we’ve fallen in love with several pieces from our clients Douglas and Bec. We were also really impressed with what Material Creative did with the interior of Tonic Room (we worked alongside them on that while working on the overall identity system). More in the fine art arena but still pretty graphic, both Gavin Hurley’s and Sam Mitchell’s work (both at Melanie Roger) tends to win us over.

A new website for NZ furniture designers (and Hardhat friends) Douglas and Bec

Your fave new Brooklyn spot?
Some of these have been around for a while, but are (relatively) new to us...

Coffee:  Kinfolk 90
 (Wythe Ave, Williamsburg) - we swear Thom here makes the best coffee in the borough, and it’s a surprisingly calm, quiet space for the madness that is Williamsburg.

Dinner & Drinks:  St Mazie
 (Grand Street, South Williamsburg) - great drinks, beautiful decor and 1 block from the studio!

Shopping/Food: Emily's Pork Store (Graham Avenue) - the most wonderful, local, family-run Italian deli

Clothing: Kai D Utility (Grand Street, Williamsburg)- beautiful tailored clothing, mainly menswear
Plants/Homewares:  Sprout Home (also Grant Street) - plants, flowers, seeds, and such a calming space

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