The 8 Ball: Mary Chan of Bartleby Objects
Bartleby Objects is a multi-disciplinary design studio, making objects of use for the home and individual that make daily life a little sweeter and a little easier. Each piece is made by hand in New York City by designer Mary Chan. Today we talk with Mary about the start of Bartleby Objects, how she decides what makes it into a collection, gyrotonic class, and artists she is inspired by. Mary is refreshing just like her designs.
How did you start Bartleby Objects?
It all happened over a long period of time and then very suddenly.
I started Studio Bartleby out of my one-room apartment back in 2005. I was practicing interior architecture and design but I wanted to integrate making things into the work so I described it as an office for objects & environments.
I did that for about 10 years and simultaneously made little things that weren’t client-related. I had a little knitted rug at a friend’s store that another boutique owner saw; she came to my studio so I showed her a bunch of random things I’d made and that ended up being the first “collection” but I was still primarily making a living as an interior designer.
Then my mom passed away kind of suddenly. It was like the part of my brain that could anticipate and solve problems on peoples’ behalf had been turned off; I truly became bad at 90% of the job. Interiors is like high-stakes therapy – it’s handling all your clients’ (and contractors’) emotions but there’s a very big price tag attached to every decision and if you’re not totally on top of everything, the consequences can be serious. I sort of muddled through that year but I could tell it wasn’t a tenable situation, so I slowly buttoned up ongoing projects as best I could, stopped taking new clients, and refocused in the studio. The things I made in that initial period, in 2016, became the official starting point of Bartleby Objects.
How do you decide what to include in a collection? Do objects come from personal needs? Thinking about the Knit Linen Washcloth for example- was this included out of a personal desire to replace the commonplace kitchen sponge?
Yes, in a way I’m addressing my own needs in every collection. Sometimes it’s something very practical, like the knitted washcloth – I started making those about 20 years ago because I’ve never had a dishwasher and kitchen sponges are horrible so I figured, let’s try to make this thing I have to do every day a little nicer. I would give them to friends and they would use them however they wanted - in the bath, as a pot-holder, and it just keeps going.
Sometimes I’m very material driven. Like I learn about a process or see a wacky pearl and I just want to do everything with it.
There’s usually one thing in each collection that really doesn’t make a lot of sense but I want to see that thing and nobody else is going to make it, so I will. I make a fur-lined tray that falls into this category; it’s technically challenging to make and it’s not a solution to anything per se, but I’ve seen people have an incredible reaction to this tray, as if it manifests something about themselves that they didn’t know. That kind of thing, this surprise love, I really enjoy making.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards certain colors in your work?
Yes, usually the muddier in-between colours. I used to teach colour theory so I became aware of how most naturally-occurring colours are intermediary and grew fond of those that border on being a little gross. But at a certain point, you look at the collections as a whole and I just can’t have a collection that looks like a massive bruise so then I’ll do a few styles in something super saturated and a little unnatural. In a way, that one strong colour will ground the whole collection; it breaks a natural world fantasy and brings us back to crazy reality.
What is the process behind making a Derby Convertible Bag? Hoping that you can share some insight into what this process looks like.
The Derry Convertible Bag falls in between the things I made that are totally practical and totally irrational. I wanted to walk down the street the way men do in films – totally symmetrical, freely moving their arms, unencumbered.
I made the prototype in the fall and wore it, all winter, over my coat as a belt bag plus the strap around my neck so it just became part of my body. And then as the Spring came, wore it more cross body plus the belt and I would push the bag to the back so the straps just made a strong line across the body but the bag was out of the way – it’s perfect for bike riding. But obviously not everyone shares my dream of wearing a harnessed cub scout pack, so I just made the belt and straps removable so it can be worn a bunch of ways.
Most of my bags are made with an idea of what it means to have to interact with this thing. It’s often about a physical sensation; in this case, the lack of sensation that we usually have of a bag sort of thumping into you as you walk. The sensation of moving as a self-contained symmetrical unit. Women don’t get that very often.
Artists you are inspired by and would like to share with us?
I learn the most from choreographers and writers. I’ll see anything by Trisha Brown or Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas. I like how staged work incorporated lots of different things - music, costume, formal elements. I like things that move.
I used to read a lot of fiction but I have to say, I haven’t read a real book in years. I don’t know why. I try not to stress out about it; if I want to read again, I’m sure I will. But the books I’ve read and loved stay in my head, so in a way I’m always thinking about Jeanette Winterson, Carole Maso, Stefan Zweig.
How do you describe your personal style?
I don’t know. It’s a little bit needs-must. I’ll wear the same thing every day for a week, or once a week for a year. I’ll wear the same clothes to the studio that I’ll wear to a wedding, I’ll just put an apron over it in the studio. Even shitty clothes cost money, which I would much rather save up for something not shitty. I’ll wear the same clothes in winter as I did in summer, I’ll just wear everything at the same time, plus socks.
Your studio is based in NYC. What do you love about being based there? Do you have any favorite spots?
I like the Morgan Library. It’s one of the smaller, less-visited museums that I think is often more beautiful and interesting than the huge ones.
I like that I can get a pretty high standard of any kind of food I want. I grew up in a few places so having food variety just makes me feel closer to the rest of the world. Every once in a while I think about moving, and I realise my only real criteria is to be within 20 minutes of tasty noodles.
This is a hard question because I’ve lived in New York for 20 years and I have to resist the urge to tell you everything I love that’s no longer there. But I’ll indulge myself just to tell you that there was a place in Manhattan, where I took a gyrotonic class, called Sal Anthony Movement Salon, that was an astonishing place. You’d walk into a huge room with dark wood paneling and a massive stained glass ceiling, but the room was filled with gyro equipment and non-camera-ready people in sweatpants. I’d just lie on that gyro bench, doing leg circles, looking up through the stained glass ceiling. It was the only place I’ve ever enjoyed exercising.
What's next for Bartleby Objects?
Well, hopefully we continue on in good health and we can continue public events through the Fall with more confidence. I really enjoy interacting directly with customers and kind of dream of having a more publicly accessible studio/shop, so I always have that possibility in the back of my mind.
If I’m brave we’ll do a Fall/Winter shoe and another knitted hat. The past year has been so bizarre, it’s hard to say what’s coming next but one of the nice things about making so many different kinds of things is I have lots of doorways to poke my head into.