NONE TOO PRECIOUS: THE RISE AND RHYTHM OF GREEN RIVER PROJECT LLC

WORDS BY IVY ELROD, PHOTOGRAPHY BY Clément Pascal

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN INDEX ISSUE Nº03: JOURNEY

We all have that friend who tips us off to the yet unknown: the record that was secretly released on Reddit, or the fact that high-vis clothing will be a huge deal in five years. For you, this magazine may well be that friend. For me, I married that friend. My husband tipped me off to the New York- based interior designers and furniture creators Green River Project LLC several years ago, before the features in Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair, before any American Design Hot List- ing, back when all I really had to go on were just a series of Instagram posts featuring their rough-hewn, sculptural furniture pieces that felt like they’d been created by artists rather than establishment designers. The pieces looked like what you might have found if some particularly dexterous castaways had washed up on a desert island for a generation, and created furnishings out of what happened to be available, integrated with random bits that may have washed ashore from far-flung societies. A combination of deeply considered, driven by materiality and exploration, and not in the least bit precious. Difficult to place in time and reeking of ingenuity.

Green River Project LLC are Ben Bloomstein and Aaron Aujla, two friends who met as art assistants in the late aughts in New York City. Aujla had come to New York from his native Canada with a bachelor’s degree in fine art history from University of Western Ontario. Bloomstein was a high school dropout, having grown up in a Sufi community on a former Shaker compound in upstate New York (and yes, we’ll talk about that more). While Bloomstein was working for Maccarone Gallery and later artist Robert Gober, Aujla was assistant to artist Nate Lowman. The two became studio mates, and their first inroads with furniture design emerged from necessity: they needed something to sit on in their studio. They now consider that first exploration, which yielded the One Pine Board Chair (2017) — made in one day from a single board of pine and screws — to be a signature of their studio ethos. The limitation in the wood and the sense of temporality, a kind of necessity-born urgency, speak through the chair’s simplicity and lack of fuss. Comfort is incidental. It’s not really the point.

“Decorating is not about making stage sets, it’s not about making pretty pictures for the magazine, it’s really about creating a quality of life, a beauty that nourishes the soul.” — Albert Hadley.

When I speak to the designers on the phone, I hear the cries of Bloomstein’s 13-month-old daughter in the background — a Covid baby, she’s never really existed outside of this pandemic that has kept New York largely shuttered over the past year. In her gurgles I sense the absence of any vulgar plastic baby-swing monstrosity in her vicinity. I’m certain she lies on a bassinet woven entirely from reeds that grow off the bank of the Green River in Hillsdale, the town in upstate New York where Bloomstein grew up. Well, I’m not certain, but I would definitely believe it. The Green River flows through the farm that Bloomstein was raised on — the aforementioned Shaker compound — and was the original site of Aujla and Bloomstein’s first forays into partnership; not initially as furniture and interior designers, but as gallerists. The Green River Project (sans LLC) was first an art gallery that showed out of the barn on Bloomstein’s family farm. Together they curated shows by artists and contemporaries such as Charles Harlan, Dan Herschlein, Kayla Guthrie and Robin Graubard, exhibiting a mix of installation, sculpture, painting and photography that would spill out past the barn gallery and into its surrounding environs.

Concurrent to opening their gallery, Bloomstein and Aujla continued their personal art practices, each on a path that wound its way toward furniture and interiors. Aujla made paintings and installations around the industry of renovating one’s home. He even created a conceptual Airbnb apartment within his Clearing Gallery show in Brussels, and then released a book with Karma documenting the transformation. 

The images of the apartment installation do not particularly predict the holistic environmental considerations the duo would go on to conjure in their design practice, but the stage was set for their approach to interiors as blurring the boundaries of fine art and design.

Meanwhile, Bloomstein’s work dealt with the body and furniture, how proportions of the body can be related to furniture, at one time creating a sculpture entirely out of handles. Flash forward to 2019, wherein the duo’s third collection of the year features hand-carved and painted African mahogany, ebony and black hyedua handles and drawer pulls.

It was Aujla’s now-fiancé and frequent Green River Project (GRP) collaborator, Emily Bode, who first encouraged the friends to transition into interiors full-time. Bode, a fashion designer whose flagship store on New York’s Hester Street would eventually be designed and executed by GRP, saw that Bloomstein was already essentially making furniture as sculpture, and knew the pair could take their same clear point of view — their ruthless artists’ attitude of leading with vision and figuring out execution secondarily — and apply it to entire interior spaces rather than singular pieces. At first, the duo functioned almost more as contractors and fabricators, handling project management. Support from Nate Lowman in the form of strategic introductions led to the duo simultaneously renovating three different high-profile artists’ spaces in 2017. So high profile, in fact, they can’t be named. It was Bloomstein who determined their business need to create and release furniture collections to establish their credibility so people would “respect us and not treat us like contractors.” Coming from his personal background on the farm and Waldorf schooling where you essentially figure out how to make anything, the lack of formal education in neither furniture nor interior design did not give him pause.

Since GRP makes everything in-house, they find no need for fancy drafting or rendering software — no AutoCAD or Rhino continuing-ed classes for these two. They find all that a waste of time. As an interior designer myself, I quietly consider how freeing it might be to have all my clients possess such a stringent belief and faith in my vision that they would not require or even ask for mock-ups or renders of their proposed spaces. But I also realise I use those tools for my own eyes as much as anyone else’s. These guys are simply not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, the mistakes are welcomed as a part of the product.

GRP approaches each new interior commission as a biographical process, based on a deep dive into the client’s personal identity and sensibilities. A perfect case study is found in Dr. Clark, the restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown that opened in early 2020. Restaurateur Yudai Kunayama wanted a nostalgic vibe, and Aujla and Bloomstein delivered by first researching Kunayama’s home of Sapporo, Japan, his education, and how westernised agricultural practices shifted the Japanese landscape in Hokkaido. Working on a rapid-fire deadline, the studio conceptualised and fabricated more than 60 pieces of original furniture and lighting, hung hydrangeas from the ceiling, and made the former site of Winnie’s Karaoke Bar — a New York landmark dive — feel like it had possibly been there for decades.

Kanayama came across Aujla and Bloomstein’s work when he visited the flagship boutique they had crafted with, and for, Emily Bode, which had opened in 2016. There too, they began with the story: what are the references for Bode’s world? These include her family, the quality of her mother’s bedroom light in their Cape Cod summer home, and the fantasy of a lost hotel in Maine. Bode is a menswear brand (also worn by many women), whose workwear influence is visible in the hand-tailored and sewn garments derived from Japanese textiles, Victorian quilts, French bed linens and African country cloth.

Aujla shared the studio’s initial queries when facing the Bode build: “How does a person have a first store? How do you have a retail space that is not ornamental for the sake of flash or some kind of design trend cycle? How do you craft a space that is authentically tethered to its owner?” Here, the design transcended the visuals — which were thoroughly encompassing themselves. Coffee- stained plywood alcoves and wood-panelled walls create an intimate feeling of the inside of a ship. Bode textiles are sewn into sofa upholstery cushions and pillows. A portrait of her father and her mother’s passport are framed on the walls. A placid, vaguely pastoral mural covers the ceiling. The smell of oud wafts and a flowing water sound is created by a little sailor boy trapped in a net — an antique fountain sourced in Atlanta, Bode’s hometown. Aujla even hand-painted the labels on the ornamental liquor bottles in the back of the store. To say that the Bode store is personal is like saying its contributors are having a moment: it’s a vast understatement.

So why is the world responding to this intensely narrative, process-driven work now? Perhaps it’s a reaction to the piecemeal, disembodied photo snapshots of Instagram and Pinterest homes that all end up looking like a flip book made from the off-white paint chips of Benjamin Moore.Or maybe it’s the slowing down of time that is felt in their work and their materials, a portal to timelessness, that resonates.

The first commissioned interior designer was Elsie de Wolfe in 1905. Other famous women of interiors, such as Sister Parish, Dorothy Draper and Bunny Williams all exhibited an alternatingly aristocratic, fussy, and preppy visual language. Apart from leveraging their socialite, well-heeled friends to grow their client base, none of these interior design icons share much in common with Aujla and Bloomstein. It’s the gentlemen in the field where one finds more parallels.

Take Le Corbusier: architect and holistic designer, known for blurring the lines of interiors and architecture. Corbusier espoused the belief in function above all else, creating homes that were “machines for living in,” as proclaimed in his 1927 manifesto. The tension between form and function in GRP’s work appears too taught to satisfy Corbusier. Often practical, yes, but I’m not sure if Corbusier would cosign the hanging dried hydrangeas at Dr. Clark, or the bushy raffia seat stools — chic and organic and wonderfully wig-like though they may be — that were part of the studio’s second collection of 2020.

Jean-Michel Frank, the early 20th-century creator of the famous Parsons table — which is marked by its simplicity and clean lines — is not the first designer who springs to mind when looking at GRPs body of work. His was a noted reference for the studio however, when creating Collection IV in 2018, an Art Deco-informed series inspired by Bloomstein’s grandfather, who was a naval architect. In espousing minimalism, Frank once proclaimed, “Throw out and keep throwing out. Elegance is elimination.” This extraction can be seen in the studio’s process itself: the underlying inspiration for a collection is not held too close to the chest; the final pieces needn’t demonstrate the through-line of where they started. The narrative is non-linear and internal.

Ultimately, the creative whose sensibility I see as most overlapping with GRP is Frank Lloyd Wright. Perhaps even more than Corbusier, Wright danced across the lines between architect, interior designer and furniture designer in his meticulous, all-inclusive vision, down to the built-in cabinetry, carpets, textures, and (often built-in) furniture. Like GRP, Wright took primary inspiration from the natural world, and was clearly influenced by Japanese culture in palette and efficient use of space, pioneering ‘organic design’.

Similar to the interiors practice, the GRP’s furniture series — put out four times per year (at a pace more resembling a fashion calendar than anything in the furniture space) — does not utilise shop drawings or cut-lists. Occasionally, rough sketches are made, but mainly used to communicate a starting place between the partners. States Aujla, “We build it, and all of the geometry and dimensions are roughed out, but they are tuned as we build.” They figure it out as they go. The tempo is brisk, and that tempo is crucial. They are driven to see things fast and immediately, an “if it’s not perfect, we’ll get it in the next round” mentality. Aujla speaks disdainfully of a chair that takes three years to design and produce. “I couldn’t be less interested than that. What the fuck is the point?”

So what’s next? The studio has just finished their first collection of 2021, to be released in April. True to form, the whole thing was done in 10 days. Things are busy, moving and evolving. Their secret appears to lie in one another. “I only wanted to do this with Ben. I wouldn’t be interested in doing things in the design world if Ben wasn’t my partner.”

Bloomstein agrees. “Aaron, more than any person I know, has a lot of tenacity and fortitude. He understands people really well and sees beneath the surface. He can extract the truth whether from a situation or from people.” Ben’s truth? He wants to one day design a car.

In thinking about the GRP’s body of work, I am brought to music. They say if you hit one wrong note, it’s a mistake. But hit two, and it’s jazz. There is a high level of improvisation and trust that goes into this partnership. Not only a willingness to make mistakes, but a celebration that a mistake may be a hidden intention, and letting these discoveries inform the ultimate design. My piano teacher was always reminding me not to play from my fingertips, that finger strength is finite, but using the fulcrum of my arm like a lever allows me to harness the power of my whole body to play. You can see Thelonious Monk lean into the keyboard when he’s getting intricate; he’s playing with his whole body. Aujla and Bloomstein don’t design from their fingertips, articulating clever flourishes; they’re leaning into
their instrument, playing from their core.

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