Founded by designer Jason Miller the New York-based lighting group Roll & Hill launched in 2010 on the wave of a growing international appetite for 'Made in America'. The Roll & Hill headquarters are a large industrial warehouse in Brooklyn, where design, fabrication, assembly and collaborations with over 100 makers takes place. Along with Jason Miller, designers including Jonah Takagi and Lindsey Adelman produce a range of robust yet finely detailed lights that shift in scale and material. Pieces include the handblown glass Modo pendant, reminiscent of the glamour of 1970s interiors; the Bluff City wire-frame light that offers a colourful take on an industrial lamp; and the sculptural Antler collection, each chandelier constructed of handmade ceramic antlers by a 60-year old couple in South Dakota.
Here Jason Miller chats with more space about his company that is fast gaining an international following for its locally manufactured lighting built on the traditions of American industrial craftsmanship.
HD: Your studio and workshop is located in Brooklyn, New York, in an area with a very exciting mix of artists, musicians, designers and makers. Could you describe your neighbourhood?
JM: We are in Greenpoint, which is a neighbourhood within Brooklyn and on the edge of a very industrial area and a residential area. We sort of land in the industrial part. It's a bit hectic and truck traffic out here. The neighbourhood that I live in which is right next to Greenpoint, Williamsburg, twenty-five years ago became a hotbed for artists looking for workspace and living environment so there became a real community of makers. I think that has proliferated around all of Brooklyn and it does definitely have a really active community of makers, whether that's artists, designers, musicians or chefs and it's really a part of the culture of Brooklyn.
HD: To launch a lighting company that focuses on locally produced designs from the US is not an easy step, can you tell us how it all began.
JM: There were two initial catalysts. I was doing exactly what we are talking about. I was making a line of lights out of my studio and manufacturing them myself out of my studio and having quite a good commercial success with that, but I never really turned the corner and made it into the business it could have been. I saw that there were a lot of other designers around New York who were having similar success specifically with lighting. So, it seemed to me that it would be a good idea, or at least good business venture, to take all of those studio produced projects, give them the financial backing and infrastructure that are required to really sell on a bigger level and make a company out of that. So that was the start. A business plan to help along something that I saw happening in New York. So I brought on board my friends in and around New York who were doing something similar. Producing lights themselves, or who had designed lights for other companies. So I went right to them, I didn't get on the phone to try and track down the Campana Brothers or Marcel Wanders. I wanted to start with the people working locally. In that regard I was very conscious of the decision.
HD: So, in a way, you designed Roll & Hill around the skills of local designers and craftspeople?
JM: I do think that has been informing the work of designers in and around New York for at least as long as I have been designing for, a decade or so. That notion was already in the work itself. When I started to approach designers to be part of the collection they had already gone down this road and, in a way, were trying to do the same thing. You can probably sympathise with this in Australia, we feel very remote over here in North America too. In terms of the design world, let's face it, it all comes from Europe. For an independent designer living in New York there really aren't that many opportunities. We are stuck with two options. You get on an airplane and try to track down all those Italian companies, which is virtually impossible and very few people manage to do it and make a living at it, or you try and create something from scratch here at home. If you are doing that you start working in a way I am talking about. So that is really where it came from.
HD: This approach is very similar to the Italian model: a local network of craft specialists producing work specific to region.
JM: I think maybe it would be interesting to describe our idea of what local is. For us it was very much out of necessity. This is not an intellectual idea or mandate for production, we really did it because I didn't start this company with a lot of money. We had to figure out how to make it work with the resources that were available to us. That's what necessitated us working in this way. I think that's an important point. This was necessity. Because of that we think of locally as not just like within a 100 miles of our office, some sort of arbitrary number, it's really what we have access to and that starts down the street and it expands into all of New York and outward from there. There are certain things that encompass large blocks of areas. For instance to get something UPS'd from 500 miles from here is no different that getting it UPS'd from down the street. When we think of local it's kind of done in those steps of easy facility. It doesn't work with everything. If I was trying to make plastic kids' toys I could never do it in the way I am making lights now.
HD: Who are the local craftspeople you collaborate with?
JM: They vary. I would say that our biggest supplier is a metal machining shop who do a lot of aircraft work. We do a lot of the machined aluminium and brass. On a smaller level we work with a glass blower here in Brooklyn who makes glass for us one piece at a time, hand made, mouth blown. So it's a range of craftspeople to production. In our catalogue right now we have a story on the ceramics manufacturer that we work with who makes the antlers for the Antler lamps. I have been working with Nina and her husband John for seven or eight years now. Nina is a woman in her 60s, she's a grandmother, she lives in South Dakota and she makes antlers. For her it's a side business. She used to have a ceramics store in South Dakota and she closed that down and now basically all she does is make our pieces. It's just her and her husband and they do it really well, we get exactly what we want and it's perfect every time. We tried to get it manufactured in Asia and it didn't work. The price was not that much cheaper and the quality was bad. I enjoy working with people like Nina and John, it makes me feel really good about what I do on a daily basis.
HD: There is certainly a connection between what you are doing – handcrafted, industrial production – to what designers including Achille Castiglioni were doing in the 1950s and 60s.
JM: Yes exactly. If you look back at vintage Italian lighting I think it has a lot in common with what we are doing right now. The contemporary work that Flos and Artemide are producing is not so similar but I guess that is more a function of the scale of their business now. I know that many of our designers look at that for inspiration as well. I have a Gino Sarfatti book on my desk right now.
HD: What is on the drawing board at Roll & Hill at the moment?
JM: We launch new work in May. We have four new designs that are coming out. One by Lindsay Adelman, one by Jonah Takagi, one by myself and one by Lucas Peat who is a new designer for us. I saw Lucas's work online and I really liked it so I approached him and we signed him up to do this piece last year. So now it's crunch time to get these done and ready to show.