Community Spotlight: Sight Unseen’s Jill Singer & Monica Khemsurov
Splacer is a company founded by architects, so it was only natural for us to be drawn to Sight Unseen, a website that tracks and forecasts everything new and fresh in the design and art world. Started by two former I.D Magazine employees, Sight Unseen initially sought to offer behind the scenes access, but expanded to be the destination for anyone who wants to know what’s cool in visual arts. We caught up with the founders, Jill and Monica, to learn about their story, their goals, and, of course, their favorite architecture and design.
SPLACER: Tell us a little bit about yourselves, what are your backgrounds? And how did you get involved in I.D. Magazine?
SIGHT UNSEEN: We are Midwesterners, born and bred — Jill’s from St. Louis, Monica’s from Ohio — who moved to New York right after graduating college because we knew we wanted to work in magazines. We both came to I.D., where we met, from a journalism background rather than a design background. Monica had done a bit of freelance design writing for places like Surface but still I.D. was very much a trial by fire where we learned about the intricacies of the design world by speaking to as many people as we could and by witnessing it firsthand visiting studios.
SPLACER: How did you both meet?
SIGHT UNSEEN: We met at I.D. and worked super closely over four years – our team was so small, just four editors and two art directors, and we went to so many design-world events together that people had begun to think of us as a unit even before we founded a company together.
SPLACER: Has your time at I.D. Magazine influenced Sight Unseen, and if so, in what ways?
SIGHT UNSEEN: I.D. definitely influenced the editorial direction of Sight Unseen— when we left, we thought okay, what did we most enjoy doing in our time at this magazine? And for us, it was those studio visits, that voyeuristic, behind the scenes access where we got to see how designers lived and worked. Coming from a magazine background definitely influenced how we wrote as well. We were very intent at the beginning about being known as an online magazine rather than a blog, because there was a bit of a stigma against blogs at the time and a very real a sense of journalistic rigor behind our writing — we were reporting, not just re-writing press releases. Of course now those boundaries have collapsed as the web has evolved, and our writing has become more off-the-cuff and conversational as well. But there is still that intention behind what we do and a commitment to putting stories in context, whether it’s in the context of our relationship to a subject, or in the context of the whole history of design.
SPLACER: What was the impetus for starting Sight Unseen in 2009? Has your goals for the site since changed?
SIGHT UNSEEN: When we left I.D., we knew we wanted to do something together. We toyed with a few different business models, including starting an agency for emerging design talent and launching a print magazine. In the end, an online magazine had the lowest barrier to entry — it was the one thing we could do on a lark, without raising a lot of money at the outset (we literally did a Kickstarter campaign for $2,500 to cover development costs) — and it was something that could capitalize on our talents. What’s ironic is that in the years since, having Sight Unseen as a platform has allowed us to dabble in those other areas that interested us at the beginning — we did a bound paper journal in 2012 (and we’d do another one in a heartbeat!) and we’ve been able to launch talents, both via our site and through Sight Unseen OFFSITE, our annual design event. The goal of Sight Unseen has definitely changed since the beginning, however. We still offer that behind-the-scenes access but our site has also become about tracking and forecasting what’s new and next in design and art. It’s a serious destination for trend-spotters, creative directors, up-and-coming designers — basically anyone who’s interested in knowing what’s cool in the visual arts right now.
SPLACER: Any upcoming collaborations or events you guys are excited about?
SIGHT UNSEEN: We’re pretty much always thinking about Sight Unseen OFFSITE and about what, exactly, our role should be during New York Design Week.
SPLACER: At Splacer, we value space and the creative ways it can be utilized, what’s the most unique space you’ve ever been to? What was happening there?
SIGHT UNSEEN: We’ve been to events in some really incredible spaces — a dinner in an old bank vault in Brooklyn, a Glasser performance at the Philip Johnson Glass House, a meth lab recreated as art installation in a Miami condo, a classical concert at the Clärchens Ballhaus in Berlin, which has a preserved music hall from 1913. So, not sure about the most unique *ever*, but in recent memory, we really enjoyed seeing an original bath house and spa built by Piero Portaluppi in the ‘20s inside a subway station in Milan, which was open to the public this spring during the Salone del Mobile. It was kind of creepy, like a time capsule to another era. And of course we’ve also been to parties in Portaluppi’s Villa Necchi in Milan, the house featured in the film I Am Love, which is one of the most beautiful interiors we’ve had the honor to see in person.
SPLACER: Where would be your ideal home and who would design it?
SIGHT UNSEEN: A mid-century house with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that’s surrounded by trees and has a central indoor-outdoor courtyard. The interiors would be a collaboration between Clarisse Demory, Studiopepe, and Early Work and the landscaping would be by Matt Olson, formerly of RO/LU.
SPLACER: How would you describe your role in architecture and design?
SIGHT UNSEEN: We are the invisible (unseen?) hand that advances the careers of up-and-coming furniture studios and provides inspiration for designers and creatives everywhere. We can’t tell you the number of times we’ve walked into design offices — both independent and corporate — and seen printouts of our photos and Instagrams plastered all over their mood boards. Which makes us feel good.
SPLACER: Did you do anything for Archtober?
SIGHT UNSEEN: We are kind of bad about keeping up with architecture, but Monica did just go to Mexico City, which is basically the cool architecture capital of the world.
SPLACER: Favorite exhibition you’ve been to in the past 3 months?
SIGHT UNSEEN: Well, this is the exhibition we WISH we’d seen. But otherwise, it was a show at Rachel Comey, featuring these tiny watercolor-and-ink studies of furniture designed by women, drawn by Leanne Shapton. It was fun to see the pieces we know by heart — like Eileen Gray’s Bibendum chair — rendered in abstract brushstrokes but even more fun to try and identify the lesser-knowns. It ended up being a serious lesson in design history, with tons of pieces even we’d never seen before.