2024-04-03 5 min read

Only as good as our references

Only as good as our references
Lab glassware, desk knives, and keychains at the Craighill studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Hunter is surrounded by toys.

Of course they aren’t really toys; they’re design references, some bagged and labeled and some just sitting there, somewhat out of context, looking nice. The one that looks the most nice to me is a piece of lab glassware. It is molded, Hunter shows me, and it has a seam that runs from its top to its bottom and back up to its top again. It’s heavy — the name “Pyrex” used to mean “borosilicate glass,” but today much of the product line is made of soda lime and feels chunky and substantial where it used to be delicate and dainty. I like both varieties, an opinion Hunter seems to agree with, and anyway we both really like this particular piece, which I suppose you’d call a flask, its sides eased slightly as if it’s asking you to pick it up. Its cap is plastic, which is not a material that Hunter uses often, but actually this one is kind of great. I pick the flask up, remove its cap, put it back on. I really like it.

We’re in the Craighill offices in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I had DM’d Hunter a week or two earlier and asked for a visit; we haven’t seen each other maybe since the pandemic, and he was gracious about my request, suggesting even that I might be able to help him think through some aspect of the way they organize their inventory — a topic which we fail to touch on during the ninety minutes I spend there. I arrived cold and soaking wet, having biked the long way in the rain, over two bridges for no reason other than the extra kilometers and to get, I suppose, colder and more soaking wet. In Hunter’s office I shed my outer layers in as organized a fashion as I could think to while simultaneously going through the social motions of catching up. Hunter’s office is clean and perfectly disorganized. It exhibits a flavor of interior design sprezzaturra that feels familiar; it is perhaps more a home for random objects than for Hunter himself, and my wet-weather-cycling objects — which are mismatched and now slightly disorganized — feel as if they at least somewhat fit in.

The soda lime flask is just one of many pieces of glassware in Hunter’s collection. It has a sibling, also with an orange plastic cap and marked with Pyrex’s old Futura logo, but that’s just the start. There is also a low, screw-top borosilicate jar — blown, not molded — which Hunter has printed a plastic lid for; there are a couple of prototype aluminum vessels, CNC machined and containing a handful of coffee beans each; there is a frosted glass bottle with a ground glass stopper. Hunter says — he’s not sure on the details, but it sounds credible to both of us — that apparently you can make an air-tight seal on a bottle like this one, the tapered glass stopper mating neatly with the tapered mouth of the bottle. I hold the jar in my left hand, and the stopper in my right, and I try to feel the moment at which the stopper lodges itself into the bottle’s mouth. It’s a subtle motion, the slightest twist of my wrist combined with gentle pressure, and like a chuck in a drill press’s spindle the stopper lodges itself into the bottle, the two parts acting almost as one, and now I can pick the bottle up by the lid, static friction doing the work that might otherwise require fasteners or threads.

It is not Hunter’s job to play with bottles, and neither is it mine. But we both sink into the activity, at least until Hunter picks up a desk knife they’re about to launch, and I follow suit, and then he’s trying to remember how the ball detent is held in place and I’m deciding whether I’d want to open it purely with the flick of my finger or if I’d also give the blade a nudge with my thumb (the former). Later, when we’ve walked through the rest of the studio and I’ve thumbed through the desk ornaments and bar tools in their trade show display, he digs through one of his many plastic totes (there are at least a few dozen of these in his office, with labels like “FELT MATERIALS” and “TALK TO ME – EXTRA ARMS”) and retrieves miscellaneous samples of braided wire rope. The wire rope seems almost animate, prehensile, capable not only of having an opinion but of expressing it. I don’t know what to do with it, but I would not be surprised to learn that it had ideas for what it wanted to do with me.

A month goes by, and again I bike up to Greenpoint on a cold and rainy day. I have missed the launch party that Craighill threw for their new knife; it apparently included a knife-throwing competition, which Hunter says had “an air of seriousness.” I have come to ask him what, exactly, Craighill does. Hunter becomes thoughtful, and recounts the company’s previous mission statement, which included a reference to helping people understand how the built world works. It was daunting, he says, and recently they revised it – adding, jokingly, that the half-life of mission statements might only be six months or so. Today, he says, he mostly wants to create a sense of childlike wonder. Which to me is the feeling I get while looking at an odd collection of design references: Lab glassware, prototype desk knives, wire rope samples.

“We’re only as good as our references,” Hunter says. He describes stumbling upon some superlative supplier of obscure products, perusing their catalog and finding one exemplary object, which he plucks out of its context and drops onto the workbench in his office. There, recontextualized, it can flourish: It might teach us about how it works, or tell us a story about how it was made, or simply provide us with a moment of wonder. 

I reassemble my rain gear, go back to the street, and ride home, wondering about lab glassware.


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