Design Disruptor: Monica Khemsurov, Sight Unseen

Line of sight.

Monica Khemsurov, Sight Unseen
Photographed by Maria del Rio for Lonny.

Earlier we introduced you to Jill Singer of Sight Unseen, easily one of our favorite online design destinations and a definite authority in the space. Meet co-founder Monica Khemsurov, the other half of the much-loved site. The two met while working together at I.D. Magazine, and after they saw a hole in the market for a space celebrating new and upcoming multi-disciplinary names in the industry, Sight Unseen was born.

Give us the short story on how you got your big break in the design space.

"In 2004, I was offered a freelance writing gig at Surface magazine. I had no idea what I was doing but I needed the money, so I read a textbook about design and dove in. One of the first stories I did was an interview with the Italian furniture designer Fabio Novembre where he gave super-crazy nonsense answers and I was traumatized and thought I screwed everything up. They loved it and printed it word for word."

What does a typical day look like for you?

"I wake up and immediately look at my email. Like immediately. Then I work all morning, make myself lunch, sometimes leave the house to go to meetings or gym classes in the afternoon, meet friends for dinner or drinks, then come home and work again until late. Often with a TV show or two mixed in."

What’s been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on to date?

For me it’s a tie between Sight Unseen OFFSITE — the show we produce and curate each year during New York Design Week, which is always the culmination of some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life — and Design For Progress. Design For Progress is a fundraising initiative that Jill and I launched the day after the elections in November, which is meant to #resist the current administration and support the people and causes that it has been threatening. We raised $20,000 already for organizations like Planned Parenthood and the National Immigration Law Center, and we’re set to raise at least $50,000 more this month with our spring benefit auction.

Monica Khemsurov, Sight Unseen
Photographed by Maria del Rio for Lonny.

How do you define success?

"When I first moved to New York in 2001, I was walking down the street one day in the West Village and stopped to peer into the windows of a really nice grocery store. I told myself I will have made it if I can walk into a grocery store like that someday and buy whatever I want without looking at prices. I’m happy to say I’ve just about reached that goal! Now I define success in more abstract terms. My feelings of success increase the more I feel I’m nearing the top of my fields  —design and journalism — and the more impressive my professional network becomes."

What’s one thing about the design industry you’d like to change?

"I would like it to be more diverse. Sometimes design really feels like a boys’ club, where most of the big-name designers and CEOs are white men. So boring."

On the flip side, what do you find really refreshing about the space?

"The way designers are naturally smart and curious, and inclined to experiment with materials and processes. I’m a total materials nerd. It’s my favorite subject matter in design."

How would you describe what you do to someone who's never seen your work or site?

"In practical terms I’d say I help run a design blog and trade show that focus on new talents and ideas in contemporary furniture and interiors. In less practical terms I’d say that I inflict my insanely picky personal aesthetic on a small but devoted audience, and do a pretty great job at trend-spotting."

Where do you go for inspiration?

"We’re lucky that inspiration comes directly into our inboxes, since people send their work to us every day. Other sources of inspiration are Instagram, Pinterest, museum and gallery shows, art fairs, and nature. I like to be in the woods."

I just trust my gut when it comes to what I like, and try to have fun with it along the way.

In a space that’s so saturated and driven by trends, how do you make your work feel timeless and unique?

"I don’t make much of an effort to make my work feel timeless and unique, to be honest. I just trust my gut when it comes to what I like, and try to have fun with it along the way."

What other professions did you consider and why?

"I wanted to be a scientist my whole childhood, up until literally the month before I applied to college for journalism, when I decided that I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab full of dorky guys. I regret it when I think about how much I love science and solving problems, but not when I think about how amazing my actual lifestyle is now, and how much I get to travel and meet interesting, creative people."

What advice do you have for people trying to enter the space?

"We don’t have a typical 'space,' really — I don’t think that many people are trying to be design bloggers with a trade fair at this moment in time. But for non-investigative journalism in general, my nugget of advice would be: Don’t do it. Go do something that’s either well-paid or good for the planet (or both). Journalists who are just starting out now are getting a really raw deal. Between the internet and the increasing greediness of shareholders, journalists now have to do 10 times as much work for 10 times less pay. It’s really disheartening."

Is college needed — yes or no?

"For personal enrichment, yes. If you’re the type of strong, charismatic person who has the discipline to read and learn about the world and become socialized on your own, then absolutely not."

What’s next for your site?

"New York Design Week. I don’t really have the mental capacity to think beyond that at the moment!"

See the full list of Lonny’s design disruptors here.

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