The showroom of lighting and furniture design studio Workstead is ensconced behind an ornate, redbrick facade on Warren Street in Hudson, New York. Amongst an intimate interplay of lighting and shadows, parquet floors run below a wooden table and around sand-toned sofas. An intricate fireplace lies in the centre of the room, and a wall sconce illuminates the roughly textured wall from behind its cylindrical brass shade. The Chamber Pendant IV hangs from the centre of the ceiling, casting its soft glow against pools of shadow that retreat into corners. Towards the rear of the showroom, a mahogany-clad library creates a moody setting for additional lighting fixtures: a table lamp on a bookshelf amongst hardbacks, sculptural logs and bookends, and the angular Chamber Chandelier above a writing desk, its intersecting form subtly echoed in a dark oil painting of a classical ruin.
Workstead was founded in Brooklyn in 2009 by Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Highsmith, who opened the Hudson showroom in Spring 2019. As well as designing lighting and furniture, Workstead includes an interior design studio based in Brooklyn, fronted by Ryan Mahoney, who joined the company a few months after its formation. Brechbuehler and Highsmith recently relocated to the Hudson Valley after a three-year stint in Charleston, completing work on the Dewberry Hotel and other local projects. During this time, they developed a refined design language they refer to as Southern Modernism.
The move back to the Hudson Valley is something of a homecoming for Brechbuehler and Highsmith, who are married with two twins, born in November 2018. Their white clapboard house in Gallatin, around 20 minutes’ drive from Hudson, is an original huntsman’s lodge from the 1800s, which the couple used as a weekend escape when they lived in Brooklyn, during the formative years of Workstead. “It really is a little jewel box,” says Highsmith. “We have had the house for eight years, but holistically renovated it this past year. When we moved to Charleston, we almost sold it once or twice, but just couldn’t part with it. We intuitively knew we would make it back north at some point.”
This move to settle in Gallatin as their permanent home was partly motivated by work, partly by family: “We did feel the need to firmly establish our presence in the north east,” says Highsmith. “Our studio in Brooklyn has continued to grow, and most of our interiors work happens in this part of the world. But with the evolution of our family, we also wanted to be near Stefanie’s mother. Stefanie was born in Switzerland – her mother lived there for the first 30 or 40 years of her life, and the rest of their family are still based there – so it was important for them to be close to each other. And strangely, there are a lot of aspects of the Hudson Valley landscape that resemble the region where she grew up – the pastoral, rolling hills of Emmenthal, outside Bern.”
Mahoney – who is a close friend of the pair from their time studying together at Rhode Island School of Design – tells me that the couple’s connection with the Hudson Valley also runs deeper: “Stefanie and Robert were married in that area, in a beautiful old barn, not too long after we started the company. They fell in love with the area, purchased the house in Gallatin, and decided to move there full-time in 2018, setting up the products showroom in Hudson the year after. It was all a long time in the making.”
The 19th century residence that houses the showroom is constructed in the Queen Anne style, replete with steep gables and an asymmetrical facade, and set back from the main street. It was originally the home of a former mayor of Hudson, and represents one episode of the town’s rich architectural history – one which Workstead are intimately familiar with, having worked on Rivertown Lodge, located further down Warren Street, in a classic 1920s edifice, which consecutively accommodated a motel and town cinema. Workstead brought in local craftspeople and millworkers to translate the space into a contemporary hotel. Fitted with wood and brass details, in a palette of muted primary colours, the hotel is a vision of the studio’s modern Americana concept. “Rivertown Lodge was one of my favourite projects,” says Mahoney. “It just slots so well into the town. We hope everyone – including local people and visitors – enjoy spending time there, either going to the bar, or simply relaxing and meeting with friends in the lobby.”
Whether sensitively renovating a historic building, or devising a new lighting collection, a consideration of the past is an important pillar of all Workstead’s designs. In some circumstances, one aspect feeds into the other, as in the case of the Lodge lighting collection, where the wooden and brass fixtures arose naturally from the Rivertown project. Workstead’s latest collection, Chamber, looks back to early American adjustable lighting, where shades could be manually lowered and raised about the light source to adjust its intensity. “We really value this analogue perspective, and the process of carefully selecting our materials, as opposed to opting for the latest shiny technology that might be available,” says Highsmith. “We wanted to look back into the history of adjustable lighting, and create a serial application of this cultural form across all the different fixture types. Once we found the showroom, and began installing the collection there, we realised what an ideal fit it was – there is an intimate scale to the collection that really lends itself to that space. I hope when people interact with the collection, they will feel they are coming into contact with a beautifully made object, but one that is not so precious that they are not welcome to manipulate it or use it. Lighting must be decorative, but also accessible and functional, and I think Chamber strikes that balance.” With two equal sides of the studio operating in harmony, one maintaining a foothold in the city, the other in the country, Workstead seems to embody this principle of balance perfectly.