Independent furniture designers face many challenges today. Between the creative process, physically producing their work, and the entrepreneurial aspects of marketing and selling, an artist needs to be a “jack of all trades.” However, Jean Lin, founder of Colony has found a way to mentor emerging talent and help them cultivate their careers.
With a gallery located in downtown Manhattan Lin’s unique co-op model truly makes it possible for artisans to thrive. Products feature a mix of unique furniture, lighting, textiles, and decor, Colony is the ideal place to source unique items for the home.
In April 2023, the company launched its unique incubator program, called The Designers’ Residency. This eight-month program was created to cultivate studio experiences and collaboration opportunities. The end goal is to launch their own studios and exhibit their first collection through Colony. The first artists participating in the program are Marmar Studio and Alexis & Ginger.
I recently spoke with Lin about her business model, why fostering emerging design talent is so important as well as why consumers prefer an in-person experience when it comes to purchasing items for the home.
Amanda Lauren: Before launching Colony, you worked in fashion. What do you think is the connection between the fashion and interior design industries?
Jean Lin: I think that fashion and interiors speak the same language. I think that there’s a common language and aesthetics, and proportion and pattern and color that are sort of universal to the two fields. I think that it doesn’t necessarily mean that a talented fashion designer will be a talented interior designer, but I do think a shared language exists.
Lauren: How did you come up with the idea for Colony?
Lin: It was after Hurricane Sandy. A lot of us were looking for ways to help. Myself and a friend thought of this idea to have a charity show, asking local designers to create work out of debris from Hurricane Sandy. For example, using wood from fallen trees.
It took about a month for us to get together because there were just so many designers in the community that were just so excited and eager to do something. It was such a big success and we got a lot of press coverage. And everybody asked when the next one would be. So I had another one the following May during New York Design Week.
I started to become better friends with these makers of furniture, lighting, and textiles.
They started to communicate a lot of this a lot of similar frustrations to each other about the plight of being an independent designer in New York and how hard it is to show your work.
The work is very expensive and there are not a lot of places where clients and people can just go in and sit on the chair or touch the touch of the credenza or whatever it might be. And the places that did exist at the time, were very sort of traditional in the way that they were structured. They were much more like a showroom where they were taking a big commission on every sale.
So my idea really was to pool everybody’s talents and resources and start a cooperative gallery, where we charge a monthly fee. And then our commissions were a fraction of what was normal. So in that sense, the designers that we represent are really given the opportunity to grow with their sales rather than chase their margins.
Lauren: There’s a seemingly endless amount of products we buy online as American consumers. Yet, many people still need to experience furniture for themselves, whether it’s a sofa at a chain store or something high-end and custom from a gallery. Why do you think this is?
Lin: When I started Colony, there was this really big push online. I felt like I was in a space where the in-person experience was being less valued just for the convenience of sort of the overhead of the company that was starting it.
But I feel strongly that it’s coming back around. It’s so important to touch and feel these things—because we live with them. In the best-case scenario, these items aren’t disposable.
They’re not necessarily consumables or something you can really impulse buy. There are so much money, time, and material resources that go into creating these items, that you hope that they stick around, not just for our own lives, but also for the environment and society as a whole. So I think that the idea of buying something like a dining chair or a sideboard— anything like that, without seeing it is just, it really sort of sells everybody in the process short.
Colony also offers interior design services and it’s become so clear since we started how important how much how truly important it is that people can experience things before they buy them.
[But], the practical answer is that it needs to be comfortable. It needs to last and be good quality, but you can’t know that unless you see it.
Lauren: Why is mentoring emerging talent so important to you?
Lin: Ten years ago, it felt like there was a small handful of independent designers that were doing really well. And then just the sea of people who were ambitious and talented, but didn’t really have anywhere to go. So I started saying the mission of Colony was to give a platform for the emerging young, independent designer that didn’t have one already.
Lauren: What do you look for when you choose designers to mentor for the residency program?
Lin: I think that what we look for is somebody who has their own voice. And when I say own voice, I mean their own unique voice, somebody who is thoughtful in their designs and pushes themselves to create something that feels very fresh and new. I think having an unmatched work ethic is something that has to be there. It’s kind of a prerequisite.
Lastly, after nine years of selling the furniture, or trying to sell furniture, is that a huge part of it is its solubility, marketability, and whether or not I think it has a place in today’s market.
Lauren: What is your overall mission for the residency program what do you hope to achieve with it?
Lin: I want to bring in bring forth the next generation of independent designers into the market. And be a soft landing for newly graduated students, and people who are brave enough to start their own studios.
I think that there are a lot of people out there who have a lot to offer to our industry who don’t necessarily have the knowledge or experience to be able to know what to do with their energy and their hard work. And my hope with the residency is that we can be that for them.
Lauren: What do you think the residency program will look like in five and ten years?
Lin: One is that we continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is working really hard at bringing our message out into the market, which is that independent, emerging design is something to be reckoned with. And it’s something that adds a lot of value. And I believe that with my heart and I know that we’ve done what we can in the last nine years to prove that. And reach more people with that message.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.