The water reservoir of DBA’s Humidifier fills simply, like a bucket. In a city of naked cowboys and cabaret clubs, the New York design company DBA is weirdly understated. Its humidifier, called Humidifier, isn’t much more than a glossy white cylinder, while its Extension Cord is, well, an extension cord wrapped around a polypropylene spool. The product called Notepads? Uh-huh: sheets of paper, folded in half and bound together. Even DBA’s name unpacks to reveal a deep commitment to the generic: It stands for Doing Business As.
Humility is the point. Rejecting design’s recent love affair with maximalist flourishes and clever one-liners, DBA’s MO is to wrest innovation from simplicity, creating products that are both obvious and necessary. When the firm formally launches in May, its initial line will include housewares, small appliances, travel items, and stationery—a “holistic” view, as creative director Leon Ransmeier puts it, that fills diverse needs with single products rather than flooding any particular market with endless variations. Think of it as America’s answer to Muji or Plusminuszero, with an emphasis on sustainability. “In order for things to have a long-term lifespan, they have to have a timeless aesthetic,” says Erik Wysocan, DBA’s creative strategy director. “We want to reconsider the disposability of products and planned obsolescence,” he adds, which means DBA will prominently display replacement parts to ensure its products can be easily repaired. Eco-friendly materials are also a priority.
One of DBA’s forthcoming products is an updated version of the dish rack Ransmeier designed with then-partner Gwendolyn Floyd and that appeared in the Cooper-Hewitt’s 2006 National Design Triennial. So it’s not just that the Extension Cord spool can roll and stack while untangling a mess of wires. Unlike standard cords, DBA’s isn’t wrapped in PVC—which becomes toxic when burned, as is often done during disposal or to scavenge the copper wiring inside—but rather a nontoxic elastomer. The 100 percent recycled Notepads have cover pockets and flaps that link multiple pads together, so you can expand, contract, and rearrange them. And the Humidifier not only does away with the upside-down water-reservoir acrobatics that many units require, it also fills simply, like a bucket—and sort of looks like one, too. “I like to think of my approach as intuitive minimalism, where things are reduced to elemental forms but retain a high degree of self-explanation,” Ransmeier says. You might be thrown off by the three spouts of DBA’s proposed Water Pitcher, but its triangulated body invites an easy grip, suggesting it can be poured from any direction. (The spouts have gravity-controlled flaps, so only one ever opens at a time.)
Ransmeier, 29, and Wysocan, 31, met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1999. Upon graduating, Ransmeier spent a year in New York before moving to the Netherlands, where he and then-girlfriend Gwendolyn Floyd, working together as Ransmeier & Floyd, achieved some success with a polypropylene light shade that was picked up by Droog, as well as a dish rack that was included in the 2006 National Design Triennial at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt museum. While there, Ransmeier flirted with the Dutch brand of design-as-poetry, with its charred pianos and honeybee-constructed vases, but soon came to see “all that heavy-handed conceptualism as unnecessary,” he says.
An all-white extension cord with a built-in spool is not only more graceful-looking than most, it also uses nontoxic materials. For his part, Wysocan had landed a freelance job as a graphic designer for the Manhattan interactive agency Sarkissian Mason. Wanting to tackle a less-fleeting medium—“I was bored,” he says plainly—and frustrated with “shopping for mundane things and not finding what I want,” he thought about branching into products. As it happened, Sarkissian Mason principals Patrick Sarkissian and Dan Ravine shared his ambition to venture into products. But the trio needed a partner with industrial design experience. They lured Ransmeier back to New York late last year.
A flat-pack space heater is composed of two square, white-enameled aluminum plates sandwiching a handle that doubles as a two-button control panel and power cord spool.
DBA will launch its first three products—the Humidifier, a water-purifying pitcher that accommodates a number of commercial filters, and an evolution of the Ransmeier & Floyd dish rack—during New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May. Future offerings, ranging from a tote bag, a space heater, and an electric fan to a glass water bottle and a pen with nontoxic ink, will follow.
But you won’t find them stacked high in any Muji-style emporiums. DBA is rethinking retail, too: While the company will initially focus on online sales, its ambition lies in a series of guerrilla-style “micromarts,” a web of small outlets situated in, say, an old newsstand kiosk, a shop-in-shop, or other interstitial spaces. “Instead of pumping cash and other resources into a flagship, we see it as a decentralized network that allows us to grow organically,” Ransmeier says. Anything else, after all, would seem somehow unnecessary.
Aric Chen is a contributing editor at I.D.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY IAN ALLEN