“We wanted to work solely with humble materials to not take attention away from any of the items on display, so the entire store is constructed with plywood with a focus on the millwork. ”Located on an unassuming corner of Manhattan’s East Village, Nalata Nalata is a calm respite from the hectic streets of New York. Opened in 2014 by Angélique Chmielewski-Aung and Stevenson Aung, the small home goods store has quickly become a favourite amongst in-the-know New Yorkers and, thanks to their burgeoning online shop, people around the globe. With backgrounds in fashion and industrial design respectively, the newlyweds have a keen eye for beautiful and functional goods. More than a typical designer boutique, at Nalata/Nalata, the human element is key and the two have made travelling to meet, and foster relationships with the people that make the products they sell an integral part of their business. So much so that the shop now holds regular exhibitions where makers from Japan and around the world visit the shop to display their goods, tell their story, and connect with customers; creating an intimate cross-cultural dialogue that is unheard of in the modern age of mass consumption. We reached out to Angélique and Stevenson in-between buying trips where they curated a selection of some of their favourite products and told us more about what makes Nalata/Nalata special.
What is Nalata Nalata?
Stevenson: A small company obsessed with handcrafted goods and design.
Can you each tell us about your backgrounds prior to opening the store?
S: I was born in Newfoundland, moved around but my family ended up settling in Edmonton. Pursued finance as a profession but was always a wannabe artist. Found my way to industrial design with a lot of luck and a bit of courage at the right time.
Angélique: Unlike Steve, I grew up in one city my whole life before moving to New York to study design. I was actually in the fashion world before we opened the store.
You’re both Canadian. Why did you decide to open Nalata Nalata in New York?
S: It’s the greatest city in the world. And our home.
How does the city influence your work?
A: People influence our work and the people of New York are fascinating.
Did you see a gap in the market?
S: We did. About a year out of design school we founded Nalata Nalata and at that time we were living in a small apartment in Fort Greene so we had to be very conscious about the products we brought into our living space. What was frustrating at that time was that there was a big divide between what a retailer did and what publications or magazines did. All we were trying to do with Nalata Nalata was bridge that gap, so our clients could read and understand the stories behind the products they were purchasing in one place, because we felt it was important. It’s just the idea of living mindfully.
Nalata Nalata has a strong presence of Japanese made goods. Was this always the plan?
S: Yeah, to a degree. In terms of homewares, we typically gravitate towards items that are quiet in nature and well crafted, so it was always a comfortable fit.
What is it about Japanese made goods that appeal to you?
A: Impeccable craftsmanship is one thing but it’s also the Japanese approach to design that we gravitate towards. Actually there’s a lot of crossover aesthetically between Japanese products and those of other regions like Scandinavia but the Japanese have multiple layers of meaning upon meaning in every design decision that we find absolutely brilliant. Philosophies like wabi-sabi, mono no aware and seikatsu kogei, they’re really in line with our own design principals.
S: Ditto. I also think their proportions are more appropriate for our own lifestyle and living in an urban environment.
Can you tell me more about the design of the store? Were there any particular inspirations?
S: We wanted the store to feel like a serene space to contrast its urban surroundings in Manhattan. Angélique and I took a really long time designing the space. We fussed over little details and finishes. We wanted to work solely with humble materials to not take attention away from any of the items on display, so the entire store is constructed with plywood with a focus on the millwork.
A: Actually to this day, stepping into the store is one of my favorite feelings. It’s instantly calming.
How has the shop evolved since opening?
S: Hopefully, we’ve become better storytellers over the years.
How do you go about finding new products to bring into the shop? What are the criteria you look for when choosing a new brand or maker?
A: We take on a philosophy that’s very human focused when it comes to selecting products. We usually start by visiting a lot of makers and brands we’re intrigued by, building relationships and trying to understand their history. We think about a product’s lifespan as well, but in the end it comes down to the people so we often consider whether a product will have a useful function in somebody’s life.
How does travel influence the shop?
A: I feel like in order to get a firm grasp on anything you need to experience it firsthand so traveling and meeting with the artisans and brands allows us to gain knowledge about a product from a variety of perspectives that helps inform our decisions.
You seem to have a close relationship with many of the makers you sell. How do you build these ties?
S: Lots of patience. Lots of empathy. And a shared respect for our roles.
“We wanted to work solely with humble materials to not take attention away from any of the items on display, so the entire store is constructed with plywood with a focus on the millwork. ”
Why is it important to know the people behind the products we use?
S: I don’t know if it’s important for all of our clients to know the backstory behind the products being used, but it always has been for us in a very similar manner that nowadays many more people are conscious about the food they consume. For us, in many ways, objects become more human when you are aware of the backstory, it becomes more sentimental. That feeling of surrounding ourselves with meaningful items has a way of enriching our lives.
A: We also get super excited in sharing all our discoveries.
You have hosted exhibitions with Hender Scheme, Tajika and MATUREWARE by Futagami. What is the goal in hosting these kinds of events?
A: Actually the term exhibition in our industry is sometimes a bit confusing to North Americans. It’s usually a term reserved for galleries showcasing art but when you deal with handcrafted home goods, an exhibition is basically a time for us to showcase an artisan or designer’s work with a distinct point of view. The spotlight is on a specific concept for a designated time and it also gives clients an opportunity to meet the actual maker or designer.
What are some of the pros and cons of working with your significant other? Do you each have separate roles?
A: Pros, we get to spend a lot of time together. Cons, work time and relationship time always get mixed up. Over the years we’ve had to figure out formulas to keep work related matters outside of our personal relationship, otherwise work can easily become all encompassing. We definitely have separate roles, but can easily fill the other’s shoes if needed.
S: It’s challenging sometimes but there are definitely more pros than cons.
What does Nalata Nalata offer that other homeware stores do not?
A: An intimate knowledge of the people and evolving stories behind our products.
S: There are so many great homeware stores around the world, including New York. Nalata Nalata was built on the foundations of these great places. We just offer a perspective that is befitting of how we like to shop and what we like to have around us.
How can well-designed and finely crafted home goods improve one’s lifestyle?
A: Well-designed home goods are meant to blend seamlessly into your lifestyle so they should inspire and enhance daily habits and rituals. Whether that be through the art on the wall, the furniture, or the objects on a bookshelf, it’s important to add items into a home that help you live well.
You have also created a small in-house line.
S: Our in-house line is definitely growing and when we’re not collaborating with brands we try to carve out time for our personal projects too.
Where do you see Nalata Nalata moving forward? Are there any future projects you can tell us about?
A: We’re always trying to find ways to blend being designers with owning a retail store and we’re moving forward in ways to find that perfect balance. When we first started, we were definitely more focused on creating our business as a shop or gallery. But we’re starting to shift our focus and are becoming more involved in the product development. I’m personally so excited about the hinoki wood products we’ve designed. The biggest sacrifice with living in a city like New York when it comes to your home is usually the bathroom, so we’ve really turned our attention towards creating products for that realm.
S: We have a lot of design projects on the go that we’re trying to balance, like Angélique said, but one of the main things on our minds is also our honeymoon!