Steven Eshleman

April 10, 2024

Interior design studio AvroKO is not only well known for its stunning interior schemes, the firm also has a product design arm, which is led by Director of Industrial Design, Steven Eshleman. darc chats to the designer to find out more about his career at the New York studio, and his design approaches when it comes to creating light fixtures.

American interiors studio AvroKO is well known for some of the most beautiful hospitality projects spanning across the world. Established in 2001 by four close friends, Kristina O’Neal, Adam Farmerie, William Harris and Greg Bradshaw, the studio prides itself on four foundational values; create as a collective, work macro-to-micro, be hospitable, and think sideways.

“As we’ve grown as a firm, this idea of “connection” has extended beyond just the four of us, our studio, and even the end result of the work,” says the firm. “We orchestrate experiences that envelop patrons through a combination of design-driven programming and contextual references.

“This ultimate goal of connectivity in our design is to ensure that hospitality backdrops are not simply passive reception spaces where people dine or sleep, but that they create emotionally transcendent experiences, however tiny or even subliminal, allowing the energy of the spaces to shift and evolve timelessly.”

Along with delivering outstanding interior schemes for hotels, bars and restaurants, the studio also provides product design services.

“A big part of the design of our spaces is focused on the magic of custom lighting and furniture pieces, elements that often define the experience of a space. We pride ourselves on our passion for developing these custom furniture, case good and lighting components inhouse and turning them from visions into production pieces.”

To discover more about the product design arm of AvroKO, darc’s editor spoke with Steven Eshleman, Director of Industrial Design at the studio.

“I spent my formative years in Hong Kong, and subsequently in Toronto, Canada,” he tells darc. After high school, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at The New School university in New York, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in industrial and product design from Parsons School of Design.

Alongside his design career, Eshleman gives us a personal insight into his side line hobbies: “In recent years, I can admit that I’ve fostered an addiction to collecting and caring for unusual houseplants. At the same time, I’ve cultivated a budding interest in writing horror fiction on themes surrounding technology and climate change. Curiously, these hobbies are the functions of perceivable light and conceptual darkness.”

Perhaps this self-confessed interest in the dark side explains one of his intriguing original career aspirations, to work with the dead. “I don’t think I consciously desired a career in design, life moves fast, and I just leaned in; I do remember I wanted to be a mortician or to work in advertising. Early on, I was told I had a penchant for sketching, collaging, and anything that involved crafts. That led me to an arts education, which led me to an arts-focused university. After the first year in school, a professor urged me to major in 3D design based on what he observed of my work. From there, everything seemed to point towards industrial design.

“Before disbanding for higher education, I developed and capitalised on a quick-service food concept with a few schoolmates. In university, I interned for a fledgling pet product design company, and had another internship at a furniture and lighting design atelier. At one point, I had the opportunity to teach a college course by myself. Afterwards, I worked in sourcing and procurement for an eco-fashion start-up. My career could have very well ended up on any of those paths.”

Eshleman joined the AvroKO team in 2019 as Senior Furniture and Lighting Designer before progressing to Director of Furniture and Lighting in 2022, and now Director of Industrial Design in 2023.

“My current role is pretty novel at AvroKO in that it demands a multidisciplinary approach to the work, the mentorship of younger designers, and the conceptual pollination of future projects. The work is micro in scale but has macro impacts if not executed thoughtfully; the princess will feel the pea. On a typical day, I’m still involved in ideation, sketching, and 3D modelling just like any member of our furniture and lighting team. We take Hospitable Thinking very seriously for our clients as well as our staff; I emphasise a place of empathy and collaboration for my team so that they can be empowered to succeed in every project they tackle. Outside of client-based projects, we also wear various hats in product development for our own lines of furniture and lighting with collaborators and partners like Visual Comfort and Stellarworks.”

The concept of Hospitable Thinking referenced by Eshleman is a phrase coined by AvroKO that describes its philosophy to approaching projects. The studio describes it further: “AvroKO believes that hospitality transcends languages, industries, and borders, it’s a collection of small moments that can have a powerful, positive impact on how people feel. Human needs are universal. They transcend geography, race, religion, culture. They are wired into our very DNA, informing our decision-making and shaping our reactions to the world around us. They are few, finite, and classifiable, and have remained constant throughout history and human culture. By understanding and fulfilling these fundamental human needs, brands and businesses can resonate with consumers on a deeper, more profound level, resulting in a strategic approach that maintains relevance and longevity. It’s an approach we call Hospitable Thinking. We bring the philosophy of Hospitable Thinking to all of our projects in order to foster remarkable experiences and ultimately form more meaningful connections between people. This process integrates timeless core truths, behavioural sciences, and environmental psychology to maximise hospitality experiences.”

Looking more closely at Eshleman’s product design journey, he reflects on his design style over the years and how his various experiences and education have influenced this. “In my early career, I gravitated towards the mid-century modern, as many of us are guilty of. But in an effort to diversify, I’ve focused on the perennial aspects of design rather than a specific period or place. What makes a product or design alluring to a person apart from its period or place? This question allows us to focus more on form and design rather than a point in time that might fall out of fashion. Perenniality in creativity is identifying inspiration from the past just as well as works from today; it does not discriminate between Eastern or Western styles. This certainly has an influence on AvroKO interiors because our work cannot be defined by a particular era — let alone be replicable by others. What is old becomes new again can describe others’ works, while our designs live in the nostalgic tension between the old and the new.

“In product design, the light we work with is promethean and basic, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or elemental. The conjuring of new light is heavily influenced by memories of past experiences. A new design for a sconce, for example, only emulates all the light that has ever been. When we describe our work, we often propose that a light fixture evokes a place, a time, or a snapshot. We ask questions like, “should the light be diffused and spray like shattered crystals up a column? Or should it peak and dance through reveals in an opaque shade?” Light itself is fickle and intangible in the most romantic way. It reminds us there is a past, and plants us squarely in the illuminating present.

“I have always been drawn to the works of H.R Giger, Carl Auböck and Eero Saarinen. All of their works remain steadfast and unflinching through grace and brutality; timeless in execution, skewering passing fads. Today, I’d say my inspirations can come from a concept or idea derived from tangible thematic research. I often find myself in decrepit flea markets flipping through books or trawling the recesses of strange Tumblr pages trying to draw connections from one idea to another.”

With reference to his first degree, he continues: “Environmental studies is a broad topic that encompasses everything from urban landscape design to cartography in the service of disaster research. At AvroKO, it has helped me to understand the macro-level impacts of the furniture and lighting industry. We promote a workflow where we encourage our clients and vendors to think globally but act locally. Not everything we design must be manufactured and sourced from oceans away, it’s up to our team to resource that homegrown industry given the renewed need for a repatriated supply chain. With that, I have always seen hospitality environments as the most eco-friendly way of experiencing good design; in the lifetime of a hotel, for example, thousands of people can experience a chair rather than the creation and delivery of thousands of chairs in as many homes. We can elevate the product through diligent material selections and design engineering, thus ensuring a longer product life; many of our works can be refinished or refurbished for a new life after the original project.”

In Eshleman’s experience, good lighting should above all be functional. “No one wants to be blinded by a phone camera in a restaurant with medieval light levels and miniscule menu fonts. Light imagines and maps memories onto space, whether the memories are filled with contentment or melancholy is entirely up to the guest and user. Through materiality and geometry, a simple point of light through tinted glass panes can be manipulated to evoke the green flash at the ocean’s horizon, for example. At its core, lighting reflects one’s histories, and those illuminating histories bring nostalgia.”

In order to balance aesthetic appeal with functionality, Eshleman and his team work through iterative sketching. “Yes, we can make it beautiful, but we can be thoughtful in the way it can be manufactured, assembled, and serviced too,” he explains. “If we see that the aesthetics or function of a product is eclipsing the other, then that is when we reorient. Many times, it’s a simple stroke of the pen or just omitting a detail to bring those aspects to a harmonious design.

“Good designers employ a blend of critical, conceptual, and technical thinking. It answers the “what,” “why,” and “how” through tangible designs and use cases. There is really no prescribed “good” product design, only if it solves a need; the need can be met with experiential and practical products.”

With regards to technological developments, he believes that technology is “simply a tool in our primitive hands”. “Tools can be helpful, or they can be abused. We designers have been using tools long before generative AI, and we will be creating long after our current arsenal of software becomes obsolete. I’d instead reframe the question to, “how do we empower designers to create their works without stripping them of their nuanced experiences and cultural context?” Perhaps the worst outcome is that we would fail to see the subtleties of organic design or the sophistication of the beholder. The best outcome? We keep designing.”

Walking us through the design process of creating a new decorative lighting product, Eshleman describes how he and his team are immersed into “three distinct conceptual pillars” from which they ideate. He continues: “The conceptual triumvirate informs us of the site, its relative history, as well as any associated muses as a contextual backdrop. From there, we research and unearth unexpected themes that we can incorporate into the larger story. We fold those findings into our hand sketches and ideations. For example, we reimagined the form of a proto-handloom from pre-modern Korea as details in a series of lighting for a new hotel in Chicago. When the schedule permits, we frequently prototype our designs for our clients and internally for quality control. All of this culminates into the delivery of an original product that is truly one-of-a-kind, with notes of the past and a foot into the future; AvroKO’s designs today are tomorrow’s coveted vintage finds.”

When it comes to the relationship between technical architectural lighting and decorative lighting in the world of interior design, Eshleman refers to the topic as somewhat controversial. “There seems to be two schools of thought, the architectural design perspective is prescribed to run in opposition to the visions of interior designers. Architectural lighting can create a sleek and modernist tableaux, but a liberal use of which creates a sense of coldness and frigidity. It’s up to interior and lighting designers, engineers included, to negotiate and identify the utility of the space in question. While we can all agree that programming for lighting is straightforward for boutique hotels or the healthcare space, it is the transitional and transformative spaces that need careful consideration. These require us to be cognizant of what the space is used for at different times of the day or night, and in changing social contexts. In short, it’s finding the optimal balance because nothing is as jarring as ghastly lighting temperatures in otherwise thoughtfully designed welcome spaces.”

Reflecting on one of the most significant moments in his career, Eshleman describes the moment he “professionally stepped into the Idlewild at JFK airport”, which has since been recast as a public space for the TWA hotel. “It remains the most reverent project that I have been a part of since I have family who are of Finnish descent. At parties, the topic is a tried-and-true icebreaker because chances are, someone had a layover or made the pilgrimage to the iconic site.”

Looking at design trends across products and interiors, Eshleman has seen a shift to “loose, relaxed, soft, and comforting” due to the “current atmosphere of stress reckoning”.

“Design trends reflect the attitudes of the entire creative ecosystem, which encompasses the industries with the most cultural influence, such as fashion and film. As a generalisation, the next generation of designers are inclined to foster a sense of protectiveness and soothing in their works, as opposed to the brash or restrictive. What this translates to is plush and enveloping furniture and lighting that is blushed and elemental, at its core, approachability, and a sense of tranquillity. I’m not sure where design is going next, but I think you need to look out a restaurant window, feel the sentiment of passersby, and eavesdrop on current issues.”

As for the future of AvroKO and the direction the studio is moving, Eshleman concludes: “There is much to be done in the realm of mindful hospitality and all the industries that it touches. Nothing is off the table because everything is some function or experience of conscious design. With that, do stay tuned for AvroKO’s forays into the product world with many collaborations ahead…”