Cathie Anderson: Insights into the people who shape Sacramento’s business landscape
Industrial designer Rob Zinn asked his wife, the business-minded Anna Pavao Zinn, to join him in running his business, the blankblank design collective, in 2014. The couple began last year to see fruit bear from their collaboration.
As Rob left the responsibilities of recruiting new business and managing client relations to Anna, he was able to focus on creating a striking new wall sconce for the Spanish lighting company Marset. The light, called Concentric, garnered two of the design industry’s most coveted awards: the Editors’ Award at New York’s ICFF design show and a Best of Year Award in the wall sconce category from Interior Design Magazine.
“One of the attractions … (of working with Anna) was having separate roles and being able to focus on a specific area or scope of work,” Zinn said. “It is also nice to have someone else sell the work, to be able to speak about it as a consumer in some ways. They can say, ‘Isn’t that great?’ It’s hard for me to say that. It’s easier if I’m talking about other designers, but a lot of the (blankblank) collection happens to be my work. It’s just hard for me to sell my own work.” Concentric, a light that is just as hypnotic when it’s turned off as it is when it’s on, features concentric circles that radiate light in three color combinations: neons, warm hues, and in cooler blues and greens. Marset approached Zinn after seeing another wall sconce he created back in 2008, Expansion, for blankblank.
With that piece, Rob began an exploration of how ambient light reflects color off objects, and his partnership with Marset allowed him to continue his examination. He calls it heliocentric lighting, and he’s designed another of these layered, unusually shaped lights for blankblank that he has named Viscosity. All the lights have a feeling of movement.
A small version of Rob’s Expansion serves as a back porch light for the elevated 1890s Courtland farmhouse that the couple calls home. The light also offers the only outward clue that this is the headquarters for blankblank. Inside the Zinn-Pavao home, there’s an arresting amalgam of heirloom furniture in the dining room and Dutch modern seating in the living room. Rob’s studio occupies much of the first floor.
Anna, who has degrees in history and art history from UC Davis, helped to run business operations at Fleet Feet, Design Within Reach and other regional businesses before joining her husband. Last year, she said, was a struggle as they worked to bring a number of projects to fruition, but they saw a big payoff as revenue rose by 36 percent.
“When I came on board to blankblank in 2014, I was in more of an observation phase for a while,” she said “At Fleet Feet, I learned that you can’t just go in and change everything. You need to observe, ask questions, take stock of where you are and where you aren’t to make an informed improvement. I brought that best-practices approach to blankblank.”
The couple did get an invitation to be a part of a design show in Paris called the American Design Show, curated by the owner of Triode Design. All the designers and participants were from the United States, Anna said, and the curator was very particular about what he wanted to show. He called for specific products to be included.
The husband-wife team developed a relationship with Triode and ended up selling their products through the store. Over the years, the Paris shop has sold a higher volume of their merchandise than the couple’s two U.S. affiliates.
Rob and other blankblank designers produce not only lights but also furniture and home accessories. In addition to Rob, the company represents Mike Simonian, Maaike Evers, Mark Goetz, Russell Ooms and Tim Richartz, working to get their designs manufactured.
Simonian and Evers, better known as the design team of Mike and Maaike, created quite a furor with a bookshelf they developed for blankblank. The limited-edition piece, named Juxtaposed: Religion, featured books on seven of the world’s great religions. On these bookshelves, not one of the volumes stands higher than any other or sticks out further than any other.
Originally sold for $2,500 each, the 50 original bookshelves sold out. It’s been eight years since they were introduced, Anna said, but she got a call in January from someone trying to buy one. In recent estate auctions, she said, two shelves sold for $8,500 and $9,000 respectively.
“Juxtaposed is an example of what blankblank has become very good at, really pushing the envelope of fabrication and materials to arrive at something really special,” Anna said. “I often joke with Rob that, if something hasn’t been done before … there’s probably a really good reason. It’s either really hard to do or it’s really expensive, or it just doesn’t make sense.”
Rob received his industrial-design degree from the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City. He moved to Sacramento in 2004 because he was ready to leave the city and he had an old friend here. He and that buddy originally founded blankblank together, but after a few years, his partner returned to his native England.
Rob, now 45, ran blankblank on his own for five years before asking Anna to come on board. Years of experience, he said, have inspired a shift in his design approach.
“Initially as a designer, I was coming up with ideas and then going around and figuring how to get them made,” he said. “More and more, I go around and see what manufacturers are making and how they are doing it. Then I figure out something I can design for them, something that is in their wheelhouse but is a little twist. … I’m not coming in there and saying, ‘Figure out how to do this.’ ”
He likened his old approach to rattling cages. Now, he said, the relationships feel more natural and it feels like a partnership.
Anna said: “We use the word ‘partnership’ a lot. … If a fabricator isn’t going to do the work with a smile on his face, he’s not going to do it very well. We want to be the ones they want to work with because we understand their processes and we understand how difficult it can be. We want to be a springboard for them.”
In some cases, Anna said, they work with designers who have ordered custom pieces from Rob for years. Interior designer Jill Dudensing, for instance, called them up a while back and told them she was working on a project at a home in the tony Martis Camp development near North Lake Tahoe, and she wanted a piece of furniture that was inspired by the area’s casual outdoor environment.
For years, Rob had been thinking about creating a line of furniture that was a modern take on French campaign furniture, and the Martis Camp residence inspired him to give it a go. He produced the Camp Club Chair originally using materials such as leather, canvas and wood. After he and Anna spent more time with the chair, they decided it was a piece they could have even more fun with.
“We had some interesting notions of what direction we could take it,” Anna said. “We went back and produced a raffia version. I sourced the raffia from a hat maker in England. We also sourced some hand-embroidered Otomi fabric from Mexico. One was in a multicolor and the other was in black-and-white. They are so striking and fun and different. They’re very whimsical. We got into the L.A. Times with those.”