John Vieweg, founder of Brooklyn-based creative practice thehighkey, likens the American landscape to an endless highway. “Most US land is actually the space between two locations as opposed to the locations themselves, which is really interesting,” he tells us. “This physical backend that underpins all of our hardware, all of our building, all of our work, all of our shipping – I think it’s a space that’s ripe for creation.”
While many view concrete-clad cities, dilapidated warehouses, and construction sites as pesky eyesores, Vieweg recognizes them as critical emblems that reflect today’s stale, inhumane landscape, as well as the ecosystems within. work that spawned them. But Vieweg does more than lament a demoralizing world; he recontextualizes these spaces to create new human-centered designs. This is the heart of Vieweg’s furniture studio.
Founded in 2020 and gearing up to showcase at Art Basel Miami this year, thehighkey offers unexpected shapes and materials that acknowledge today’s alienating modernism, while exploring how it might better serve the people. From the “RELIEF” collection, the Curvy Glove Couch is a cushioned loop seat, made from industrial foam and plywood, materials commonly found in manufacturing. Aesthetically, it accurately applies relief to industrial tools thanks to its organic curvature. Conceptually, it takes the shapes of throwaway graffiti, transforming its round shape into functional and inviting furniture.
“thehighkey is my creative practice that stems from my experience living in what I would call post-industrial spaces,” says Vieweg. “The goal of modernism throughout the 20th century was to create an urban infrastructure of ruthless efficiency: highway systems, gridded streets, gridded neighborhoods, really uniform homogeneous stuff to make society more efficient. In fact, in many ways it has worsened its performance and we are dealing with the externalities and consequences of this shadow infrastructure that has been mostly abandoned.
Having lived in various cities throughout his life – from Miami and Detroit to New Orleans and Brooklyn – Vieweg draws on his own personal experiences of confronting post-industrialism to derive his designs. “That’s why I’m really interested in this urban condition and the ability to understand it and rethink the present differently. How can these traditionally anti-human or neglected spaces bring people together? he says. “For me, the furniture is very accessible. It’s a place where I can get very personal and start telling my stories.
The Modular Conversation Pit further synthesizes Vieweg’s life experiences in an environment that prioritizes economy before people with its philosophy of humanizing space. Crafted from foam and a urethane coating, the pit is a sunken lounge concept with geometries reminiscent of concrete skateparks: hips, ramps, bowls, and pads. The design is an extension of Pierre Paulin’s iconic 1970s conversation pits which have seen a revival during the pandemic.
“I was really interested in this idea of its timeless design and not overtly updating it but creating a spiritual successor,” says Vieweg. “So the difference between Pierre Paulin’s design and this one is that Paulin’s geometric design is only used for the seats. I actually cut some of that off and give some flat surfaces to store items on. The pit becomes… I don’t mean functional, but it becomes a bit more of an environment, usable through a subtle change in geometry.
Like the Glove Couch, the pit is made from industrial by-products that provide another level of functionality. The pit can be used both indoors and outdoors and then reconfigured in different ways.
Although Vieweg is not a skateboarder himself, he spent a lot of time in skate parks throughout his teenage years in Florida. Recalling skateparks in Gainesville and Fort Lauderdale, he says, “I remember it was such a community place even though I was complete trash. It wasn’t even about the function of skating, it was about bringing people together in this impactful way. Vieweg locates the irony and brilliance of his design here: post-industrial materials, while intended to be alienating, simultaneously create spaces for community. The sunken living room cements this silver lining, using these same materials as a space for gathering, conversation, and engagement of family and friends.
The founder continues: “At the end of the day, I make furniture and objects and bullshit for people’s enjoyment, and that’s the other half. Something can be philosophically significant and also just plain fun. The modular concept does both and more.
I want that enlightened moment where everything is clear, where we can grasp what is happening
Thehighkey’s unexpected designs are relevant and exciting because the practice is grounded in understanding the current moment. The name itself, which refers to a situation at height, characterizes the central mission of the studio. “I think of a view from an airplane, looking down at some sort of cultural context. Once you understand the contemporary moment and the context in which you can see it, that’s when you’re best suited to act as a creative,” he explains. “The quality of high-key photography is well-lit, soft lights. So I want that illuminated moment where everything is clear, where you can capture what’s going on. From there, I think you can become a responsible and efficient creative.” thehighkey is definitely both.
Images courtesy of thehighkey