Fredericks and Mae Want You to Flip Out

Gabriel Cohen and Giovi Signorile reflect on fifteen years of unexpected designs destined for gifting

If you were to ask any moderately online aspiring homemaker to name the “status cutting board,” they’d almost certainly describe the confetti colored wares by Fredericks and Mae. Crafted from recycled food-grade plastic, Gabriel Cohen and Giovi Signorile’s highly coveted chopping blocks have graced the counters and Instagram feeds of countless cooks both professional and aspiring, but to dub the duo mere cutting board kings would be an oversight. Last fall, the design studio celebrated 15 years in business with a new storefront on the Lower East Side, a tranquil escape tucked off Allen Street between Canal and Division, which they describe as a “casual museum” and “objét emporium.” Earlier this year, we caught up with the humble multihyphenates about the roots and future of their Fredericks and Mae. Much like their designs, our conversation was at once familar and peppered with delightful surprises.

Gabriel Cohen and Giovi Signorile

Jake Stavis: How do you both describe what you do?

Gabriel Cohen: When I'm filling out a form that's like, “what's your title?” I’ll say partner, which feels resonant in the sense that I’m a partner at the senior level, but also, Fredericks and Mae feels so much like a partnership. But if I'm meeting somebody and they're like, what do you do? I say I own a company that makes gifts and housewares.

Giovi Signorile: Fredericks and Mae is a partnership and a collaboration. I think there's other realms where I also identify as a designer, and sometimes I enjoy thinking about myself as a merchant.

JS: That’s very old world, “a merchant.” There's something sort of mystical about it. I know reading a little bit about your history, and how your collaboration developed out of a shared love of materials. Can you tell me a bit more about your background?

GS: We graduated in 2008 and moved to New York and both kind of downsized our art practice, but we brought with us an interest in printmaking. The first project we did was helping to start a community run silkscreen studio.

GC: It was in the basement of an art collective called the Flux Factory in Queens. It was open to the collective in theory but I think in practice it was mostly us and a third partner using it.

GS: Our first line of games was born out of that studio practice, with a shared interest in editions and runs and democratizing kind for art making at its core.

JS: What did you first make together as Fredericks and Mae?

GC: The very first product was recomposed wings made out of molted parrot feathers. In a very 2008 way they were supposed to go on hats and pins. I think we made and sold less than ten of those, but one of the stores that we sold them to was Maryam Nassir Zadeh and she also had some vintage arrows. We had all these feathers from the wings, and Gio had made arrows as a kid, and I was basically good at wrapping thread around sticks. And so we had all the ingredients we needed to make an arrow. So we made wings first, but arrows I think were the first time we were like, something is happening and it's a wave that we could ride.

JS: Tell me more about your history with arrows.

GS: That was a project I did with my dad. We had gone to the beach for the supplies and I think we used the stick of a firework and seagull feathers for the arrow. We found a tree branch that had fallen and shaved the bark off. It was a really positive memory, but it was also this thing that we could make that would do something for us. I think back to 2008 and thinking about how to sustain ourselves as college graduates and the midst of financial wreck

JS: The bow and arrows you made as a kid, were those functional?

GS: Yeah, I would target practice on an empty cardboard box.

JS: Whereas the arrows that you were making as Fredericks and Mae…

GS: We did test them. We had holes in our apartment walls to prove it, but that was never really where the emphasis was, and as they sort of took hold as a product, I think we even moved further away from the functionality.

JS: I'm sensing this trajectory from art into more functional design, but it sounds like there was this sustained interest in objects outside of their utilitarian context. The wings are a funny example - they’re ornaments for hats and pins, But also when you think about the outsider’s look at “Brooklyn” at that particular moment, I suppose they had a “function” in perpetuating that subculture. I do want to hear more about the games.

GC: We made a whole collection of games and it was the first time that we debuted a clump of stuff all together. And it was Dominos, Backgammon, Reversy (which is a generic name for Othello), Bocce, Clump (which was a made-up generic name for Set), and checkers.

JS: But not cards yet?

GC: Playing cards came later and were the first product we made through a publishing company. In a lot of ways the playing cards were our education in mass production.

JS: What drew you to games? Do you play games?

GC: Yeah, we went down a real rabbit hole. The collection was called War Games.

GS: I think the history and the stories that we were learning about the games – how old they were, thinking about what role they've played in social life over the ages.

GC: Even at the dawn of social media and phones, I remember we were interested in spending less time on our phones.

GS: And more time with people connecting, playing.

JS: I have a friend - she has a tattoo of the four ace cards - and when she gets a little stoned she loves to talk about how you can just play an infinite number of games with 52 cards. There’s no “function” to these things on their own and yet there's so much you can do with the deck. Like they’re this strange social lubricant where you can have a conversation while also doing something, and we just agreed on some weird set of rules to decide who gets some number of points according to this kind of random choreography. Now I’m just repeating stoner digressions…

When did you arrive at making matches? That feels like the very opposite end of the spectrum in terms of functionality.

GS: I think we reached a point where we learned the limits of having a line that included us producing every single thing on every level. Gabe, did we still assemble matches when we first made them?

GC: No, just because they were wrong.

JS: What happened?

GS: We would buy the tube separately from the matches and then we had a sticker…

GC: We got a shipment of matches and all the stickers were different angles and different heights. We had this big Studio on Park in Brooklyn - the other Park Avenue - and we were like what do we do? It was like 1000 units and we made an assembly line where we got rid of all the stickers and we got new stickers then we put them all on in the correct way. But as Gio said, we had been making everything ourselves in the studio, and that really kind of maxed out our capacity as makers. We had this idea for matches with rainbow colored tips. And I remember having the thought, “I have to learn how to make matches.” And then being like, “no that's wrong and if that's wrong, we will pay a match factory.” And then it took us a lot of Googling. Neither of us went to Industrial design school. We're really self-taught and so it was honestly years of trying to find someone who could make this.

GS: And on our scale, which was a real challenge at the time.

GC: I think at that point we had a team of people who were making tassels, which was wrapping thread around horsehair, but in an admin or kind of design way it was just us.

JS: What are some of the things that you had to teach yourself how to make and where did you go to find them? You do have Fine Arts backgrounds, and presumably you’re applying some of those skills. But I want to know where you had to really reach outside the box to learn how to do something.

GC: The only thing that I feel really skilled in is silk screening, and that was part of the foundation of what Fredericks and Mae was. I can't tell exactly how true this is, but there's a way that the whole business kind of feels like a craft project. Like here's a set of things we have, what can we do with it?

And neither of us went to business school. I mean, we have a certain kind of business savvy. The texture of the conversation of “how should we make an arrow?” and “how should we run our business for the next year?” feel like they're in the same color palette. It’s a weird way to say it, but it's true.

GS: Yeah, I think that's right though. It is self-taught whether it's how to fletch an arrow or how to forecast inventory.

JS: On the one hand, you want to spend less screen time. But I can also imagine the internet is a very valuable resource for these very obscure skills in an era where I don't know how many people are making arrows in your backyard or in your neighborhood these days but there's probably someone on Reddit who really knows how to make an arrow. I was once randomly gifted this giant brisket primal and I remember going to butcher YouTube to figure out what to do with it. And lo and behold there are so many ways on YouTube to learn how to trim a brisket. That's not even that niche but it was still super helpful. So I'm curious, were there any other surprising places where you came across mentors or resources?

GC: I mean, there's two things that are going to mind for me. There was a couple who ran a parrot estuary in Queens that would rehab parrots. We would collect discarded feathers from them and we must have found them online. So the internet brought us there, but that felt very human. And then I think in a kind of similar spirit we went to an archery range, also in Queens, that was my first time ever seeing a bow and arrow in action. And that also felt sort of human but that's kind of neither here nor there because neither of those are about the internet being useful.

JS: Did you learn all about parrots in the process? I’m thinking back to this Heidi Fleiss documentary I once saw - in the ‘90s, she was like madam to the stars but now lives this bird woman life outside of Vegas. I'm curious what the experience of being there was like - what might have learned in the process of gathering those feathers.

GS: I learned that a lot of exotic birds were purchased as pets because of movies and then abandoned when their owners found out that they were loud. You could hear this house full of birds from down the street - the whole neighborhood had to be on board with the operation, and it was really wild. I think it was a really great example of how you can live however you want to live with whatever your priorities are, and that people are doing it in every single corner of the city.

We were just suddenly sort of burdened by this thing we made that people wanted but it required this thing that's actually very special, rare, and difficult to trade in because we're talking about animals. So to be fair to them means you have to find this sort of weird third space where we're actually making a donation to help keep the birds fed, and to keep their cages clean, and in exchange we’re being gifted the gift of these feathers that were turning into these decorative functional ceremonial objects.

JS: I want to talk a bit about materiality and scarcity, but I wanted to ask you Giovi about if you had any other anecdotes of resources – human or internet - that you’ve found over the years.

GS: I definitely found myself deep in bushcraft community forum style places, learning a lot about what I could do with my own facilities. I learned stuff in the woodshop after leaving art school. I got some help for my dad initially, but we set up a wood shop and bought a lot of tools and just kind of figured out how to use them and a lot of the products would kind of emerge.

I think the internet was not only integral to realizing what can we do and how can I learn how to do it, but it was also a very specific time where the internet still kind of felt like the old internet and just being able to make some of these things take photos of them and share them with people had an impact that I think is kind of hard to achieve today. I think the internet was a big piece of Fredericks and Mae’s origin.

JS: I think you were hinting at it with this parrot encounter - how has your approach to material shifted or changed over time particularly as you’ve scaled?

GS: I think we have a value around honesty of materials like that has followed us throughout Fredericks and Mae. We always think about, like, how we're going to treat the wood that we might be using, making sure we aren’t making the wood feel like plastic. The cutting boards are plastic and they're very different from the wood, the cotton, the thread, that we started with but there is still sort of an honesty of material there that feels like the throughline.

JS: I guess now is as good as any to talk about them - the status cutting board - And I think there is a nice tie in there because as I understand it they're made with leftover material. Can you tell me about the genesis of The Cutting Board?

GC: For so long I think I clung to really peculiar product categories as a way to be interesting - like nobody else was making kites in the New York City design scene and so even before you saw them someone would be like, “these guys are making kites” and you would be like “oh, cool.” The category was this kind of, I don't know, protected space in a way that is deeply not true of cutting boards. And in a lot of ways, I think that I'm still figuring out how we work in this more utilitarian known crowded space and using materials that are honest and also exhilarating.

GS: There's something about the production process where our design slips in. It started when we were making everything ourselves. It was literally coming from, “what can we make,” and then with cutting boards, we had seen an old one that was a two color cutting board and it was like, “okay that's possible.” So then we were looking for somebody who was willing to talk to us about how their cutting boards were made so that we could get in there with them and think of a way to make something in a way that was more interesting to us.

GC: This goes back to the matches example of trying to design something that I didn't know how to make. I think so much of our design POV was about some little intervention in a production process - a trick in silkscreening, or finger joints in woodworking, creating this beautiful detail - that's kind of what the object rests on, like what is it like is the gimmick?

GS: And how can we highlight the way that something is made in the beauty that is just inherent in that.

JS: Here's a sort of curveball question. What are your thoughts on 3D printing?

GS: We haven't used it yet.

JS: I feel like people throw out 3D printing as such an exciting thing these days and the handlessness of it all… I'm curious if you've been eager or repulsed by it. I also don't really understand it. I just feel like it's something that people talk about.

GS: I want to say that I'm open to it as a tool. It's not one that I've pursued yet, but I don't feel any panic about being replaced by a robot. I'm really convinced that the quality of human-made things is an emotional one that is functional in making meaning and in our daily lives.

JS: Gabe, are you threatened by the robots?

GC: No. I mean, maybe I'm kind of short-sighted here but so much 3D printed stuff is ugly and feels bad and as soon as I see a 3D printed thing that makes me gasp, I wouldn't even feel threatened. I'd feel excited and then I would go figure out what's going on there, but I don't know… I was reading something about how the end game of 3D printing is that you'll be able to turn anything into any other thing – It'll be able to rearrange things at the molecular level, which is kind of spectacular, but we’re a ways off from that.

JS: It’s funny because what you just said actually sounds a lot like what you were mentioning earlier – doing something tricky to highlight the material nature of an object. Usually when I think of things that are made through 3D printing (admittedly with only a cursory understanding of the technology), there's nothing materially interesting about them.

GS: I think there are artists who are using it in interesting ways. I'm thinking of Erin Smith, who made us ornaments this year. She makes you feel really confused about the origin of the object, its time period, the planet that it's from. It makes me feel hopeful about the future of objects with this technology. It isn't just like, everything is printed out of plastic and looks the same because somebody can download the template for free at all and they'd rather stay home and go out into the world and engage with their local retail store.

JS: It's an interesting example, ornaments, arguably some of the least functional objects. They exist to be hung on a tree and contemplated. They’re brought out at this very specific time of year for that purpose. and maybe on another level they conjure up a memory or something but the way you interact with an ornament is mostly contemplative.

I did really love what you were saying earlier about how the craftsmanship of an object can remind us of our relationships and the connections that we have with people. The ways you guys talk about gifting – gifts are fundamentally about relationships. What's the best gift you've ever received?

GC: The first thing that I thought of was being seven and getting an N64 and fully like losing my mind.

JS: I'm very much not a gamer, but when I think of what a gaming controller should feel like, it's that weird three pronged one. And that clunky rumble pack on the back? For me, that was the peak of technology.

GS: I'm gonna take credit for the best gift I've ever received, since it was one that I gave to myself. I took a surf trip two years ago. I lived my dream for a month and really articulated it as a gift to myself, which was a turning point in the way that I think about being an adult and caring for myself.

JS: So that's actually a very astute transition. I wanted to ask what's your favorite gift you've ever given and your gifting philosophy. How do you approach gifting?

GC: In some ways the whole the Fredericks and Mae store is a project fueled by my passion for giving people gifts that they didn't know they would flip out about. I get the value of giving someone cash or a gift card or whatever baby registry – that's all functional and lovely – but giving someone something that they didn't know existed and then puts their jaw on the floor is such a fun way for me to be in relation with somebody.

JS: Registry culture is so strange to me. I suppose gifts are all on some level transactional, but there’s something about registries that feels so outdated. I definitely hear where you’re coming from with this idea of like, “you didn't know you needed this, but I know you and therefore I know that you will enjoy this.” That to me is so much more meaningful.

GS: The most recent gift that I gave was a birthday gift to a friend who has a lot of panic about their carbon footprint and just like their effect on the world and they had a party for themselves and I gave them the gift of having 25 square meters of previous minefields cleared by these giant APOPO “hero rats.”

GC: What?

JS: What does that mean?

GS: It's a nonprofit that promises to clear these 25 meters by using these rats that will sniff out the mines and make them safe.

JS: You know, I actually get marketed ads on Instagram about these rats.

GS: And now you're going to get them for sure, Gabe. Look out.

JS: Yeah, I have been getting targeted ads about the hero rats, but I didn't know what heroic jobs they were doing and I guess it's this. The ad is like a dad and son and he has the rat on his full arm.

GS: They're huge. There's the whole thing.

GC: Wait, are they heroes because they are exploded by the mines?

JS: I would guess not because evidently you can adopt them later on?

GC: Maybe they smell them or something?

GS: Yeah that was an option so you can care for them in an ongoing way. But it was exactly this thing that my friend did not know existed, did not know that they needed, but it made them laugh so hard and it was just this perfect.

JS: More hero rats, fewer registries.

GC: That was such a thoughtful interview. Thank you.

GS: Yeah, I feel like you really engaged with we've been doing on the level that I just left me being like wow. I'm kind of just figuring out the answer to this for you.

JS: Did you want it to be like, “what's in your bag?” Actually, that's a good parting question: what's in your bag?

GS: I'll tell you it's not in my laptop. I think it was stolen out of the car. Somewhere between Brooklyn and upstate, New York. either in Bushwick where I stopped at my partner’s studio in Kingston where I stopped for lunch.

JS: Where'd you stop for lunch?

GS: Calcutta Kitchen.

JS: Gabe, what's in your bag?

GC: I have a New York Magazine, earphones and chapstick.

Photography by Louisa and Fyodor