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Introducing Curbed's 2015 Class of Young Guns

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Welcome to awards season 2015, when we at Curbed will be profiling the best people in the design biz, nominated by you and juried by the staff editors. We're kicking off with an intro to our Young Guns winners, who will be profiled all week long here on Curbed; coming up shortly, some details on our first-ever class of Groundbreakers.

So what constitutes a "young gun" in the year 2015? It's not about actual age, per se: Instead, we wanted to find the as-yet-under-the-radar professionals who are busy challenging the status quo in the design industry. While winnowing down over 200 nominations, a diverse group assembled itself: wide-ranging in location, background, and chosen field. We've got a designer working in the public sector to help reshape a community in southern Florida; we've got designers whose work—glass, flowers—verges on art. We're honoring an interior designer and a design/ build/ development firm who have both organized their businesses in a model that looks nothing like the old, accepted method of entrepreneurship. We found a woodworker whose practice extends far beyond himself by teaching younger generations a valuable handcraft, and a green roof expert with an astounding ability to think micro and macro. We're highlighting draftspeople at opposite ends of the spectrum: a renderings savant informing New Yorkers' perception of the skyline, and a duo hand-painting signs for local business in Detroit.

Over the next week, we'll be dropping several winner profiles a day, for a total of nine Young Guns and eight Groundbreakers. Stay tuned for lots, lots more, including some behind-the-scenes action with our 2015 class and lots of social media extras via Curbed's Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter channels.

Did you always want do what you're doing now? If not, what did you think you wanted to be?

Danny Montoya, The Butterfly Joint: I was actually a kindergarten and first grade teacher for over a decade before starting The Butterfly Joint. I always had side businesses during my teaching career including DJing, video editing and of course, woodworking. I wanted to meld my love of design, woodworking and teaching and this is what came of it.

Gwen Schantz, Brooklyn Grange: Nope! When I was a kid I wanted to be an archeologist. And a punk rocker. I think my "job" now is kind of in keeping with that spirit though. I design and build living ecosystems in New York City, which is kind of like an earth science punk rock intervention of sorts.

Natalie Myers, Veneer Designs: Although I found myself drawing floor plans for my future dream house and tinkering endlessly with the layouts of my dollhouse in grade school, it took me a while to make the connection that what was a pleasant distraction could actually become a professional trade. I thought I would go to art school and be a graphic designer, end up in advertising. It was only when I arrived at university that I realized that the majors of interior design and architecture existed. I guess I was living in a little bubble but once I figured it out, I was hooked.

Photo by Matthew Roy.

Design can be seen as a niche-y discipline. How does what you do transcend that assumption?

Jordan Zielke and Kelly Golden, Golden Sign Co.: Well, sign painting today is very niche-y, but it wasn't always that way. For a very long time, a painted sign was the only option. You didn't have digital printers or vinyl letters: If you wanted a sign, it would be painted. Fast forward to now, in a world where the majority of signs now are printed or plastic or whatever, it is very niche to be selling a painted sign, and we're proud of that! However, just by being a painted sign doesn't necessarily make it a "good" sign. We set ourselves apart by focusing on layout and design to make sure our signs are legible and highly functional, as well as placing an emphasis on using the highest quality materials and providing excellent customer service.

John Hogan, John Hogan Designs: I guess I would be considered niche-y, being that I work almost exclusively in glass. I would say that the way I transcend being labeled as any one thing is that I like to play in the grey area between what is art and what is design.

Ari Heckman, ASH NYC: Design is only niche if it's viewed as one discipline. We apply to design across everything we do, and the way we live. Design is a lens through which we can see the world and all its parts.

Gwen Schantz: My work as a landscape and farm designer is pretty targeted and specific, but every year we're seeing more and more of these projects pop up in New York and internationally. My hope - and one of my goals in life - is to help make green roofs and green walls ubiquitous and mainstream. We should get to the point where these green spaces are as mundane as a suburban lawn.

Photo by Charlie Schuck.

Have you ever experienced failure, and how did you use that to move forward in your career?

Germane Barnes, urban designer: I was rejected from every graduate school of architecture I applied to after undergrad. That prompted me to take a position in Cape Town, South Africa which changed my life forever. Working so close to some of the worst living conditions one could imagine was a humbling experience and reinforced my desire to bring design to those who otherwise could not afford it or gain access to it. After my stint abroad I was accepted to graduate school [at Woodbury University], graduated at the top of my class and won the thesis prize. I doubted my abilities after initially applying for my M.Arch, then after my failure remembered why I love the profession so dearly.

Sarah Lineberger, floral designer: I think one must experience a little failure at some point to learn and grow. At a basic design perspective, I can potentially fail at any given piece/arrangement, but practice and experience guide potential mistakes. At large, I've experienced big mistakes, like what definitely NOT to do in business. Feeling the failure of closing a short-lived successful shop can shed light on all that makes owning a business worth it.
Jonathan Minkoff, ASH NYC: There is failure in everything we do. Each step of the way we fail and then fail again until we find what we want - that is how we get a final product.

Golden Sign Co.: We've knocked over paint cans on the job, misspelled words on signs, fallen off ladders, painted arrows facing the wrong way... but with every mistake, you're forced to deal with it on your own, because there is nobody above you to come in and fix it for you.

Photo by Mark Wickens.

What's been the most rewarding part of your career?

Ben Keen, Visualhouse: Probably my work on Hudson Yards. I started on this project in 2011, just as the first few designs were being produced by KPF. After 3 years and over a hundred plus images its certainly most exciting to see 10 Hudson Yards come to life and finally top-out. Nothing prepares your for seeing your images become reality.

Danny Montoya: The most rewarding part of my career has been seeing the results come full circle. This past summer, preceding their bon voyage to college, three of my former first-grade students worked as camp counselors at The Butterfly Joint. I taught them the skills and elements of design they would need to know to help me teach the campers and watching them teach woodworking to the next generation was a bit surreal.

Natalie Myers, Veneer Designs: Helping normal people with normal budgets fall in love with their homes puts a smile on my face every time. I did corporate interiors for a long time before starting my own studio, and sadly, it just doesn't compare to the warmth, creativity, and intimacy that is fostered by working with someone on their home. Nothing is phoned in.

Photo by Patricia Chang.

Who's your ideal audience?

Golden Sign Co.: As far as who's our ideal customer? Any savvy business owner that understands the importance of good marketing and signage. As far as a viewer? I think the goal of each sign is to get as many eyes on it as possible!

John Hogan: Collectors that like to collect both art and design. The reason I like to show my work in more of a design context is because the furniture, spaces, and compositions are choreographed and considered in ways that make everything involved stronger.

Ben Keen: To be honest, my ideal audience is everyone. When I'm creating an image, I want everyone to be able to relate or appreciate it.

Photo by Chris and Michelle Gerard.

What's a dream project you'd like to tackle?

Sarah Lineberger: I'd like to throw a pottery line for floral design, not plants. Many ceramics are not dainty enough for flowers. Also, I'd love to study with Azuma Makoto. He's a floral master: perfect blend of art and design.

Gwen Schantz: I see every building in New York City as a blank canvas for me to paint green. City Hall would be a great project - Chicago has a beautiful green roof on its City Hall, and any Mets fan can tell you that Chicago cannot trump New York, so it only makes sense for us to build a bigger and better green roof on ours. Maybe it could have a waterfall and some falcon nests to just to prove the point.

Germane Barnes: A way to solve the issues with low income housing developments. Individuals tend to believe that if you give someone a nice place to live that is enough. But it's not, there are significant social services one needs to succeed in this environment. I realize that my ambition is probably too expansive and improbable but where's the fun in something that's easy?

Will Cooper, ASH: I'd really like to do a hotel in Mexico City.

Ben Keen: Personally I've never worked on a sports stadium. The scale of the structure and the types of view angles you can achieve has always excited me. Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux designed by Herzog & de Meuron is a perfect example: Its clean, open, and unusual design would have been a dream to visualize and bring to life.

Photo by Paul Barbera.

Who else in your industry do you consider a Young Gun?

Ari Heckman: Our entire 25+ person team at ASH, nearly all of whom are under 30.

Natalie Myers: I've been following the work of the Platform Experiment and I love what they are doing with home staging. Most professionally staged homes scream staged to me and fall into the conventional, if not outright cheesy, category. Platform's work feels innovative, relaxed, and authentically lived in.

John Hogan: In the world of glass, Thaddeus Wolfe, Kim Harty, Opie Hileman, David King.

Sarah Lineberger: A brilliant floral designer I admire is Dara of FloraLux. Rachel Gordon of Tap Root in Brooklyn is a fantastic businesswoman.

Danny Montoya: Katie Gong of Katie Gong Design.

Gwen Schantz: People like Deborah Greig of East New York Farms, Molly Culver from the Youth Farm, and Cara Chard at City Growers are designing and building systems that will underpin the culture and fabric of our city for generations. Because of them and their colleagues, New York is home to a whole generation of children right who are getting hands-on education in farms and gardens.

Golden Sign Co.: We consider a lot of our peers at Los Angeles Trade Tech (where we studied the craft of sign painting). The program there can take someone who has no insight or knowledge and in two years give them all the tools and knowledge they need to run their own business.

Ben Keen: Most of my colleagues at Visualhouse. Architectural visualization is a fairly young industry and has grown enormously in the last five years.

Germane Barnes: Anyone the faces the gauntlet of injustices this world has to offer, smiles, and politely says "Can I have another?" It's not easy to do the right thing, those that do should be praised.

Stay tuned for in-depth profiles on the winners from Young Guns 2015, this week on Curbed.
· All Young Guns 2015 coverage [Curbed]