From URL to IRL, Monica Khemsurov and partner Jill Singer have built Sight Unseen from a carefully-curated blog to possibly the most important American platform for independent design and one of the most influential events on the New York Design Week calendar. On the eve of the annual event, Sight Unseen OFFSITE, we spoke to Monica about her jump from editor to event producer, and the interplay of content and brick-and-mortar experiences that makes Sight Unseen successful.
Tell us about Sight Unseen.
It’s primarily an online magazine covering what’s new and next in design and the visual arts, but we started doing a physical showcase during New York Design Week back in 2010, a year after we founded the magazine. That’s Sight Unseen OFFSITE, and it’s all about putting together our highly personal, highly curated selection of the best new furniture and objects by contemporary designers — basically what we do on the site every day. We sometimes casually refer to OFFSITE as “Sight Unseen IRL.” Everyone who has good taste attends!
What prompted you to start this project?
Jill and I were both journalists who ended up writing about design somewhat by accident, and we met when we were both hired by the (legendary, but now-defunct) design magazine I.D. We were editors there together for four years before leaving to start our own project where we could write about exactly whatever it is we loved at any given time, and focus in on what we loved doing at I.D., which was writing about the people and stories behind the objects.
While you started with content, yet your event is growing in influence, with several locations throughout Manhattan during New York Design Week. How important is content to your business now?
The event was just a way to bring the content to life. That said, the event is nice because it gives us a chance to connect to people in a more real, tangible way, because sometimes when you’re speaking to a large audience from behind a laptop or a phone it can feel strange and alienating. Plus, when your subject matter is something like furniture and objects, which have to be touched and used to be fully appreciated, it feels especially gratifying to give people opportunities to do so. But our event is once a year whereas our content is something we invest ourselves in daily.
What are the biggest challenges to marketing and producing an event like this? And how did you/do you overcome it?
Well, that’s hard for me to even answer because the biggest challenge we have is just being two people! If you’re exhibiting galleries who can pay extremely high prices to show with you then maybe you can afford a staff, but exhibiting independent designers in the middle of Manhattan? Not so much. So we have to be curators, event producers, editors, accountants, press people, and more, all in one. Sometimes it’s hard to even have a moment to think about marketing. I’m not sure we’ve overcome that problem yet, though in terms of producing the event, we just learn from our mistakes each year and get a bit better at anticipating them. Luckily, we are longtime members of the press so it’s not too hard for us to rally our network to write about the show, which helps tremendously with awareness.
How do you build and nurture your audience in between events? What has been the most successful way to keep them engaged?
Well, our audience is the Sight Unseen audience that we speak to every day, so we don’t do anything specific to keep them engaged, regarding OFFSITE, in between shows. But for Sight Unseen in general, it’s Instagram, of course. That’s the be-all end-all of engagement for us. I was a latecomer to Stories but Jill has been training me — I feel like we get even more engagement there.
You’ve managed to attract some major sponsors for SU — who are your anchor sponsors this year?
This year our anchor sponsor is HotelTonight, the app that offers booking deals on boutique hotels. They wanted to underscore the fact that their portfolio of properties is design-driven, so it was a really organic partnership — we have an emerging designer and artist couple whose work we adore that are collaborating on their “ideal hotel suite,” which they’ll build and furnish inside our main show space, complete with a bright-blue mini bar. We also built an influencer program with HotelTonight, to invite design tastemakers to New York for the show and put them up at a HotelTonight property.
What will be some of the highlights of your upcoming show?
Our hub space is at 201 Mulberry and then we have 12 participating partner venues around downtown Manhattan. There will be a free Sight Unseen print magazine we’ll be distributing at each of the venues that you can pick up and use as a guide to visit all the stops in the show, but of course, we also have more information at offsite.sightunseen.com.