Modernists At Heart

Joseph Fratesi
and Thomas Wright

Modernists at heart

  • Words Jacqueline Raposo
  • Photographs Larissa Fatseas
Modernists At Heart

Modernists
At Heart

Joseph Fratesi and Thomas Wright never planned to open a design company together. Nor did they expect their partnership to span over two decades.

Joseph and Thomas met in the summer of 1990 while bartending at Max Fish, falling into an easy friendship. Thomas was going into his last year of studying architecture at U.C. Berkeley; Joseph was crafting his designs from a shared woodworking space nearby. Both modernists at heart, they recognized a mutual interest in the details that went into creating a space.

“There were a lot of people doing interesting things and turning those creative instincts into entrepreneurial endeavors,” Thomas says of the Lower East Side back then. “A shared desire to understand the fundamentals of creating and actually making design brought us together. The space, locale, and environment tightened it.”

Thomas moved permanently to New York, and for a while they both independently designed cafes, homes, and salons. When Joseph found a warehouse from which to build pieces in Gowanus, Brooklyn, everything changed.

“There was never a deliberative process,” Joseph explains of their road to officially opening Atlas Industries in 1993. “Thomas was my kind of person. He wasn’t trained in building stuff, either; he built things up himself, too. We enjoyed hanging out together, we made things, and the business happened along the way.”

Their interests in design weren’t confined to working solely with one material: restrictions common, given New York’s confined spaces. So in their 7,000 square foot space, they set up small shops for crafting in metal, concrete, plastic, and wood. They built pieces for other designers and architects along with their own, but their ability to work with mixed materials had them so sought out, they were able to focus solely on their own projects after three years.

 

Modernists At Heart
Modernists At Heart

Thomas and Joseph worked from that warehouse for two decades, expanding as space became available and eventually focusing on furniture: modular systems and handcrafted platform beds offered in various grains.
Neither credits a contrasting balance of personalities for why they work so well as a team. Rather, they point their shared appreciation for the flexibility of modern design, and how it allows them to bring ideas to the table with neither leaning on ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: “There are things we’re inspired by or interested in,” says Thomas, “but we don’t feel a slavish attention to design. It’s about getting to something deeper than style.”

After twenty successful years in Brooklyn, the possibility for further expansion hit the ceiling: “There was no more space in the building,” Joseph explains.

Brooklyn had become too expensive. They struggled with constant adjustment for city planning, and the loading and unloading on their busy city street seemed only to have grown in stress. Thomas had long since moved up the Hudson River to Beacon, New York, commuting back a few times a month when necessary; Joseph had clung to his desire to stay. But when he made the decision to leave it “was like the heavens opened up and I felt a weight off of my shoulders, literally,” he says. “I haven’t looked back since.”

Like their partnership, the space that would become Atlas Studios also felt somewhat predestined. Built in the 1920s, the massive factory space had been used by several manufacturers in its almost 100 years, and sat abandoned. Concrete bricks sealed up expansive windows. At 55,000 square-feet, it was far more room than they’d need.

“I think there’s something baked into our DNA; this eagerness to take on any project, no matter how insane,” Thomas says of their immediate desire for the space. “We have this sort of rabid uncontrollable DIY when we’re excited about something. In a way, that’s how we’ve been about all of the things we’ve done. It felt completely natural, like pulling out the blocks and opening the windows to the daylight: this is the space we feel comfortable in.

 

Modernists At Heart
Modernists At Heart

That same aha moment would give Joseph the one thing he feared losing in his move out of Brooklyn: a creative community. “Back in the old days of the Lower East Side, you couldn’t spit without hitting an artist. I was bracing myself not to have that. But it materialized quickly because of the building.”

They immediately started redesigning, first carving out 15,000 square feet of space for themselves and splitting the rest into more than forty rentable spaces for artists and small businesses. They moved Atlas north in 2013 and, shortly after that, hit full capacity. Photographers, graphic designers, painters, printers, a bookbinder, a soap company, and musician David Ludvig all work within a hallway walk of each other. While there’s no designated communal workspace, the duo notes a natural overlap of collaboration between some tenants. The open-to-the-public gallery hosts a monthly chamber music series and various exhibits curated by tenants.

That community harkens back to the waves of creativity they felt active during their time in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “Newburgh is a city. There is so much history and grit here,” Joseph claims of their homecoming of sorts. “We both loved the city the first time we saw it but didn’t realize we were going to love it as much as we have.”

 

As Atlas Industries moves into the future, Thomas and Joseph do so with a calm upstate mindset that comes from their “beautiful building in the Hudson Valley. It opened up our minds and hearts to a more relaxed state of being,” says Thomas.

He hadn’t recognized that the confines of the Brooklyn space had incidentally placed some psychological pressure upon him: working within realistic limits made them work smart, but stifled his ability to think big, too. Now, his love for architecture and spatial design has “reawakened… transformed with daylight.” They’ve taken on more design projects, like working with Upstate Smorgasburg in Kingston to redesign the historic Hutton brickyards into a market and, soon, a concert and event space: “It’s another incredible experience that deals with adapt and reuse, like we do in Newburgh,” he says.

Joseph doesn’t claim a similar creative “explosion,” but values the proximity of so many other creative people nearby: “If I get jammed up in my head, I go down the hall and talk to someone for a few minutes, and come back,” he explains. He hopes the collaboration of such creatives helps Newburgh’s continued revival, as he’s seen the city grow with an active community at the core. “And then we have the new machines, so I spent a lot of time in the shop playing too,” he says. He’s exploring both expanding the scale of their pieces, and exploring new tabletop designs for potential e-commerce, too.

 

Modernists At Heart
Modernists At Heart

Looking back on their almost twenty-five-year partnership, Thomas cites patience and a tolerance for each other’s passions as one of the contributors to their continued success, as well as how creative disagreements often turn into “a new perspective that encourages you to see things differently.” Joseph credits their longevity to the effective communication “vital in any marriage. You work at it and talk about it, and remember that you’re friends first.” Both place enormous trust in the other, too.

“I know Tom,” Joseph finishes. “I know who he is, and know his character so well that there’s nothing he could do that would make me want to end the partnership. We started working together because our relationship worked. That’s why this wasn’t a planned business: we were hanging out, both making things, and then wanting to make some money by making cool shit together.”

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