The Woman Selling 'High'-End Smoking Accessories

With her online magazine, Sight Unseen, Monica Khemsurov has turned her eye for well-designed objects into a career. Now she's curating gold pipes and $1000 lighters for smokers who have an aesthetic to maintain.
November 24, 2015, 10:00pm
All photos courtesy of Tetra

Monica Khemsurov's design ethos carries on the tradition of the modernists: For a piece to be successful, its functionality and beauty have to be considered with equal importance. That's why the founder of the impossibly in-the-know design magazine, Sight Unseen, just launched her latest project Tetra, an online retail store "dedicated to elevating the smoking experience," in September. The virtual smoke shop sells minimalist objects like a solid brass lighter case (to mask a pedestrian Bic) and a "device pipe" by ceramicist Ben Medansky—an architectural bowl designed to stand on its own, literally.

Clearly influenced by Bauhaus and the mid-century designers that descended from the German movement, Khemsurov and her two co-founders, Eviana Hartman and Su Wu, sell beautiful, expensive objects that solve problems, no matter how non-pressing. Broadly talked with the purveyor of marble pipes and platinum "ashspaces" about how the 'high'-brow smoker's struggle is real.

BROADLY: You're not a smoker, but you decided to start a company like Tetra. Do you have any relationship to, uh, natural medicine? Or were you more motivated by a design instinct? You founded Sight Unseen, and both projects feature artist-designed ceramics and other objects.
Monica Khemsurov: I think that there were two motivations. First of all, yeah, I'm not a smoker. I've smoked at times in the past, but I'm not a smoker. But I think this space is going to be a very influential industry. I wanted to figure out a way to get involved in it, just from a business perspective. But more importantly, I've always been obsessed with the way design can be applied to areas of life, or types of products that haven't been touched by design in the past. I just find it interesting whenever people have a chance to bring good design to areas where it was lacking.

Read More: Feminist Ceramicist Michelle Erickson Makes Pottery Political

When I was looking around at this world of smoking and smoking accessories, I immediately saw a hole. To me, it's really exciting to be able to bring great aesthetics to the objects—and great thinking and creative talent.

I have a lot of aesthetically inclined friends who are smokers, and it just seems ridiculous to me that there wouldn't be objects that cater to those people. Because people who are aesthetes, people who care about style, they want every object in their lives to be stylish. Whether it's their bag or the ashtray that they put out at a party, those things need to fit their aesthetic. That goes for me as well. I feel really strongly about that in my own life. It's not a huge leap for me, even though I'm not a huge smoker, to think that people who are smokers would want to extend their to all these things. I think it's really important.

For Tetra, do you just curate existing objects? Or are you working with these artists and designers to manufacture objects, sort of like Herman Miller for smoking?
What we're doing now is a combination of cherry-picking the best objects from people's existing collections. For example, we have this really nice ashtray by Normann Copenhagen, which is a Scandinavian brand that makes housewares. They make kitchenware and home objects, and they happen to have an ashtray in their collection. We were like, "Wow this is really nice, why don't we bring this into our mix?" So that's curation, but then we also—because there hasn't been a design focus in this realm—went out to a bunch of designers that we knew, had worked with, or whose work we loved, and we commissioned them to make objects. We went to Cofield, and we were like, "Hey, we love your Patina Clocks. Why don't you make a Patina object for Tetra?"

We're not manufacturing anything ourselves yet. I think in the future that's a possibility. Right now, we're asking designers to design their own pieces for us. I think that's also why ceramics has been sort of a cornerstone of our shop—because, in that case, the designers are the makers. They are able to make small batches of objects, just for us, a little bit more quickly than [what it would take to use] some other materials where it requires manufacturing.

How would you describe Tetra's aesthetic? Are you influenced by any specific designers or wave of design? Just from what you were saying, it seems very influenced by Bauhaus and mid-century modern designers, who have an understanding of objects as pretty, but useful.
Yeah, totally. That's pretty much it. We're all very into high-end, natural materials like wood, stone, and ceramic. Things that have clean lines, but have a bit of richness to them. There's a lot of really pretty, simple, geometric objects in heavy, warm metals. There's a Marianne Brandt ashtray for Alessi that we love, that hopefully we'll stock soon. We don't want anything ironic or jokey. We want everything to be a really beautiful object that was fitted for a really lovely, contemporary interior.

You started Tetra with two other women. Do you and your co-founders really see yourselves as a women-led business? Do you have any sort of philosophy about being three women who started a smoking company?
Sight Unseen is also women-led; a lot of the projects tend to be that way. I love that. I love working with women. I love championing the work of other women.

If you had to choose your favorite female designers that you sell on Tetra who would they be?
I would say Object and Totem. That's Julianne Ahn, a ceramicist. She made the Bauhaus box for us, which is a little snuff box. It's inspired by geometric shapes. I love her stuff so much. She manages to do this understated, neutral ceramic thing without it being boho. It's still sleek, which I think is impressive. Katie Stout made the gold Brick Pipe with another designer, Sean Gerstley. She is just amazing. She just follows her vision no matter how wild it is, and I just really admire that.

Do you find that there is a huge market for people who are willing to spend $250 on a gold brick pipe?
Yeah. I mean, we've sold stuff up into that range. But we're still so new. I hope that there's a market for this, because we want to make beautiful objects and the price points may vary. I hope that people are willing to invest in this the way the they invest in their actual smoking.

If you're having a house party and putting out an ashtray for your guests, it should be beautiful. It should be something you're proud to share with your friends. That's something that's part of entertaining, like the way you would spend money on a beautiful pair of candlesticks. We see it as an investment from that side of things as well.