Stepping inside the converted sawdust factory, into a black-and-white world of perfect acoustic design, the crowd, invited for a night with Ella Fitzgerald, immediately recognizes that they’re in for something special. Unlike the glittering grandeur of New York’s legacy concert halls like Lincoln Center, National Sawdust in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is made for a new generation of audiophiles. Its contemporary visual aesthetic matches the younger generation’s demand for new sound experiences, especially in a world where digital sound alone no longer makes the cut.
Once the heavy black doors close behind you, crystalline triangular forms come into focus around the walls, while blue ambient light settles the senses. You’re automatically transported into a meditative state. But on this night, the stage isn’t outfitted for an orchestra performance. Only two lone speakers adorn the stage, both perched up on custom tripod stands.
And then comes the sound.
Suddenly, Ella Fitzgerald is in the room: her unmistakable voice coaxing the crowd into musical submission, filling up the corners of the cocoon-like space with her unforgettable “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” As her Live at the Concertgebouw, 1961 – The Lost Recordings plays through speakers, one really has the feeling that it really is a live performance, and that the Queen of Jazz herself is present.
National Sawdust was built as a reinterpretation of an 18th-century chamber hall model by architecture and design firm, Bureau V. The firm built its state-of-the-art performance space inside the brick shell of a former sawdust factory that dates back to the early 20th century. A delicately textured, translucent “skin” seamlessly wraps around the interior space, which is broken up into black triangular shapes.
These visually translucent forms allow sound to travel freely, resulting in an immersive sound and lighting experience that feels distinctly contemporary and transportive. Although the space was designed for live performances, Devialet’s speakers had their own unexpected presence.
Phantom, which combines analogue and digital amplification in a sleek, compact design, is the result of Devialet’s latest speaker technology. The France-based company received over $100 million to fine-tune the wireless system, resulting in 100+ patents for the final design. The company recently partnered with National Sawdust to release a new limited edition of the model to benefit the Brooklyn concert venue. Its previous collaboration with Louis Vuitton incorporated the high-tech speakers into a custom trunk design.
“People would expect us to have a partnership with Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, and they’re amazing institutions, but we liked being a little unexpected, a little underground, supporting artists that maybe aren’t the next biggest things yet. And that’s what National Sawdust is doing too,” Devialet’s director of marketing, Joshua Klein, tells me. “Their venue is an exercise in design, as much as it is acoustics. So from a DNA point of view, we just understand each other really well.”
Devialet based its newest limited-edition model on the “graphic language” of National Sawdust by using laser technology to cut out metal parts of the Phantom to reveal a soft 3D mesh with black broken lines—an effect that mirrors the triangular forms of the interior space.
The collaboration also includes access to live streaming: anyone with a Phantom speaker can listen to a concert at National Sawdust in real time from anywhere in the world.
Back in SoHo, I sat down with Joshua from Devialet to get a sense of what the speakers can do inside a smaller room. We sampled a little Beyoncé to get a feel of the bass and Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” to get a sense of how early ’90s pop translates.
“Now, what would you like to hear?” asked Joshua. “Something you really know, something you can really judge the sound quality by.”
I opted for Barbra Streisand (naturally) and waited impatiently for the first piano notes of “The Way We Were” to play. I’d listened to the song 1,000 times before, but had never heard the orchestra with such clarity, never noticed the nuances of her breath. It was, in short, pretty rapturous. By the end, the three people in the room—marketing director included—had tears in their eyes.
That’s the power of good design. That’s the power of quality sound. You don’t have to be an expert in either category to recognize the real thing when you see it, or when you hear it, or when you definitely feel it.
The limited edition of Devialet’s Phantom, in collaboration with National Sawdust, was released on May 10. All proceeds from this limited-edition model will go to National Sawdust, an artist-led, non-profit music venue located at 80 North 6th Street in Brooklyn.