You strike me as someone who takes a unique approach to your work and likes to do your own thing. What philosophy do you live by?
Never turn down the opportunity for a great story. This is a recipe for trouble and it’s harder than it sounds – you have to be OK with failure and making a fool of yourself. If you’re OK with all that, then proceed to the next step.
Step two: eliminate universal preconceptions and open your eyes really wide. Go wild, pour some champagne all over yourself (or a friend) in the shower or anywhere (it’s easy to clean up in the shower and it feels good on your skin). Free yourself from whatever is holding you back. And fucking collaborate! The world doesn’t work in a vacuum and neither should you. Engage with people and tell stories. The only thing holding you back is yourself.
Many of your projects including the Sylki Chair and Caivano house have a strong focus on sustainability. How important is this in your approach to design? Do you always begin with that intention or is it project specific?
Sustainability should always be first and foremost. It’s not something to add in later. All projects can be sustainable and you can choose to what degree and in what ways. Think of this as a belief or truth. I don’t think of it as some kind of additional factor in my work, rather that it’s part of all design.
This idea was instilled in me at a very young age. My family and grandparents used everything and then found ways to reuse them again. We built things, we fixed and repaired things and we talked about our impact in fun and clever ways. It was exciting to see one product be used and then reimagined into something new. All of my work, especially architecture because it has the largest carbon footprint, deals with sustainability. From the baby (sexy) prefab house to current retail projects all involve equal parts innovation, creativity and sustainability. All designers have this responsibility. Use it wisely.
Talk me through your creative process. How does an idea manifest?
The explosion of ideas is my all time favorite thing. Ideas manifest themselves like an improv exercise. It’s about timing and delivery but more importantly you have to turn off that switch in your brain that makes you hesitate because you think you might be making the wrong decision.
It’s about being open. To be completely open is really terrifying because it means you’ve put yourself at great risk (risk of failure, humiliation and embarrassment). Think of it as channeling creativity through you. If you’re just acting as a vessel then they (ideas) can pass right through you. It’s all strange and mysterious but it’s really like being totally open to the universe. I don’t actually ever try to come up with an idea. They just come to me when I start thinking about something. If you try to think of an idea or come up with a joke, it almost never works. That’s how you get writer’s block and I don’t think that writer’s block can exist in design. Too many ideas!
If you weren’t a designer/architect, what would you be?
I love the idea of being in the circus and travelling the world. There’s something very mysterious and dangerous about the circus. It seems like a place where creativity runs wild and there are no limits on your imagination.
What struggles have you come up against in your career and how do you deal with them?
You struggle everyday! But my outlook on life is that everything is an opportunity. There are no problems, only design opportunities. Fear is the biggest problem and the limitations of universal beliefs. Everything is meant to evolve and change and improve.
Do you feel your artistic freedom is at times compromised by commercial viability? How do you navigate that issue?
Never. To be a true creative innovator you have to be able to be completely open artistically and also navigate both commercial viability and business relationships. This is what separates a good designer from a brilliant one. I think that having a specific and focused point of view allows for endless possibilities.
What would you say are the key elements of great design?
Big hair, no fear, don’t be afraid to fail, simplicity, purity, necessity, sustainability, innovative, craft, details, texture, materiality, and most importantly that it fulfills the goals of the brief and the brand. And playfulness and wonder are really fun to throw into the mix.
What advice would you give a young person starting out in your profession?
Stay true, stay young, stay positive, say yes to everything and let your hair be big and messy! Carve a unique path for yourself along the way that’s all you. Don’t settle for anything and be yourself. Learn how to take criticism, be a teacher, use social media, and get out there and do stuff. And when you’re older and have had a touch of success, share it with the younger kids. Wisdom is when you let go of ego.
You were once quoted as saying ‘I think big hair and creative flair are closely linked with insanity’. Was this all tongue-in-cheek or are you, with your bountiful bouffant, maybe just a little bit insane Brooks Atwood?
This is true. There is a link between creativity and insanity and it lies in the openness to receiving unfiltered images. Being creative and innovative means that you can’t filter out images in your head from ones in reality. Big hair helps with that. What I love is that creativity is an unknown factor that creeps up on you and overtakes your life. It’s something you can’t control but it’s something that you can hone and fine-tune.
You choose to base yourself in Brooklyn, NY. Why there? What do you love about it and how does place and space inspire your work?
Brooklyn has a perfect mix of industry and creative people and it’s open to ideas and experimentation. I’m far enough removed that I can be loud and unnoticed at the same time.
Brooklyn has a certain vibe happening where possibilities are encouraged and there are so many like-minded people that you just run into on the street. I love the maker movement and so many great things are happening to team up designers with manufacturers, like the folks over at Makers Row. Brooklyn is the new Milan.