Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Sam Alive
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Nestled among buildings with unassuming facades in Greenpoint, the Snarkitecture studio’s plain brick exterior belies a space that’s home to one of today’s most sought-after duos of idea-shapers. After entering the studio and crossing through a workshop full of neatly-arranged tools and pools of Tiffany-blue liquid poured over items for casting, the Snarkitecture workspace emerges. A remnant from the Dig exhibition looms over the front of the studio--a hole excavated by hand and placed in the middle of a structure hanging from a tall ceiling. In the center of the studio, an item called Slab Table, a white ping-pong table with stalactite-looking forms hanging from the bottom, are Alex Mustonen and other members of the Snarkitecture team quietly enjoying their lunches in concentration. The table is designed to hold a ping-pong net, yet here at this moment in their studio, it doubles as a place to take a break.
After meeting at Cooper Union, Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen melded their respective strengths and formed a collaborative effort they called Snarkitecture. Since joining forces, their work has been seen on fully-imagined environments like those presented for fashion labels En Noir and Public School and functional items like drafting pencils or gypsum cement-molded iPhone “pillows.” Snarkitecture items and spaces often feature work that looks as if it lies somewhere in the paradoxical realm of being polished and hand-altered, an approach that’s has become a trademark of theirs.
Snarkitecture crafts items that provoke discussions of craft. In 2013, they converted the space at the Milk Gallery for a installation they called “The White Room” to celebrate the release of Chromeo’s new album. The monochromatic room features analog items like keyboards spilling out of a vintage sports car parked in front of an excavated landscape. The space was hand-crafted and chiseled, but when it came time to welcome the band’s Tumblr followers, it became a space that was also shared digitally through Instagram and other social-network sites, again challenging the person who inhabits the environment to navigate between the digital and analog.
Cave-like structures have appeared in multiple Snarkitecture spaces. For a 2010 Richard Chai installation, Daniel and Alex shaped architectural foam into a cavernous retail experience. A year later, for a project called Dig for Storefront for Art and Architecture, Snarkitecture reshaped architectural foam in a huge environment with picks, hammers, and chisels in a performance/exhibition that transformed the material into a series of tunnels and tiny niches that evoked the world’s most permanent snow fort. As Alex Mustonen told us during our interview, that space is one that can call to mind freedom like a child in the snow, or the tension one feels in a tight place, depending on what experiences viewers arrived with.
Snarkitecture’s workload shows no sign of shrinking, as current projects include a new table design with Grey Area and white-on-white apparel for Sight Unseen Offsite, an exhibition design for Roll & Hill at an off-site exhibition during ICFF, and even a forthcoming collaboration with Beats by Dre. Beyond these collaborative ventures, their online store also features an ever-shifting selecting of offerings that vary from customizable packing tape to shelving.
Freshness is proud to present our conversation with Alex where we examined the duo’s approach to making items and environments that involve, as he calls it, “real world experiences” in a world that sees people gravitating towards the digital. Click below to read the full interview, and prepare to see and read about settings that may help you look at your surroundings and the items you use every day in more exciting ways.
Tell us a little bit about the latest projects you are working on at Snarkitecture.
Alex: Snarkitecture is a collaboration between me, with a background in architecture, and my Partner Daniel Arsham, who is an artist. We established Snarkitecture as a sustained way to collaborate between these disciplines. Sometimes these projects and collaborations involve people in fashion, music, and design. A few recent examples from this past February include Public School’s runway show and another for a larger-scale, scenic architectural environment for En Noir at the Park Avenue Armory.
We also did a project with Del Toro shoes where we took an item from their language, a shoe made in Italy. We didn’t change anything structurally about the shoe; instead, we inverted an existing product of theirs by taking this reflective material that we made the interior lining of the shoe. It’s something you only see when the shoe’s not worn or if you look at the edge of the top. There are internal details that have been taken from the inside of the shoe and placed on the outside as well.
Snarkitecture is based off the very idea of collaboration. In our publication, we see an abundance of collaborations. Sometimes it feels as if we are more likely to post about collaborations from some brands than items from the brand on its own. Can you talk about how Snarkitecture approaches a given collaboration?
Alex: For us, there is a balance with our collaborations with larger companies and our own internal work . We are also collaborating with smaller, more independent emerging companies. We established Snarkitecture 5 years ago, and we’ve seen more and more outside collaborators who want to work with people like us who offer the chance to collaborate. For these companies and brands, it may be an opportunity to re-activate their product. Part of the reason people have sought Snarkitecture out is because of our ability to physicalize things and offer a real-world experience, which is increasingly welcomed and dramatic in a world where more and more time is spent on virtual or digital interaction. When we did the pavilion for Design Miami in 2012, it was a place for people to gather, but it was also a functional place for rest, relaxation, and conversation--all while being an attention-grabbing piece. So there is this nice overlap between this place where people can physically interact with the architecture and have a personal experience with it while at the same time causing people to photograph it and share it virtually on Instagram.
It’s like the analog provoking the digital, right?
Alex: Exactly. That’s a great way to look at it; so for me, what we see is part of the reason is that people are interested with collaborating with architects or designers.
One collaboration that fascinated me was the one you did with Chromeo which seemed to mix music and installation art. I felt when looking at it that it urged the viewer to consider the analog. Can you talk about the collaboration with Chromeo?
Alex: Sure. It came about through a mutual friend who put us in contact with Dave and Patrick from Chromeo. We got to do a project that was a lead-up to the album that was a listening event done through Tumblr, which let us invite real fans, which meant we had teenage kids from the Tri-State area there.
A big part of that exhibit was looking for visual cues within Chromeo’s world, which we were able to draw on like the all-white car. That car represented a very specific period, which draws on the analog with a direct correlation with a lot of things that we are interested in, like creating large-scale architecture spaces through a very primitive process like removing materials by hand. That process is very different than digitally-designed model. I think it’s a great overlap between analog keyboards in the recording process and our interest in the analog construction and attention to the looseness that the artist’s hand can bring to the process.
I saw in another interview about your Richard Chai installation that you mentioned the difference between parametric design and some items that were cut by hand. What is the difference?
Alex: Part of the design process involves making things by hand. We are interested in the balance between architectural precision that you get when drafting on the computer and the process of making that line by hand when cutting into the material, whether it’s stone or foam. There is a gray fuzziness that happens somewhere between that precise drawing and the physical reality. That’s the territory we were exploring. So, part of the response to the Richard Chai installation came from architects, and because of the sculpt and the way that the surface appeared sculpted, they asked us what parametric software we used or what digital process did we used. In actuality, we used neither of those. It was drawn and made by hand, which is an almost counter-intuitive process that results in something that’s unexpected, especially in the context of 2012 when it was produced or now in 2014.
In 2014, what would be the ideal Snarkitecture project?
Alex: That’s an interesting question. Recently we’ve been thinking about worlds of Snarkitecture and being able to create a total environment. We’ve been thinking about creating something on the scale of a room or a building. We’re more and more interested in a comprehensive environment, so we’ve been working a little more on two primary directions--permanent architectural work the scale of a building or an installation that operates as architecture. The other direction is within the idea of a functional object that is smaller in scale and more accessible. When you bring these two things together, it’s like designing a house and everything that’s in the house.
Can you discuss your approach to working with a single material in all of its permutations?
Alex: Finding multiple iterations comes from the idea of starting with a single material and through the process of reduction and looking at a single environment. For example, instead of looking from the vantage point of a room or a car, where there’s a hundred different materials and types of surfaces and structures around you, we want to find one of those and make a complete architecture from that material. For us, it’s about reducing and simplifying to create a more meaningful experience and interaction for people who are seeing or experiencing our work by causing them to focus on a single gesture or moment within an architecture space. That’s part of the rationale for the reduction of material and the reason for the reduction of color. Simplifying the environment is a core concept, which makes for a more meaningful and striking environment.
So by reducing the variables, you also increase the attention to nuance, right?
So what are some of the most meaningful responses you’ve noticed to a space you produced?
Alex: The best responses in almost all our projects are from children. It’s not a single thing they say. It’s more what they do. It’s what you see them create or how they are acting when they are in these environments. For me, that’s the best thing we can ask for—to create spaces that cause children to use them in ways that are unanticipated, which is the job of kids in the world.
So those children’s responses are stripped of all pretense?
Alex: Exactly. In the most successful examples, that reaction from kids causes adults to do the same thing. The adult may see it anew.
Have you seen that happen where a child’s reaction will cause an adult to rethink the space?
Alex: Yes, to some extent, we saw it in Drift, in the pavilion. When some people walk in, they would look up and wander slowly. Also, I saw it in Dig. It was like a snow fort. We had kids in there who went crazy running around. Every adult who came in there had a similar transporting experience where it reconnected them with something. It feels like a space that you’re not supposed to be in or you haven’t been in for a long time. Everyone has a different reaction to that, whether it was being in a snow fort as a child or the feeling of being in a space that’s smaller than you’re used to that provokes a sense, whether it’s a comforting thing or a discomforting that that varies from person to person.
Some of our readers are emerging designers. What advice would you give someone just getting his or her feet wet as a designer?
Alex: I think it’s very important to be constantly making things. The other side is to be dreaming about things. There’s an equal balance there, and so ever since we started Snarkitecture we’ve had ambitious ideas and we were very focused on remaining strong on concept while having a goal of seeing our work built and realized. You need a drive to produce and a drive to make, and part of that is knowing how to actually do it.