Snarkitecture, December 2015
Interview by Sachin Bhola
Alex Mustonen and Daniel Arsham are breaking new ground at the juncture of art and architecture.
In the summer of 2015, visitors at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., were invited to swim in an ocean of 750,000 translucent plastic balls and relax on a shoreline of white monochromatic beach chairs and umbrellas. "The BEACH," as the 10,000 square foot installation was called, was unlike any other museum experience.
The overlap between disciplines often plays a leading role in unearthing new territories. Such is evident in the work of Alex Mustonen and Daniel Arsham, the creators behind "The BEACH," who are at the forefront of a new interdisciplinary field, Snarkitecture, their practice, is innovating art and architecture by exploring what can be achieved when the fields intersect. Their projects are concerned with reimagining the familiar, and have included installations, functional objects, such as light fixtures and mirrors, and retail stores. Their client list includes Calvin Klein, Design Miami, and Chromeo, with whom they collaborated on an installation.
I visited Mustonen and Arsham in their New York City studio to learn more about their background and inventive work, and to discuss the Brooklyn location of Kith, the groundbreaking store they had just finished designing.
What were your first jobs in design?
Alex Mustonen (AM): Architecture's something I've always been fascinated by. Daniel and I went to school together at Cooper Union. I studied architecture, and Daniel studied art. I started working at places during school, and after school became a sort of freelance consultant. During that period, Daniel and I were working together on a project and began talking about the idea of staring a sustained collaborative practice, which became Snarkitecture.
Daniel Arsham (DA): This is all I've ever done, really. I never worked for anyone before this. Just out of school, I started an exhibition space with some friends in Miami. Then I started exhibiting on my own. There was a project that Alex helped me on, which was a little bit more architectural than it was art. And Snarkitecture came out of a discussion related to the kind of overlap and areas in which those two disciplines have gone to. Now we're here.
How would you describe the overlap between architecture and art today compared with when you began Snarkitecture?
DA: I don't know if it's that different necessarily. I think part of the thing that we've tried to do is to broaden our projects outside of what you might think of as traditional architecture. In many ways, people don't really know what we do because we do objects and spaces that you can inhabit. Sometimes they're permanent, and sometimes they're temporary. I think the fluidity of scale and material that we work in is not really an area that I see a lot of other practices engaging with.
AM: I do think there's been an increased interest in being less defined across a number of disciplines. People that don't want to be known as one thing.
And that's created this unique space to operate in.
AM: Yeah, it was a really intentional idea to start Snarkitecture rooted in Daniel's background and my background. The work we create exists in this sort of unknown space between the things we're continually interested in. Even as the work might shift toward things that seem more recognizable, like public art or architecture, we're looking to sort of find moments to either confuse that or hurt that.
How has your creative process and technique evolved over the years?
DA: A lot of what we do is materially based, so we've gotten better and more adept at working with materials and making them do things that they're not intended to do. This has been a kind of constant theme throughout a lot of our work. And working with other fabricators. You know, we've kind of found the right people, whether it be contractors or mill workers, to bring the ideas to fruition.
AM: The other thing that's changed is the size of the team. It was just the two of us when we started-litreally, there were two desks in this same space. That changes the nature of our collaborative process and creative process. It inherently involves all these people that are sitting around us. As the work's grown in scale and significance, we've also had to bring in the team to help us realize that. They're a part of that process now.
What do you think is the fire and foremost design principle to keep in mind when working on your projects?
AM: Making architecture perform in the unexpected is sort of something that we circle back to. The sense of taking things that are familiar from our surroundings, our built environment, and finding ways to alter and manipulate those to create new programs, new functions, and unexpected moments.
DA: And reduction plays a large part in what we do. If you look at most of our projects, they can be pared down to, in some cases, a single material or a single idea. There's sort of an economy in that. There's not one single thing that's superfluous. Its's reduced down to the most simple form, idea, content, all that.
DA: We have a project now where there's a million objects, so it's not minimal in that way. But it's minimal in a lot of the other ways. The idea of reduction, simplicity of palette-things like that- allow the experience of those spaces to be much more about form and light than they are about color and texture.
How do you judge the success of your projects?
DA: Good question? I think for us it comes from how we experience the space. Usually our experience will be mirrored by an audience? Because a lot of our work involves installation spaces or social spaces, we kind of have a very easy barometer to look at. Like 150,000 people have been in the project that we currently have in D.C. So whether or not the project itself is successful, it did what we wanted it to do, and people like it, and it's an inspiring space for them.
AM: And it's not to say that a project has to just make someone happy or make them feel a certain way, but you can sort of-there's a palpable sense of people being intrigued or having a sense of wonder.
DA: Also, you just can't hate on a project. Like if you're hating it, then sorry. The project in D.C., if you're hating it, you're like the Grinch of Christmas.
What are you guys working on at the moment?
AM: The practice is still kind of following those two parallel paths of object and architecture. On the architecture side, we're doing quite a bit of retail.
DA: We're putting in a new shop for Kith. It's a massive project. This new space- every single thing about it has been designed. Certainly for that area in Brooklyn, there's nothing like this anywhere near there.
Tell me more.
DA: There's a lot of ideas we wanted to work with- material ideas. The floor in there is a Carrara Marble, but in a herringbone pattern that uses a medium-gray grout. And there's an infinity mirror situation that's happening on both sides. So immediately when you walk in the space, you have this all-white, very clean silver and stone feeling. We've repeated the idea of the shoes, so the first Kith store is of Jordan 1s, which trace back to the lineage of [found Ronnie Fieg's] background in sneaker culture.
And this store has the Jordan 2s. They're arranged in a slightly different way than they are in Manhattan. We've also created a sense that there's a little building that's kind of inside of the building, which acts as an archive of special projects that Ronnie's doing. There's a real experience moving through the space.
AM: The visual focus is on the minimal in the sense that it's white and stainless. It's also grand in the sense that this floor is an expansive gesture. Actually a pretty good percentage of the store-like 40 percent of the store- has no product in it. It's based on your experience: it's like entering a void.
Which is really unlike any other store.
DA: Yeah, it's really about the experience of entering it. Also, what we've done is created this forced perspective with the marble surface to what are essentially panes of glass that have the product on the opposite side of them. So you're in this kind of glass box seeing the thing you can't actually touch. You have to walk around to see it. It's really about framing that view and framing that experience before you get to it.
How much time did it take you to complete the store?
DA: About a year total.
Is there a city that has particularly exciting architecture and art right now?
AM: I found Stockholm to be a really amazing city; I went there for the first time this last year. I'd say more from a design standpoint and for its historical architecture. Design seems very strong there right now, and there's also a strong art scene. Mostly though, I'm continually excited about New York.
That's good to hear, considering how many people fall out of love with it.
AM: I mean we've been here for a while. I think a large part of our success has been contingent on being in New York. It's a city that we've thrived in. But I think architecture-wise, New York is a city that's struggling a lot. In terms of the types of projects that are commissioned and built here. There are less-significant cities that are building much better and more significant architecture.
Have you seen the Center for Architecture in New York? Can you please give that space a makeover?
AM: Yeah, it's hard. I mean, this is a very big cultural question. The value of, say, specifically design and architecture- it's just not held in the same regard in the U.S. as it is in many other countries and cultures. You can go to Europe, and basically every city has its own architecture museum. It's not the case in the U.S.
Snarkitecture is interested in how people interact with modified objects. What would you say is the most influential modified object in the last five years and why?
AM: I want to say something about digital. That people are constantly reinventing things through essentially some kind of hacking. But I can't think of one that's been life changing.
What does that say about the world?
DA: What it says is that there's too many things, right? The reason why you can't pinpoint one is that there's too much awesome stuff in the world right now, right?
AM: So many things that, by sheer numbers, some of it's bound to be awesome. But then, also, a lot of it's bound to be terrible. That's a good question.
DA: What do you think of these shoes [I'm wearing]?
AM: Well, that's manufactured as a designed object.
DA: Yeah, its Yohji Yamamoto looking at what adidas got-
AM: And then modifying that.
DA: They have this exact same shoe with the same bottom, but this has a totally different upper.
AM: I mean, I think that reimagining of design is stronger now than ever, just through this idea of collaboration, which, you know, we're actively partaking in too. I was going to say the stuff I actually appreciate the most are weird, sort of, vernacular modifications. Especially when I walk to work every day, I see a lot of it on construction sites; things that were never designed, and nobody ever intended to do. But the worker who's performing that work found the most efficient or comfortable way to do something. And so they're using, say, a sheet of foam or something it was-
AM: Exactly. It's life hacking. But it's done in a very un-designed way, which has this sort of power to it.
Your work has viewers questioning their understanding of environment. Looking at Snarkitecture's body of work, what project stood out to you as being the most transformative, the most boundary-pushing, and why?
DA: I'd say the first one that struck a lot of people, and was a big moment for us, was the pavilion that we designed for Design Miami in 2012. A lot of times we like to say that we go to a site and we're not actually adding anything; we're just manipulating something that's already existing. In that case, they had a sort of banal, bland white tent. We took that material and made these inflatable tubes out of it. That was essentially a reformation of something that already existed, turning it into an entirely new environment.
AM: Yeah, it did a lot. There was a long conversation in architecture about the inflatables and inflatable architecture. And I think this was offering the next step of looking at a new way of creating inflatable architecture. It also played on the idea of something that was very light, filled with air, but also very heavy in the sense that it created this almost cavern-like environment where we could ask people to step away from their video world and into this world that we had created.
There's a book called A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink that argues, based on data, that right-brainers will rule the world. Some of the skills of a right-brainer are design, storytelling, big-picture thinking. For the left-brainers out there, or other right-brainers, what is your advice for being more imaginative and reinterpreting the familiar?
DA: I mean, the world thrives on people who-every single advancement, whether it be in technology or architecture or medicine or anything, comes from people not doing what they're supposed to do, usually. They're thinking in ways that can be radical, cannot work in many cases, but you won't know if you don't try.
AM: Or from mistakes.
DA: Lots and lots of mistakes.