Surface Magazine
Snark Attack, April 2011
Interview Spencer Bailey

A collaborative firm made up of the artist Daniel Arsham, known for creating space-shifting art that stretches, bends, and even hovers, and the architect Alex Mustonen, Snarkitecture continually searches for ways to misuse—and confuse—the role of architecture. About a year ago, the duo designed a set made of table-tennis balls for a performance by choreographer Jonah Bokaer called Why Patterns; last fall, they constructed a New York City popup shop out of foam for fashion designer Richard Chai.
Arsham and Mustonen sat down in their Brooklyn studio to talk with Surface about their often elusive practice.

What are Snarkitecture’s origins?

Daniel Arsham: The studio began out of necessity in 2005. I was working on an installation for the Dior Homme fitting rooms in Los Angeles—a project that was a bit closer to architecture and which required a different attention to detail than art. We evolved out of that collaboration and played around with this idea of formalizing the practice. Two years later, it became Snarkitecture.

Describe the division of labor between the two of you.

DA : We have both practices here in the studio. When we start the day, everyone meets, including my studio and the architecture practice, even though it’s not necessarily important that my studio knows what’s going on with some coding issue.

ALEX MUSTONEN: It’s important, too, for the staff of Snarkitecture, most of whom have architecture backgrounds, to get exposure to the art practice. A lot of what Snarkitecture ends up working on has relation to public art, set design—things outside of architecture.

The firm’s namesake is Lewis Carroll’s 1876 poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” Explain.

DA : Everyone hated the name, but I really wanted it. It’s based on this book-length poem about a group of misfits at sea. They’re hunting for the Snark. They don’t know what it looks like, they don’t know where it is, they don’t know what it is—they don’t know anything. It’s this idea of searching for an undefined, cloud-like mass form.

Describe your creative process. Do you begin with art or architecture?

Almost everything starts with some ridiculous idea. Sometimes it’s one idea that becomes the concept and that’s it. Other times, it takes a long time to build up to that. For instance, the furniture stuff, the four or five prototypes we built came from 20 or 30 pieces that got reduced and reduced and reduced—some of them combined, some of them thrown out.

DA : It’s not nearly as haphazard as it sounds. There’s a lot of research. One phase is throwing out these complicated, impossible ideas. Then there’s a distillation of those ideas.

AM: With architecture, most of the projects are literally constructed and oftentimes have to conform to building codes, so it’s really trying to marry these seemingly impossible ideas with pragmatic realities.

Much of your firm’s work is based in Miami. What’s your relationship to the city?

DA : I’m from Miami. For me, it’s always been an interesting place, because the city was physically invented. It was essentially built out of a swamp. If you fly over in a plane, you can see there’s a reason why there are all these lakes and canals: That’s where all the water has been drained out. These fictional islands in the bay area sort of fantasyland.

What differences have you found between art and architecture?

DA: It’s a lot easier—and faster—to make art than architecture.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since founding your practice?

DA: We’ve learned that the things we do best are the simplest and often use a single material. For Richard [Chai], it was white foam; with Why Patterns, it was ping-pong balls. They’re simple gestures that can have a large impact.

AM: It’s taking an extremely simple idea—or material—and creating a vast amount of complexity within it.

Who would you most like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?

AM: Kanye West.