Alex Mustonen, Daniel Arsham and Benjamin Porto: A Conversation About Conversation
Alex Mustonen: The framework for this conversation about Snarkitecture and the Hall of Mirrors for Design Museum Holon is how ''exchange'' relates to our design process and practice.
Benjamin Porto: A conversation about conversation...
AM: What is your first thought or question when we start discussing a new concept or project here in the studio?
Daniel Arsham: Does it really need to exist in the world? Do people want it or need it?
AM: Necessity and desire.
BP: Or, how can this project (or program) be used to make people understand and interact with space in a way that’s new or unfamiliar?
DA: Will they play with it?
AM: We talk a lot about interaction and engagement in the earliest stages of a project. There’s less focus on how something looks; it’s more about how people experience it.
BP: Conversations like this – about a project – nearly always take place in the studio.
DA: And not just between the three of us. Very often with other members of the team, or sometimes the entire studio.
AM: How would you define the Snarkitecture collaborative process?
DA: A bunch of misfits sailing a boat, looking for the Snark with a blank map.
BP: The blank map is a good analogy. We start fresh every time; each project is a blank slate, which is important to the overall thinking of the studio.
DA: We approach new projects without external input.
BP: At least in the beginning. Like fishing, you drop a line and you don't know what you're going to catch. It's a mystery below the surface.
AM: I like the idea of exploration – that the studio is operating between the disciplines of art and architecture in a search for the unknown. But what about the external inputs you mentioned? Isn't there always some kind of exchange with elements outside of the studio?
DA: Definitely – clients, a brief, restrictions or parameters. These all factor into the initial exchange or discussion of a project.
BP: Yes, but many studios use those parameters as the jumping-off point. I like to think that our initial conversations about a project focus on the concept or the core idea, rather than the restrictions.
DM: Then we see if the idea passes through the gauntlet of parameters.
BP: A built-in editing process. Best ideas are survivors.\
AM: Those initial concept conversations have always been critical for Snarkitecture. The discussions that happen early in a project have continued to be surprisingly wide-ranging and open. Similar to a ''there are no bad ideas'' kind of brainstorming or discussion. The studio is an environment in which the most outlandish ideas or impossible concepts often seem to thrive.
DA: In the early days of Snarkitecture we held weeklong summer meetings – I think it was in 2009 and 2010. We went upstate and would spend the entire day sketching hundreds of drawings with the entire team.
AM: The plans for these first furniture pieces did come out of that meeting you mentioned; it has been an important model for the studio.
DA: That model was based on pairing physical ideas with conceptual frameworks. It was pretty specific and structured – it would allow us to generate hundreds of different variations on a theme.
BP: The other thing that was important about those sessions – which we still hold in the studio – was bringing everyone in the studio into that process.
DA: There is also a lot of conversation as a project evolves, as proposals get approved or rejected, or as things succeed or fail.
BP: I’d say the conversations with those outside of the studio, like clients or fabricators, are equally valuable.
AM: The collaborative process with Gufram comes to mind.
BP: With Broken Mirrors – like with half the projects we propose, we said, “Who could build this?”
DA: Gufram’s material is unique; it’s strange and playful and feels very well suited to what we’re doing with Snarkitecture.
AM: I was fortunate enough to go to Alba, in Italy, to visit Charley (Vezza) and Axel (Iberti) and Giacomo, head of production at the Gufram factory and warehouse. It was just this unbelievable archive of all these historically significant design pieces. In any case, we had this design for a mirror that would sit inside of a broken frame.
BP: The frame was to be made from Gufram’s signature material, polyurethane foam.
AM: It was this funny scenario of me and three Italians figuring out this concept. So I would explain an element of the design to Charley and Axel, who would argue about the idea for five minutes. Then they would explain it to Giacomo, who would argue back with them in Italian. Each thing took ten minutes to convey because there was a lot of discussion and translation. But in that discussion we worked out a lot of the design, and made the first little prototype. Giacomo just got the foam and cut it. We put the mirror in it and tried it all, so very quickly we had this direction and then it was an ongoing process. This leads me to a general question: Which is more productive for an idea, success or failure?
BP: I like to think that ideas don't exactly fail. It’s more about them not being a good fit for a client. I think we recognize when the core of an idea is sound and worth holding on to.
AM: I'd say we've had plenty of failed ideas – those ideas that just didn’t make it very far along in the process. Something in the dialogue of designing filtered most of them out. On a more granular scale, there can be (and sometimes are) smaller failures from time to time. Things that need to be refined, adjusted, corrected – a process that brings us back to those initial discussions in the studio.
DA: Short answer: we find inspiration in the things that don't quite go as planned.
* The Snark is a legendary creature in Lewis Carroll’s ballad The Hunting of the Snark (1876), which tells the story of a group of adventurers who set out to catch it.