Dong-Ping Wong (FAMILY), Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeff Franklin (PlayLab) in conversation with C and G. Recorded February 13th, 2014.
G: FAMILY and PlayLab—how do you identify yourselves as separate entities and also as an ongoing collaboration?
DPW: The split between offices is actually fairly easy. If we are working on a project together, our names are together. Each office still has its own stable of projects.
G: The reason that we started with this was that we noticed that, beyond the pool, this seems to be an ongoing series of collaborative projects between the two offices.
ALCIV: We have done six together. We did a competition together that we probably should have spent way more time on. We did an exhibition at Storefront (No Shame: Storefront for Sale). Also there were some proposals for the Domino Sugar Factory.
DPW: We’ve also realized that the stuff that we work on together manages to get published more.
C: How did the collaboration between the two offices get started?
ALCIV: Well, I met Jeff in architecture school but I dropped out of architecture school to pursue graphic design. That is how PlayLab got started, as a graphic design office. Jeff and Dong met working at REX together. So when they left REX it was a pretty easy conversation. Our attitudes towards design and our attitudes towards life in general are just very similar. The way that we talk about work is fun and we both enjoy building worlds around things.
G: It seems that there is a greater credibility or interest when you come together. The model we often make comparisons to is the Wu-Tang Clan. When there is a full collaboration the public pays attention and the quality of the work drastically improves. When it’s just Inspectah Deck, nobody really gives a shit.
DPW: It also comes out of necessity. We can’t do the stuff that Jeff and Archie do. Besides that, they just do it way better than us. Whether you are in a partnership like we are or hire consultants, you need to work with people. I think it’s actually very rare to have a group of people that work as well as we do together. It’s a lot more than just a professional relationship.
ALCIV: And we are still learning. It’s an ongoing conversation about work and practice. The reason we still try to clearly define the offices as separate entities is because we do have different goals and intentions.
C: In architecture there is often a discussion about the developmental phases of an architect’s career—a rite of passage or moving up the ranks. This generally goes from graduation to working an entry-level position as an intern. One then works their way up the firm. At the later stages one is expected to either become an authoritative figure or break off on their own. It seems that the three of you skipped many of the stages in the middle.
DPW: Skipped or missed…It depends on how you want to phrase it.
G: Right. It’s not skipping the seventh grade because I am fully capable of being in eighth. It’s a decision to start life in the world without the seventh grade and now I have to learn all of that information on the fly.
DPW: Is that good? Is that bad? It’s something that you will have to ask us in thirty years.
C: Could you tell us more about why that decision was made? Why did you feel the need to break out of this traditional system of paid dues?
ALCIV: Well I have ADD and I like to juggle a lot of things at once.
I had one job for eleven months to get me to New York City as a designer for Cornell and Columbia’s medical facilities. I was in a cubicle without natural light. Jeff and I had this studio at night where he came after REX at midnight or later and we worked on fun ideas. A point was reached where we were going to start PlayLab for real. So we decided, let’s live now and not worry about building a future in that way.
JF: We just thought, “What was the worst that could happen?” We had some projects and we wanted to try them out.
ALCIV: I don’t think that we are a complete reverence for the way that things should be done. It’s just not important to us. We just like working and doing what feels right at the time.
DPW: I think that if those developmental stages were a really satisfactory model, I personally would not have had a problem going through it. Obviously there is no doubt that if you go through that you learn a lot of things that are much harder for us to learn because we are not receiving that mentorship.
It’s also that we know the kind of work that we want to do. The trick is actually getting it. The trajectory of the developmental stages did not guarantee that. Worst case, it seems like it actually knocked down a lot of people, where it just becomes a job. That was something we wanted to avoid.
ALCIV: When Jeff left REX we did a weird project called PieLab, a pie shop in Alabama, with a group called Project M. In a lot of ways it embodied the type of work we wanted to do which is exploratory. It’s with people. It’s physical. It’s not digital.
After that Dong won a competition and had the time and the money to explore something that was interesting to him. He called us on + POOL. It was incredibly situational that the two groups came together. We literally had coffee and said, “Yea-yea-yea, that doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal.”
ALCIV: Four years later, we are attached at the hip, same physical office, and we have a twenty-one million dollar beast on our hands—which is cool. Every day we have to say, “It’s big but it’s not that big.”
C: Other than the experience of this mentoring that you mentioned, it’s also part of gaining credibility to secure work. It’s great that you said, “We are just going to go out and do it by ourselves.” This is coming around to this idea of anticipatory design.
G: Archie and Jeff have spoken about how they want to move to a model that consists of as many self-initiated projects as possible.
It seems that you were able to get the + POOL going through using alternate methods of securing funding, credibility, and creating awareness in opposition to the typical model of the RFP or RFQ. What is the strategy for growing this initiative model?
DPW: Just to be clear, we are nowhere near solving this model.
ALCIV: I think it’s a matter of being known for doing this kind of work. If somebody comes to you because of your work, then it’s a step in the right direction as opposed to doing a project that you had to do for money as a necessity.
DPW: The aspect of getting jobs is a huge thing that most architects are actually terrible at. Everybody fights with that. The flip side of that is what kind of jobs do you actually want to get? I don’t think that either of our offices is adverse to client-based work. You also want to position yourself to attract the kind of projects you are actually interested in and good at doing. At the same time, how do you convince people to hire you without that track record?
ALCIV: It’s even more so about turning clients into partners as opposed to strict clients—where in graphic design it’s much easier to find a project because they are smaller in nature than architecture projects. We are in this point now where people are approaching us for the way we think about things and then asking us to play in that arena. This is in contrast to saying here is this project, execute it in this time, and here is the budget.
Because of this we have a bit more freedom. It’s almost like the Eames office where someone comes and says, “Hey! We are paying you to be naïve about this thing. Go and play in that sandbox and bring us something that is of the quality of work we know you are capable of producing.”
C: You mentioned PieLab before. That seemed to be at a point where you had no track record. Nobody asked you to enter the arena. How were you able to swing that into manifesting the project?
ALCIV: In that case there was a non-profit that was invested in the town. There was also an architecture program called Rural Studio that had been involved with the town and had a track record of building projects with a sustainable model. A non-profit called Hero Housing, lead by Pam Dore, found us an old school house that she rented from the city for a dollar a year. We used that to do a pop-up pie shop. We left that in the hands of a few other designers. They applied for a grant and received forty grand, bought a building on Main Street, and got additional funding through grants which led to a governmental program where someone can actually get their GED by working at the pie shop. It was never setting out to be that, but grew into becoming sustainable in a very unique way. It’s not something that can necessarily be replicated.
ALCIV: I think that is what the aim of our office is about—building these worlds and growth through branding. We try to be very clear with our intention with things.
JF: PieLab was also a weirdly amazing project because it was just set up like fucking tee ball. We just got down there and there was a building to use. We need materials and there is a building full of materials. We spent $800 in total to renovate everything and we did not have to pay utility bills. Just start selling pie for a dollar if you want.
JF: That was a great way to get started. We had it in our minds where we could do anything. It made us overly ambitious and naïve in a great way.
G: You discussed earlier about wanting to build relationships with people. How do you approach your the clients? In PieLab and + POOL, you seem to be making connections directly to those who will be using the space.
DPW: A lot of the times the desires of the client are not necessarily in line with the desires of the designer. With the pool, it grew from public sentiment, from public reaction. We used that as a leverage to bring in political and corporate support for what we are building towards. It’s all based on the desire to do it for the public. That is the whole reason for initiatives, that you have control of what the project is for. In our case, this is a pool for the people of New York.
C: A way that we have been thinking about your respective firms is through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of capital, that capital manifests in multiple forms: economic, social, and cultural. There is always an exchange between these three types. In short, cultural capital is best summarized as knowledge and expertise. Social capital is developed through a network of connections.1 It seems that you have been able to successfully leverage your social capital to offset the guaranteeing consistency of economic capital. In + POOL you were able to leverage the community support from Kickstarter to then go to ARUP and then prove feasibility which equals to cultural capital…
G: What is interesting in relation to Bourdieu’s theory is how much things have changed since it was written in the 80’s. In the text he states that the greatest potential to be successful in any of the three forms of social capital still involved being born into it. In contemporary society the playing field for the accretion of social capital has become more leveled through technology and social media. You seem to be working in a way that you place yourselves into all of these different networks of relation, whether through social media to garner public support or through institutions like Storefront for Art and Architecture. How do you curate these networks of relation?
ALCIV: It’s like what Dong said—whatever feels right. We wouldn’t be chilling with Storefront all the time if Eva [Franch i Gilabert] wasn’t really as supportive as she has been.
DPW: The collaboration with ARUP is a good example. The social capital was generated by the project hitting Gawker and blew up until eventually ARUP saw it and offered their services. That was a point of exchange where a great amount of cultural capital was brought in because of social capital gained from exposure on Gawker. With that combined, we were able to take it to Kickstarter and actually get the initial economic capital to get the project going. We used Kickstarter to generate money, but in generating the money you are also generating more interests in the project. The new social capital puts you in contact with the necessary people to work together and generate the next round of economic capital. You are also right in that; I don’t think we could have done this project five years ago before Kickstarter, Twitter, Facebook, etc. which have become serious tools.
JF: This is actually the reason after our last Kickstarter campaign that we decided to invest in a PR person to keep things moving. There has to be this constant cycle of news in the social media in order to raise money. This would be followed by a period where we would be making things and social media would just tank. We would then have to build that back up.
ALCIV: This is partially because we are not aware of what is newsworthy and what is not. We have our own opinions, but an outside opinion is really good to have. They will take something and run with it, allowing us to focus more on the creative work.
JF: We spent a lot of time building connections and now she manages a lot of that.
DPW: She also makes sure that we don’t get lazy about it. We have talked a lot about the idea of a service industry vs. a product industry. Obviously architecture is inherently a service industry but I believe that part of it often causes problems. You are being asked to do something that somebody else wants you to. In a product industry, you are putting out something you hope or believe people want. We have been trying to look at the pool in that way. You do need different modes of communication to get the word out on the project and to sell the project in a different way than a client-based or service industry model. The model we are attempting is not that new or different, but only when it’s discussed in relation to architecture.
G: A conversation that seems to come up a lot is that when young designers are looking for different methods of creating work, they are looking less and less at traditional architectural firms as an inspirational model. There are many other industries where innovation is happening rapidly and the thought is why can’t that be us.
ALCIV: In architecture, I think people are afraid of oversimplification. With branding and product design there is often a fear of packaging up an idea too cleanly and delivering something in that way. Architects are scared of simplifying a project down to a simple diagram or to a brand. We are trying to do both.
C: Our final question is how do you see your firms growing in terms of both work and employees? Because your model is so based on feeling, intuition, and social relationships how can that be something that can scale up to encompass more people and projects?
DPW: We also talk about this all the time. We have different ideas about how big or small we want to keep the offices, even between Oana and myself. Me personally, I want to grow as big as we can possibly grow.
DPW: Part of that is actually getting back to the kind of scale of firm that I am actually most comfortable with in terms of my prior professional training. In terms of using social and cultural capital that we were discussing and how we use what we have going in the office, I think we are able to reach more people and bring them in to want to work with us through this model than the typical one.
The group of partners or friends for the pool alone is exponentially larger than any other project that I could think of because you don’t need that network if you have a straight path to getting it done. Anyone beyond the three of us that we actually hire for the project is someone who approaches us. There is enough public interest that people want to be a part of it.
G: It seems that the hope for as many initiatives as possible comes with greater risks. How do you grow when you are really gambling every time on the project?
ALCIV: With PlayLab we don’t know. The only thing I am betting on is Jeff. The only thing Jeff is betting on is me.
G: That’s beautiful…
[Jeff reaches out and holds hands with Archie.]
ALCIV: But we do believe in relationships and we hold that strong with Dong and Oana as well. The only thing that I know for certain is that it’s Jeff and I. I can’t do PlayLab without Jeff. It would look like something completely fucking different. I do know that we want to make products, films, buildings, toys, furniture… So we have to just allow each day and week transpires into the next. There is just no other way around it for us. It’s definitely scary for girlfriends and wives and shit, and whether or not we are going to have a baby or what…
DPW: Whoa, whoa…
ALCIV: I want a motherfucking baby dude! I think that would be tight. But yea…who knows.
DPW: The gambling thing is funny because no matter what, somebody is gambling. Someone is putting up their money. That comes down to agency. You hear architects complaining a lot about having no control. It’s true. The more risk you take on, the more agency you have. When you look at other industries, this is what they do. Any small fashion brand, every line they put out is a risk. Every six month cycle they risk everything and if they don’t sell they are fucked. With architecture it’s much more slow. It’s a five or six year cycle. If you look at it the same way, we hope that this is a product that puts us on the map in a different way to attain success. I don’t think it’s that scary, it just takes a little while in architecture.