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The Mutable Nature Of Design: A Q&A With SOFTlab

We’ve been following the work of NYC-based creative design studio SOFTlab ever since their self-produced CHROMA.tex gallery installation caught our eye last summer. Taking over the entire window storefront of the Lower East Side’s bridgegallery, the rainbow colored tubular structure made us feel like we had fallen down a technicolor rabbit hole. Upon closer inspection, we were shocked to discover that this gorgeous sculptural installation was constructed entirely out of lazer-cut sheets of paper and held together with binder clips, of all things. The simplicity of the design, in contrast with the visually striking nature of the final product, made the installation infinitely more impressive.

Last month, we were wowed again when SOFTlab presented two works as part of Flash:Light 2011 during the Festival of Ideas for the New City, curated by Nuit Blanche NYC. Creating a piece for projection on the facade of the New Museum and a large-scale, LED-encrusted installation that hung at the entrance of St. Patrick’s Catholic School, SOFTlab demonstrated their design versatility and power of imagination.

The genius of SOFTlab’s design aesthetic lies in their emphasis on mutability, adaptability, modularity, and an overall willingness to customize, change and evolve. This approach rests in stark opposition to their architectural backgrounds, forsaking the staid permanence of the monumental skyscraper for a more scrappy, ad hoc design practice that feels just as much at home creating furniture, interactive websites, and large-scale installations as they do conceiving physical structures. It’s an all-encompassing philosophy that’s reflected in every facet of the studio—from their name to their piecemeal lazer-cut constructions to their emphasis on innovating new processes and techniques and then releasing the code open source. In an era where, the times are a-changing faster than we can keep track, SOFTlab seem to be among a group of designers that’s pioneering a new, lightweight form of design that appears in step with the future, whatever it may bring.

Video for the New Practices New York 2010 exhibition

We spoke to Michael Szivos, one of SOFTlab’s about the studio’s unique design philosophy and creative practice.

The Creators Project: You guys create such a diverse body of work and in a variety of mediums. What’s your background? Did you go to art school?
Michael Szivos:
I went to architecture school and so did the other people in the studio. And so we will probably continue to hire architects just because I feel like they think critically about design and they also learn a bunch of tools in school that makes them capable of doing graphics and other things.

How would you characterize your approach or philosophy?
The philosophy is pretty much to get people to question things. I think that is why architecture was appealing to me in the beginning. I wanted to be an architect and somehow I ended up doing this weird, fetishized, component driven thing. I don’t know, I feel old saying this, but when you are in school you kind of trash the old ways of doing things. We are very much about distilling things down, about an idea, a simple idea—even if it’s a shape, like a surfboard or something. We’re really focused on how you can make [that simple idea] more interesting or complex so that, in the end, the result is almost intuitive for people. It may be an interesting shape that someone hasn’t seen before, but when they look at it, it’s almost like user friendly—like they already know what it is. It is a balance of not curating it too much, making it accessible, but also letting people discover their own way of looking at it.

POLY.lux installed as part of Flash:Light 2011 during the Festival of Ideas.

How did you transition from architecture to the kind of pieces you do today?
The reality of the studio is that a lot of the situations that happen involve a lot of luck. We worked on a project that was actually a model for architects and we happened to get a lazer cutter. Now, a lot of the projects we do are lazer cut. It’s weird to say, and it’s also a very humbling thing, because none of this would be possible if we didn’t have that machine. I mean, simply because if we were paying somebody to lazer cut it, it would be tens of thousands of dollars. If that machine didn’t arrive one day… that’s one random thing we didn’t even know we needed.

It’s interesting that the materials you guys tend to work with—wood, paper, plastic, binder clips—are so simple in comparison to the comparatively high-tech production process. I also really love that you guys open source a lot of the code for the 3D work you guys do. Why did you start doing that?
Well, at the end of the day, we don’t want to be recognized necessarily because we do these sort of processes, but because of the work. We put all of the scripts out there and I’m into it in the sense that I don’t care if other people have it. You have to have a studio, you have to go make these things, you have to have management to organize this shit and have a relationship with someone who is going to allow you to put your stuff in there. Open source has kind of become romanticized where people think they’ll download this thing and just use it, but it still requires a lot of work. Those things that we give out, they’re gonna break. We just use them for our own purposes.

I think that everyone in here is, first and foremost, a designer and not a software geek. We never want to be in a position where, if the software goes out of business, you’re screwed. That is not the sort of mentality here. Whatever you do, you have to be designing. If you stripped away everything, the one thing I would keep on doing is re-looking at things and questioning things.

What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
We’re about to do a limited edition “print” series for Random Number. The curator was just here earlier today looking at some early prototypes. We are also talking about doing what we did last summer, which is making our own show, with more intention on having things you can buy. We would really like to do the Chromatex project that we did on the LES in Miami.

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