Two Minutes With // SOFTlab

Hello! We’ve been looking forward to releasing today’s insightful interview with Michael Szivos, of SOFTlab, a design studio based in New York City. As a studio, SOFTlab, embraces projects through a mix of research and ideas. On one hand the studio is invested in projects that require significant research and experimentation. These projects provide a testing ground for them to help germinate a studio environment that is ripe with creativity. They take advantage of what they learn from these projects through the design of their more client based work. The constraints of all projects are treated as opportunities that are tested through a collaborative studio environment with the hopes of solving typical problems in new ways, with new tools. Through the studio’s unique blend of backgrounds as designers, artists, architects and educators they are able to approach every project from a fresh perspective to create rich spatial, graphic, interactive and visual experiences. By mixing research, creativity and technology with a strong desire to make working fun, SOFTlab attempts to create new and unique experiences. Take a look at their website to see some incredible work.

Images courtesy of SOFTlab.

VT: SOFTlab is an innovative studio with a focus on projects that seem to be more in the realm of interior “installations”, rather than longer-term interiors projects. What initiated your interest in this type of design? How do the stages of your project scopes compare to that of a typical interior project?

MS: When we started off, budgets were a lot smaller and there were more opportunities to do art installations. We previously did lots of web and video work or work for other artists that dealt with fabrication. We were invited to a couple of shows and ended up doing installations that led to doing other, more site-specific installations. Two things converged; one, doing the art installation; and two, experimenting with how things are made with different parts and pieces in a modular way. We became self-defined by creating these complex shapes that can arrive on site as a series of parts and be put together in a way that wouldn’t or couldn’t be done before.

As far as scope, we are designing something. The same amount of effort is required to detail a temporary installation as a permanent programmatic project. Of course, the client doesn’t understand why they would spend the same amount of money on something that may only stay up for a matter of days. Now that we are working with people at bigger corporations that think in the context of commercials, more money is invested, likely coming from their marketing budget. For example, we just finished a million dollar project in Dubai with an entire team that only stayed up for three days.

VT: Despite the complexities within each of your projects, many are fabricated using tools as simple as binder clips and zip ties. What challenges have you encountered by manually assembling these precise, digitally fabricated pieces? What other tools, physical and digital, are used throughout your process? Could you walk through the digital workflow of a specific project?

MS: There are contingencies that expect digital work to solve all the problems in a project. We are very interested in materiality and how things come together in the real world. On site, there’s gravity, humidity, and site dimensions that aren’t perfect. I think planning and building tools to make everything precise has become most important even though there’s always a degree of improvisation that happens. In some cases, the only way to plan is by expecting or assuming it’s going to happen.

When we started, we tried to amplify on things that we were interested in or things that would set us apart from other studios. In the beginning, it was heavy handed with digital tools, which we continue to use, but it doesn’t have to be at the forefront of a project. We’re interested in using new tools whether they’re analog or digital. When someone gives us more freedom and latitude to experiment, we try to take advantage and do something new. That becomes rolled into a kind of studio expertise, like the digital tools, it’s just another part of a catalogue that you can choose from of known quantities.

Usually we start off with the conceptual design that happens in only a couple weeks. Many people think when the design is done it’s done, but it’s more about narrowing down the possibilities of a project. Depending on the project, two things get designed: the project itself and the way it’s going to be detailed. These exist in parallel as the system in place to make the drawings, parts, and all the pieces. A current project we’re working on in Austin is a custom structure made of aluminum pipes, connected by 1,600 unique, 3D printed joints. The joints were automatically modeled; something I consider wouldn’t have been possible without the tools that we’re using. However, this creates uneasiness that if one thing is wrong, everything is wrong, so there are lots of tests and prototypes that go on during the process.

VT: Chromatex, along with several other projects within your portfolio, seem to reemerge as new, separate projects later on, but with a change in form, material, or overall application. How have past projects informed new ones? What’s next on your progressive timeline?

MS: I was really reluctant to recycling ideas. Because a lot of the projects are research driven, one in a sense of how they’re made, the idea isn’t to produce a set of tools that we can use to market ourselves. Certain veins of research and design exist in the studio and constantly expand. This makes it easier for us when clients provide a rough schedule based on their ideas, because we can decide what a more appropriate avenue may be. New tests have become more incremental, so these veins begin to merge. I feel like if we do three of four of an interesting installation, then it calcifies or galvanizes that kind of vein and now people are coming to us for that work. Even though there are particular veins, other ones will emerge or sometimes recombine.

I think the work guides us in certain directions, but since the beginning we haven’t really known where it’s going to take us. As the studio gets bigger, there’s more of a responsibility to make sure that things are in place at least resource-wise, but I somewhat enjoy the quality of not necessarily knowing. There are things that I know we’re probably going to do, but I don’t know that the clients are lined up. We’re lucky that our work brings in a certain type of person that wants similar work in the context of architecture or even other professions. When we were making no money or even putting in our own money to do an installation in a show, it wasn’t that it wasn’t valuable, but for me, that was just considered our new business, our marketing budget.

VT: SOFTlab continually partners with students at Pratt to develop an annual GAUD installation. How does the integration of education and profession affect the process and overall outcome of a project? What lessons have been specifically learned from working with students? What are the most valuable skills amongst students in general?

MS: At the end of every year, there’s a show at Pratt to exhibit student work. I began teaching a course six or seven years ago and at the time, we hadn’t really done any installation work, so it became a testing ground for making new things. It’s still beneficial as we’re experimenting with wind, which is something we haven’t really done in the studio.

I teach a lot, but I’ve never wanted to be an academic. Studio comes first in a certain way, but teaching has been great since there are lots of liberties in school where students can experiment — but in my mind, there are less consequences. I think it becomes interesting where you have certain latitude to experiment, but there’s at least some kind of push back. School is good because sometimes things here get a little too ‘boxed in,’ so it’s refreshing that you can throw some things in the mix with students that you don’t really get a chance to do here. Over the long term, that leads to other veins of experimentation that I was saying before. School is a place where you can experiment and you can fail, but of course you don’t see that until you’re done.

When teaching students or even in the studio here, I always treat everyone as if they know how to do everything and then realize that’s not really the case. However, I don’t really change that attitude because I feel that’s the way they’re going to be pushed to learn. It’s not even a skill; it’s more of an attitude. The students that are hungry, that are willing to let’s say jump off a cliff, are the better ones because it takes falling down a lot. There’s also a general attitude that sometimes certain things are a waste of time, but in reality, they’re necessary to learn. I think knowledge is developed about where to invest time, but still having to go backwards and forwards. Students that have the capacity to accept that they need to set aside time to move backwards in order to move forward gain a lot. You have to give in to this idea of wasting time to a certain extent. I think everyone is on this track of meeting some far away goal that isn’t even well defined in the first place. Less of skills and more of a general attitude are exciting to me because as a teacher, I’m here for whatever it is. If it’s a 3-credit course, I’m here for 3 hours. I’ll be here longer, but it’s going to come from their interest. School is treated as ‘I’m paying for this,’ which I totally understand, but that kind of attitude has never helped anyone. It’s a lesson you’re paying for. It’s a crazy mix of people in a room together and if you weren’t paying for it, how would you treat that situation?