Interview: PlayLab

What are your backgrounds in design?

Archie Lee Coates IV: Virginia Tech for Architecture, transfered to study Graphic Design. Graduated, worked for Joel Speasmaker at Forest . Contributor Art Director for the Drama Quarterly Arts magazine. Designer for Cornell and Columbia Medical Colleges in New York, got bored and started PlayLab two years ago.

Jeffrey Scott Franklin: Virginia Tech for architecture, minor in Industrial Design. Graphic designer for VT’s School of Architecture + Design. Design/build project in Blacksburg, VA called the Skate Park Pavilion. Junior Architect at REX Architecture. Started PlayLab.

What made you decide to start PlayLab?

We started working as PlayLab when we met in Architecture school. It was an escape at first, to let our minds wander, to imagine and discover things. It was a way to connect things in our minds. We drew on napkins, everyday. We got out a ton of ideas, as far-stretched and strange as we could think, then look at them all at once. Then we’d start scaling them back to shape into a project. We still work this way, except on our own napkins.

We moved to New York after graduation, and even while we had jobs, we were renting our own studio behind a chicken coop in Bushwick. We started taking projects, and we were always in that little studio. Sometimes Jeff would come in after working until 1 or 2 AM at REX. After awhile it didn’t make sense to keep separate jobs anymore. It just couldn’t be as fun as working for ourselves, and we were confident we could have our own office and do it well. We wanted to figure out how to get paid to play around all day, everyday. Not in the ‘we don’t want to work’ sense, but in that, all innovation and discovery comes from play. It isn’t anything new, but it’s right. We start there, anywhere, and form it into something beautiful. In this way, form doesn’t follow function, but follows meaning. We can output anything through design, whether it’s architectural, industrial, graphic or experiential. Right now, we’re designing a home and shop for an 80 year old wood-cutter, a series of office furniture, a mobile application for a contemporary art museum, an identity for a nail care company, and still, a series of self-initiated projects.

Can you tell us a bit about Project M and Pie Lab?

Project M is interesting. Designers and thinkers get together with the loose goal of doing something positive, using design as a tool. Archie attended a two-week session in Maine back in March with fourteen or so others. The loose idea in Maine was to encourage more conversation and interaction between different groups of people. Pie was the chosen tool, and they tested it by giving away tons of free pie one Saturday in Belfast, Maine. The experience was so incredible, that they wanted to test it on a larger scale. 6 weeks later, we were both on a plane to Greensboro, AL to open a pie shop, which we all called PieLab. We spent several weeks designing and building furniture, making signs, meeting people, until one day in late May, we opened. It was a modest prototype, in an old school house downtown, right off the main road, and everyday people were coming in for pie and coffee, openly sharing stories about their lives. Things that bothered them, things they loved. The goal was the same: to get people together over something as simple as pie. By hearing the needs of people first-hand, naturally, we could figure out ways to use design for the people in Greensboro. The prototype was successful, and PieLab won a series of grants. After we left, they acquired and refinished a large space right on Main St., and is slowly becoming a staple place in the community for people to gather. The people running PieLab are doing an amazing job. We’ve been back a couple times since, and it’s always tough leaving. It’s one of the most amazing projects we’ve been a part of. This video might be useful in explaining:

You are very active within the design community, is it really as small as everyone says it is?

It seems small because it’s well connected. There are so many pockets. New studios and projects are always popping up. People are reaching out, finding new ways to do and talk about things. Minds are thinking everywhere. By working in it, you’re a part of it, and with the internet, anyone can be a part of anything.

Not all jobs are worth doing, how do you choose whether to take a job or decline?

The jobs not worth doing are the ones with the clients that aren’t trusting. We give the client this survey (in various forms):
1) Are you open to new ideas?
2) Are you sure you are open to new ideas?
3) Are you willing to pay for them?

We’d say money is a major factor, but it isn’t always. The relationship between a client and a designer is a special thing, and is always the most important. You both work together to create something that will exist in the world and affect someone’s life, whether it’s small or large. That can be a heavy burden if you’re making something that you don’t love, or even worse, agree with. Some people rationalize this for the sake of business. You can’t make what you think someone wants, you have to make what you want, and then put it into the world.

What are some things you know now that you wish you knew before?

Nothing. We were forewarned: there will be speed bumps. We always have a vague image of what’s next. Exploration keeps us moving. The unknown is exciting. It began this way, and we hope it continues this way.

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