Throughout 09 I’m going to be doing an interview series for Domus China magazine. The idea behind the series is to examine architecture as a collaborative art form. To realize a building of even modest ambition requires architects to commit themselves to a huge number of specialists – engineers, a developer, a rendering company, plumbers, a photographer, etc. – each of whom is responsible for a vital piece of their vision. I hope that by talking to the people who operate around architecture’s edges, we can get a better understanding of what architects do and what sort of personality (disorders) architecture requires.

The first one came out this month and its with Michael Rock of 2×4, a NY-based design studio that’s works with Prada, Nike, as well as many architects OMA especially. It’s too long to put up here and I’m probably not supposed to do that anyway, but here is an excerpt. Michael’s talking about branding and the way that brand manuals have shifted control of design away from the architect and designer into the hands of the marketing and sales departments. He also mentions his idea for a Leica cell phone, which I think is awesome.

BM: Over the years 2×4 has been involved in a few projects that have gradually expanded to include a variety of disciplines and media. The collaboration between OMA, 2×4, and Prada is maybe the most obvious example. I know that you also recently worked on a wine bar here in New York where you ended up doing almost everything from the development of the name and brand identity, the web and interactive components, packaging, to the architectural and interior design. I’m curious about how this sort of total integration works. As you mentioned before, graphic design is a complimentary component to architecture, but so is plumbing or HV/AC and you rarely see the people responsible for those aspects entering any others.

MR: I think that branding has become so embedded in the way that everyone thinks about their business, their organizations, that all design, including architecture, is pushed into becoming an expression of that. If you’re going to build a corporate headquarters now, absolutely you’re thinking about how this selection of architects supports the overall brand of the company. So that’s part of the programmatic demand of architecture now, and because designers have always been pretty integral in developing what a brand is, it’s only a small shift from determining what it is to starting to create the expressions of it.

Nike always talks about their “brand DNA”. They say that their brand DNA is so strong and you need to understand the DNA of Nike in order to understand how to make work for them. And once that’s established, everything has to be an expression of that DNA. Of course, you can say clearly the work Rem [Koolhaas] is doing for Prada is an expression of Prada’s brand. Rem’s an integral part of Prada’s brand, and we’re a part of Prada’s brand also. For a fashion company to associate itself with OMA is a branding statement and then the work that he does for them pushes their brand in certain directions, expresses it in certain ways.

Because of that I think the distinction of what’s architecture and what’s graphic design becomes a little bit blurry, because all of them become equal expressions of this central branding. I think that’s actually a major change in the way that the world works. Of course, it’s probably happened in natural ways before, but when a museum becomes totally obsessed with what its brand is and what it means to have Renzo Piano design their museum for them, it changes the nature of what they’re expecting from their architects and what they’re expecting from their designers. It’s also implying that, for example, if Nike has this really clearly defined DNA and the architects are working from that and I’m working from that, then naturally our work should somehow go together, because we’re all referring to the same object of representation. So I think that the change in our practice comes from the change in that understanding of brand. The more we work with organizations where our interaction with them is considered part of their essential branding, the more the things we work on changes, because we become expressers of their brand in all these different ways.

With Prada it’s different, because Prada has a a big brand that we’re a small part of. Also part of Prada’s brand is the unexpected, so if you do something weird it fits, because they’re dealing with unexpected things. But with Nike, for instance, they have very strong expectations about exactly how they represent themselves and what is or isn’t an appropriate Nike expression. So, as in this wine bar project, if you’re in charge of developing the brand of a company – its name and its feeling and the qualities that its supposed to exude – then you can move into other things for them as well: what the experience is like or what the space is like or what the interactive parts of it are like. Controlling the branding part of it allows you to have a much larger scope of what happens next, either by commissioning people or doing it yourself. So as we’ve taken on these roles where we’ve become much more integral to the establishment of the idea that allows us to have more scope in terms of the work we do. Does that make sense?

BM: Yes definitely. It reminds of something I read on your website this morning. It was something you designed for the skin care company Malin + Goetz and it was described as “a package that could function both as a logo and an architectural element.”

MR: There was this early modern notion of total design and the expression was always “from the teaspoon to the city”. The architect should be able to touch any one of those things and pull it into a design. And of course people like [Adolf] Loos or [Frank Lloyd] Wright were absorbed in the idea that they would design all the furniture and the light fixtures and it would all make up one huge, purely integrated art experience. I think brand, in a way, has become the newest form of total design. But rather than saying that the idea exists in the architect, it says that that idea exists in this kind of brand manual, which expresses who we are and then everybody adopts that as their working method. It’s a transformation of the total design mentality, and it’s ceded control of that from the architect to the client. The client is now in control of the total design idea and everybody becomes their servant.

Mark Wigley writes about this idea that total design was always implosive and explosive, in the sense that it dealt both with the internal workings of something but also how it broadcast. That I think is the ultimate notion of it, where brand DNA somehow controls how the business is run as a practice, how people relate to one another, all of the products they make, but also all of their publications and how they express themselves to the world. It deals with the broadcasting of the subject and also with the design of it. In that way it unites promotion and product design.

There’s something I haven’t quite been able to get at though, which is the sense that there is an insidious aspect to that, which is annoying and controlling and inescapable. The whole branding notion bugs me ultimately, but I can’t see a way around it either, because it’s one of those notions that incorporates any rejection of it. You know, “We’re the company that’s against branding!” And then that’s your brand.

BM: Right, “Our gimmick is there is no gimmick.”

MR: It’s one of those things that so totalizing there’s no outside to it. It’s kind of what [Antonio] Negri would say, you have this sense that you want to rebel against something, but the thing is so big that there’s no way to be outside and rebel against it, every gesture is absorbed by it.. Branding is one of those forms. It absorbs all its critique. I think that controlling branding gives you a lot of power and a lot of agency, but you never control it totally so you then become a vehicle of it or factor in it somehow. It doesn’t reside in you.

BM: Also when the business-side is given priority, scientifically-justified aesthetic preferences start to influence designs. You start hearing things like “Green doesn’t sell” or “Books of that size don’t sell” and it seems to me the number of options before the designer contracts.

MR: It does and it doesn’t. There’s a notion of branding that’s also expansive in the sense that, once you’ve established your brand then presumably you can move into anything and take it over. One of the tests for whether something has a strong brand or not is to say, “If Apple started a chain of restaurants what would they be like? Can you imagine them?” And you can kind of imagine what they would be like right away. But if Microsoft opened up a chain of restaurants it’s very difficult to imagine what they’d be like. So if the brand is strong enough it allows expansion and redefinition, because it changes the subject rather than the form. It injects its form into it, in the way that Apple went into the phone market and now the iPhone has become a standard that everything else has to react against.

I was actually talking to a guy who used to be the president of Leica, and I was thinking Leica should go into the phone business, because often times your phone is your camera anyway and people expect Leicas to have a certain quality to them. And you can imagine what a Leica phone might be like: super utilitarian, really hardcore, always works perfectly with a really great camera in it. It would be in a way the anti-iPhone, because it wouldn’t be about flash at all, it would be about something which is much more utilitarian.

BM: And I think there are a lot of people who would rather have a camera that’s also a phone than a phone with a camera added to it.

MR: Exactly, where the goodness of the camera was the thing that is paramount, but you could also call your friend on it. So I think that is what is interesting: the design part is about designing the idea and seeing if it is generative enough an idea that you can build all these things on top of it. And I think it works to a certain extent, because whatever you think about Nike they have a really strong image, which you can imagine is generative enough to where they can keep doing new things. They can go into the business of sports beverages or whatever. They can infuse it with those ideas that they have and they could give it a certain meaning or direction.

Of course, the annoying thing is when it goes to a personal level and you think, “Should I live here? Does this neighorhood fit my brand?” The annoying part is that it means you always have to step outside of the thing and look at it in this weird, objective way. Nothing can be authentic; everything becomes a manufactured expression of this manufactured thing. I think maybe that is the heart of what’s annoying about the idea of branding: it always seems inauthentic, it always seems manufactured.

BM: The personalization of branding is scary in a lot of ways. On a macro level, I think you also see that more and more in the way entire nations represent themselves.

MR: Right. China’s now looking at itself as a brand and what does it mean? Every country is.

BM: And China’s an interesting case, because their brand – Made In China – has great recognition but a terrible reputation. So someone has to figure out how to transform the associations that currently weigh it down.

MR: Yes, but Made In Japan used to be just like that and it changed 180 degrees to where Made In Japan is now seen as a symbol of quality and innovation.

BM: Part of it must be simply development and improvement.

MR: But it’s also a choice of which products to emphasize. The fact that Japan went into cars and electronics is different than if you go into milk products and pet food. I guess it’s about the professionalization of image control ultimately.

For major companies, it’s become so refined as a technique and the devices for how it’s produced have become so clearly defined. You always had architects and graphic designers and all these people who dealt with different things, but now you have someone who is on top of them, unifying them all, and trying to get them in line so that all their work is complimentary in a way that conveys their message. I think that before the architects did their thing and the graphic designers did their thing and since they worked together that was great. But, to come back to the question, the expansion of the scope of work is because increasingly clients are looking for all of these things to be unified rather than separate, so if that can be unified through you then that’s great. If it can unified by you telling them, ‘We should hire this architect also,’ that’s great too. But they’re looking for that unity of message.

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