“After a day of working through this with the engineers at the university, we figured out that through a year’s worth of praying at Mecca, 10% of Saudi Arabia’s entire energy production would be paid for just by the act of praying.”—Archie Lee Coates IV
Archie Lee Coates IV + Jeff Franklin + Jonathan O’Brien: Partners, PlayLab / New York, NY
“after a day of working through this with the engineers at the university, we figured out that through a year’s worth of praying at mecca, 10% of saudi arabia’s entire energy production would be paid for just by the act of praying.”—archie lee coates iv
Interview with Archie:
What was the genesis of PlayLab?
PlayLab initially started back in architecture school at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, VA. My partner, Jeff Franklin, and I met and had a like-minded view on things. We acknowledged that we did not have a reference for anything. We were learning so much about different types of design and art and making things, and we weren’t interested in a life of making just one thing. We thought it would be more interesting to pursue whatever we wanted to do, like an art practice or the way a musician works. Of course, we had no clue how we would do that. We have slowly evolved into that over time, through making a series of mistakes. That was ten years ago. We moved to New York in 2007. We got a small studio in Brooklyn, and it grew from there. PlayLab became a full-time thing in 2009. Now we are three people.
1 of 7 Former PlayLab Studios, Brooklyn, NY
courtesy of playlab
Are there set roles or structures?
Generally, yeah, but it all depends. As we get a little bigger, and as the projects become bigger, there are specific roles depending on each project. I’m the meeting guy. I prepare a lot of presentations. But everyone pushes the same weight with design. Everybody participates in the genesis of ideas and the way those things are structured. There is no hierarchy. Jonathan O’Brien didn’t found PlayLab with us, but he has been a part of everything, and now he is an official member. He does everything that we do, and he’s here because he thinks the way that we do. Anyone we bring on or work with in the future tends to think like us. There are projects that we generate from the office, like + POOL, which we collaborated with Family New York, an architectural office downstairs. We work with a lot of other practitioners and offices. Designers, engineers, and politicians have their specific tasks, and they inform our task. We don’t feel a need to hire in-house for that.
What is the advantage of partnering with other groups, versus building a larger studio?
It just sort of happened. If the studio booms up to be 100 people, that is fine, but we are not an agency. In a way, we are not a design office. We are an ideas office. We’re more like an art office. We are interested in the way that artists run their practices, like the way that Jeff Koons might, or Anish Kapoor, or Olafur Elliasson. We work with clients and we do commissions, and I think that is a really important part of our practice, but at the same time, we put a lot of effort into generating ideas internally and then making them happen. They are not necessarily for the will of somebody else; they are for the will of us. Because we are young and relatively new, we keep things light. And we are going after things that might not be financially successful right away.
Is there a link between being a young studio and your methodology?
We’re all post-30, so we are not getting younger. We are not willing to sacrifice the quality of our ideas or the way they happen. Some of our projects, like + POOL, are going to take a long time. We have been working on + POOL for over four years. We also got into publishing and launched a quarterly art publication with a few other people. Publishing in general is not an easy place to make money. But we knew that going into it. We just wanted to make a publication.
We are following the things that we are actually interested in, and we are self-critical about that, but at the same time, everything is done under the lens of fun and play. We all could easily be in different offices doing different projects, and we have all done that. That wasn’t fun.
Do you have a specific collaborative process?
No. Every project begins with a conversation, or a joke, and we want to see how far that joke can go. Our process is fun, and seeks out what people connect to. We are having the time of our lives articulating these ideas in a fun way, and chances are, the vast majority of other people are too. And if they don’t, we don’t care. Maybe that comes from a background in punk. Regardless, I think everything starts with a conversation, and it ends with a conversation. Everything in between is knowing the tools to actually get things out of our heads. Some days it is animated in here, and sometimes it’s heads down with our headphones in and building the things. Collaboratively, it depends on the scale of the project. + POOL is the biggest example, because we are working with over two dozen different companies and organizations. There are so many aspects to that. We act as managers for the project.
How do you tackle something on the scale of + POOL?
We became a little more efficient. We have made many mistakes in the process, but we produce the ideas through conversations and light design work to a point, then we step back and say, “OK, how much time is this really going to take to get to the next level? And how much money is it going to cost to start? Where is that money gonna come from?” We think of every idea as a product. Less than 50% of our projects are client-based. It all depends on the quality of the client. In the last two years, we have been working with people that we respect and who respect us. They allow us to think about things in ways that we want to think about them and to produce them in a way that we think they need to be produced. When you have partners who are like that, then it is an incredible way to work.
courtesy of playlab
Do you often work with nearby partners?
We are in a strange situation right now, because we are in a building with a variety of people, including Family, the architecture office that we work with. Jeff met them at REX, and then we found ourselves in this amazing neighborhood in West Village, NY, and we spent the past six years in a polar opposite neighborhood in Brooklyn. So no, we don’t typically work with a lot of people in this neighborhood because, for example, Sarah Jessica Parker lives across the street. And that’s kind of indicative of the people in this neighborhood. In the instance of Family, Dong-Ping had just started his office, and we had just launched a project with some friends and designers called Pie Lab, a pie shop in Alabama. John Bielenberg was there for that as well. That was a mile marker for us in terms of the type of projects that we wanted to do and the way that we wanted to work. When we came back from Alabama, Dong started this office, and he came to us with this idea of building something in the river that would allow the city to swim in it, which was this plus-shaped pool. Just like the pie shop, and just like the record label that we started before that, where we spent two years producing records and meeting bands, we were figuring out how things worked. That’s why I like working with Family. We are in a central part of the city, so there are a variety of offices that we are working with. It is more convenient than Brooklyn. People didn’t really like going out there before. The honest truth is that the subway system is so good, that you can get anywhere fairly quickly. But it is easier for people to stop in here. It’s easy to just meet out for coffee in the middle of the day and see what is up and talk ideas for exhibitions and things.
Are many of your interactions unplanned or informal?
Yeah. We are pretty social people. We never wanted PlayLab to be separate from our lives. PlayLab is our life. The people that we meet, the people that we talk to, our friends that we hang out with—they are all in our circle in some way. We are open to do anything and everything. We just finished our first house recently. We weren’t even setting out to design a house. That happened from meeting a friend of a friend on a rooftop two summers ago, on the Fourth of July. He said he saw a project that we had just done, and he asked us if we wanted to design his house. He took a risk on us; we took a risk on him.
It’s an adventure when we meet somebody—almost like the game of telephone or something like that. In this city, the chances of meeting somebody that you can do something great with, are pretty high. We make it a point to meet a lot of people, but only the people that we think are really interesting and care and are good people. We are in the business of making great things while trying to make money doing that. But at the same time, the most important thing to us is being good to people and meeting good people. Half of it is having an open door. We have a policy that anybody can come to our office and talk to us. We got that from a design office in the city called karlssonwilker, because we had read their book in college. They outlined how to start a design office, and we wanted to start a design office. We came to New York for the first time, asked them if they would talk with us, and we asked them a bunch of questions. We came back time and time again, and asked them more and more questions, about things that we were starting to fail at, and Jan Wilker and Hjalti Karlsson were just nice to us. They were honest with us. They never gave us any bullshit. You see that when you enter karlssonwilker. It is a place that is kind and honest and true and fun, and the world that they have cultivated around them is special. That’s all that we really wanted.
We have met a lot of people in this city that are conniving and assholes and are trying to get you to do anything for free, or use you, or whatever. We just don’t fuck around with that anymore. We stay with the people that are good. The other day, a guy came by from Norway and he liked our work, so we spent an hour talking and having coffee. He flew back to Oslo and shoots us an email and says, “I will fly you out to Oslo, so you can lecture here. Is that cool?” “Yeah, that sounds awesome!” I have no idea who these people are, but it doesn’t really matter because something is going to happen.
Is that emphasis on interaction something you picked up in school?
Architecture school is incredibly competitive, so there was a major split between people that were nice and fun, and people that were dicks. Work should feel like work. It is hard to produce things of value, think critically, be honest with yourself, and push yourself to try more and more options until you get it to the best place that it can possibly be at. But Jeff did that. At the same time, he had fun doing it. So our conversations were out of this world. There was never a limit to what was possible. We would be talking about these giant dreams, and then we just tried them. The office started like a giant dream. + POOL was a giant dream. Everything that we work on is a giant dream. My parents probably taught me to be good to people. They didn’t want me to embarrass them.
You mentioned punk. Is there a music influence on what you do?
I grew up in Virginia Beach surrounded by punk. My friends are between 30 and 40 and we talk about punk a lot. I listen to pop punk and emo music heavily and it continues to be important. I listen to this band from Virginia called Over It, and I went to see them time and time again. In my freshmen and sophomore year of college, any time I was having a shred of doubt or didn’t want to work or was tired or whatever, I would just put it on, and be like, “All right, let’s do this.” We are constantly listening to new pop punk bands. It’s not specific to Virginia, but it is very special in Virginia. People that were like, “I don’t even know how to make music, but let’s go try. Let’s go buy this shitty instrument and figure it out.” I did that. I played music and I still do. I will always play music because of that. That is really important for PlayLab. We don’t tell anybody they can’t.
+ POOL is an incredibly ambitious project. There are political issues, government issues, funding issues, not to mention creating the actual technology and designing the world’s first filtration system that passively cleans the river for human beings to swim in it safely. That is all on our shoulders, in a way. Every day is one thing at a time. Now it is happening, and it’s crazy. It’s all from that mindset of, “Fuck it, let’s go for it.” We work hard and smart, and we’re good to people.
Are there other essential skills that you particularly value?
Between Jeff and I, architecture, product design, and graphic design form the core of our office. Those skills taught us to view the world in a specific way and to ask questions. Design is the biggest toolset that anybody in this world can have. Design and the ability to understand what an identity actually is, and communicate that to a greater public audience, is key. As dumb as it is, being able to use an Excel document, or build a deck, make a PDF, get out ideas through paper, or Illustrator, or whatever, is all important.
I have no idea how a filtration system works. My first inclination was to Google it. We originally pitched it as a giant Brita filter, but it has taken us four years of testing. We’ve spent close to $400,000 testing things that have never been used in this application, and now we are very close to the final package of the world’s first filtration system that does this.
Why do you like working with educational groups?
There are a wide variety of people that enter those schools from all over the world. In the realm of education, anything is possible, and there are no limits. That rarely happens in the real world. That rarely happens in a professional setting. People have really strange approaches to risk in the professional world, but in education, they don’t. From our personal experience, we found that students like to take risks with us. I feel like that could be an important aspect to any practice.
Is there a way to determine the success of ideas in that setting?
There was one moment when we figured out the best way to do these workshops at schools. We went to Saudi Arabia for the first time, and we did a three-day workshop where we had engineering students generate ideas from nowhere. We were teaching them to be weird—that great shit can come from a very strange place if you let yourself, because you are always going to pull it back to what you know. You are always going to feed off of the resources that you have and knowledge that you have, so you might as well start weird. We generated 180 ideas in three days, and we naturally filtered down to one idea through everyone’s overlapping interest. It involved capturing passive energy that is wasted. We talked a lot about foot traffic, and how that could actually generate energy. We talked about putting sensors in shoes. We ended up asking these important questions about Saudi Arabia, like, “Where is there a lot of foot traffic? Where could you capture a lot of that energy?” We wanted to turn it back and use it for something special. In Saudi Arabia, Mecca is a very important place for Muslims, and there is this black rock in the center called the Kaaba. There is a two-week prayer period every year called the Hajj, and Muslims walk around the rock and pray in front of it. Millions and millions of people do this. It is a worldwide event. We did some calculations about how many people walked around that rock every day and every year, and how much money it would cost to place small sensors in the ground below the rocks that everybody is walking on, and how much energy that would generate if each sensor represented a kilowatt. After a day of working through this with the engineers at the university, we figured out that through a year’s worth of praying at Mecca, 10% of Saudi Arabia’s entire energy production would be paid for just by the act of praying.
Workshop at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
courtesy of playlab
We were invited to the TED conference in Saudi Arabia on that first trip. We were scared shitless, because not only were we the only English speaking presenters, but we were the closer, and we were presenting to a sea of Muslims. It was a very strange place for a couple of young Americans, seeing the front rows full of men, while the women are separated in the back. You are talking about a totally different place in the world. And we are, in a way, being irreverent. We are talking about tearing up the ground in their most important holy site on the entire planet. We presented it, and there was a standing ovation. Jeff and I walked backstage right after that, and the president of the University of Mecca was waiting for us. He gave us his card and said, “I want to talk about making this happen.” He got us to come back and do an entire semester-long course.
Do you have any experience-driven advice that you pass onto students?
Be nice to people. Work hard. Try a lot of different options. Work very fast. Do not go after a very specific thing. Be open. It is very complicated to make these things happen, but you have to start somewhere. If you are not starting from a place of need and interest, then what’s the fucking point? If more people were thinking that way, then there would be a lot more interesting things in the world.
How important is it to work with people you have a relationship with?
1000%. We have brought on a few people in different capacities that sometimes weren’t the right fit for this place. We learned from that. Half of our day at PlayLab now, with Jonathan here, is joking around and laughing. The amount of laughter that comes out of the studio is ridiculous. We might be tired at the end of the day, but I guarantee that all three of us go home and don’t feel like it sucked. Ever. I guarantee that it is more productive than just sitting there and churning out, churning out, churning out. Energy breeds energy all of the time.
How has the studio space impacted the work?
We have been in a variety of offices, but I don’t think anything has really changed. The offices have all been drastically different. We were in a ketchup factory a year and a half ago. Before that, we were in a steel factory; literally sitting next to us were welding torches, metal cutters, and steel dust all over our computers and on our desks. Before that, we were in this weird loft that had no air conditioning, and when we got it, there was a mattress covered in human shit and a bunch of chains on the floor. Now we are in the nicest space that we could ever imagine, and in the nicest neighborhood in New York. But the work, and the way that we go about things, is always the same. We just like new experiences. I don’t think the space ever matters very much.