The Monterey Design Conference has drawn progressive designers to speak at the biannual informal-gathering for over three decades. So goes Neil M. Denari who at 29-years-old was the youngest member of “40 Architects under age 40” and, in the late 1980s, became an American presence in the international realm. Denari spoke at MDC 2009.
We caught up with him recently to get an inside look at two projects he’s completed since then: a branding and interior project for Japan’s first budget airline—Peach—and High Line 23 in New York which contains not a glimpse of its economic imperative.
Here’s the first of our three-part conversation:
How did the Peach commission come about?
I often work with a company that does concept and brand development in Tokyo. It’s called, oddly enough, CIA—Creative Intelligence Associates and it’s run by a guy called Sy Chen. He used to own the China Club (in Los Angeles) which was a big deal in the late-seventies, early-eighties. He went to back to Japan where he grew up and started this company. I started doing projects with him in 2001 and most significantly we did a series of banks for Mitsubishi bank.
All of these projects were done with Rick Siereeni as well, a long time associate of Sy’s. Rick’s in LA and his company is called the Brand Architect Group. Both are really astute observers of cultural forces. They develop concept and brand ideas, then we design to those parameters.
They thought that I might have a good sensibility for designing the planes. We won the competition in January 2011, [not] with the design that you see out there [but] with approaches and ideas and so forth. It was more about how we work than any particular name or design. By the way, more than 700 were considered before Peach was chosen!
I read that you worked with airplane design early on.
I didn’t design per se. After I finished Harvard, my father, who was working in a company called Aerospatiale, a French company with a subsidiary in Texas, arranged for me to get an intern job.
I did drawings and elevations for graphics and brochures, an illustrator basically. That was part of the background that I think has, at some level—the sensibility continues in the work and I’m a connoisseur of airplane brands and graphic design. The [client] didn’t have any hesitation asking us to do it.
Did your approach differ from the process you use to design buildings? And were there similarities.
It’s interesting, curiously the project was not about space, it was purely graphic and we’ve done other purely graphic projects within architecture. The plane itself is very specific—it’s an Airbus A320. So there were things you could and couldn’t do in terms of proportions and how typography would work.
So strangely enough the plane was just like a site you’d have that was very challenging or restricting. So we applied the same sort of principals about design, understanding function, and understanding possibilities. And with color—[it was] “how far away could you see it?” “How vivid was it?”
I think it’s all pretty much the same, even though it’s a different medium. I don’t have a another set of glasses to put on in a project like that. There’s too much embedded in thinking about design in architecture that crosses over.
I’m wondering if you are inspired by Bruce Mau? —the Canadian designer–not in terms of aesthetic, but in terms of scope of a designer’s work.
I would say that Bruce’s interest in media would be parallel to my interest in media. The similarity is: I’m really interested in communications.
I’m interested in the languages [of culture.] Architecture is one of those languages, but is it a medium? If so, what does it communicate? For me, architecture is part of the media system, except that its narratives operate nearly abstractly. And with buildings today not being seen as the main form of communication (like they were eight or nine hundred years ago, when we had cathedrals and so forth)—we have TV and all this other media, my goal is to have our projects ‘work with’ rather than ‘against’ other media, to incorporate it.
I don’t argue that the buildings tell stories or are metaphors—I think they’re pure construction more than anything. And yet architecture, in a way, also [requires] that you look at the other quote unquote legitimate media most of which is ephemeral, illusionistic, two-dimensional. It’s essentially everything that architecture historically shouldn’t be. That we seek to craft things really well is a clear statement that while architecture may be part of the media system, it is still a process of deliberate thought and slowness.
So I’d like to think that architecture is not necessarily just trying to stand against all that—but is it to corroborate? Is it to be invested with some of the same types of principals—let’s say the nature of the graphic image and design both in space and in print and on the screen and so forth.
I think Bruce also takes the ideas of his medium into these other realms like film and park design so there are some similarities there.
Denari recently became the recipient of the “Best in Show”, awarded by the 2011 AIA|LA Design Awards’ Next LA and Design Awards Competition for his HL23 building located in New York City. The building incorporates the public space with its grandeur, and holds true to the privacy offered to tenants occupying these luxurious condominium.
Neil will drop back by the MDC blog in the next couple of weeks. You can check here for his next interview.
Use this rare opportunity to hear Borja Ferrater who co-founded the Office of Architecture in Barcelona speak. Attend the MDC.
What Pritzker Prize winner lost his slides just before he was to speak at the MDC?