With their art and architecture collective Snarkitecture, Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen take over buildings and create objects that challenge the imagination. Here, they discuss how they’re changing the way people look at the world.
Snarkitecture is almost exactly what its name sounds like—an approach to architecture from a snarky, non-serious, and bold perspective. Started by artist Daniel Arsham and designer/architect Alex Mustonen, the six-year-old company has completed impressive independent projects, including Pillow (a cement iPhone coaster that looks like a pillow), Slip Bench (a bench that looks like it's literally sliding off its base), and Float (a marble table that appears to be floating from one end). Collaboratively, they've made a pillow for Beats by Dre headphones, a sculptural installation with Chromeo, and two stage designs for En Noir, among other exciting commissions for Design Miami/, The New Museum, and Richard Chai.
How do they manage to do it all? We caught up with Snarkitecture to learn how they met, how they get around building code for their wild projects, and whether or not they'd ever design an entire city.
When did you two meet?
Daniel Arsham: We went to school together at Cooper Union and met in 2000. Snarkitecture officially started in 2008. It developed out of projects I was doing in my own practice that often put me in conflict with building code and requirements for spaces outside of a gallery or museum. With Alex on the architectural side, Snarkitecture started its own vision, its own world.
Alex Mustonen: There’s a lot of precedent for collaboration between art and architecture, but we were interested in creating a sustained practice.
Did you both grow up with an interest in architecture and design?
Alex Mustonen: I did, yeah.
Daniel Arsham: I always liked architecture, and I probably would’ve tried to do architecture if I wasn’t so terrible at making straight lines.
How have you worked around building codes to execute your vision?
Alex Mustonen: We plan for these things during the design process, but one of the more complex examples is when we worked on A Memorial Bowing at Marlins Ballpark in Miami. It features a number of large, concrete letters leaning at precarious angles. The city’s Americans with Disabilities Act office was especially concerned, but we were able to subtly adjust the position of each letter so that they were 100 percent code compliant. We engineered the letters to withstand forces ranging from hurricanes to a group of people jumping on them after a World Series victory. I like the idea that the letters will still be there 100 years from now, even after the stadium might be gone.
Your work deals with how people perceive objects and their functions. How do you approach manipulating architecture and space to change how viewers understand them?
Daniel Arsham: A lot of the time, it’s about distilling something down to its most basic condition. We try to find something existing already in the site to alter or to focus on. In projects like Drift at Design Miami/, we reused tent material to create different forms, and then replicated those forms.
How have you chosen to work with the various materials you use, whether plaster, rubber, silicone, or otherwise? Has it been materials first, or do you prioritize the end result?
Alex Mustonen: They inform each other. There are a lot of materials that usually do come directly from architecture. Plaster, for instance, is a substitute or material used in constructing walls. A lot of the work, specifically on the object side, like the functional objects that we make, are concept-driven.
Break for instance, is this cabinet that’s split in the middle and sits on squashed pieces or squashed feet. We wanted the lacquer mill-work; we wanted this cabinet that looked like a cabinet, so that informed the reality. Then these feet became soft receivers for this thing that had fallen or was appearing to fall. I don’t think the materials typically lead the process, but they are interdependent with the concept.
When did you decide to incorporate dance into your work, as you did in Why Patterns with dancer Jonah Bokaer?
Alex Mustonen: We always had this idea of collaborating with other artists, designers, or choreographers, but the connection with Jonah specifically came through Daniel, who’d been working in dance with Jonah and Merce Cunningham. The opportunity to create Why Patterns arose out of that.
The White Room, with Chromeo, was the first installation that incorporated music. How did you consider sound in its creation?
Alex Mustonen: Sound was a key part of that project, but it was particularly Chromeo’s sound. They were previewing new music from their album White Women, and we collaborated with them to create the visual and spatial world surrounding that. The idea of an all-matte-white car played into their sound, creating this image of the guys en route to a gig, lost in an unfamiliar world while their equipment spills out of the trunk.
You’ve also worked with fashion designers like Richard Chai and En Noir. How do you approach creating a scene that includes clothing and models?
Daniel Arsham: One of the interesting aspects of designing for fashion shows is the performative element—both models and guests are interacting with the world that we create. Designing the experience of how someone approaches, enters, moves through, engages with, and exits the architectural and scenic environment of the show is a critical part of how we approach all of our work.
Have you had to turn down a lot of projects?
Alex Mustonen: Increasingly, we’re turning down projects.
Daniel Arsham: There are people who have come to us and the project’s just not right for us, or the schedule is unrealistic. We’re trying to allow ourselves enough time to do things in a way that fulfills our vision of this practice.
Alex Mustonen: Generally, the people who are interested in talking to us and working with us are a good fit. They’re interested in commissioning the kind of work we want to make.
Would Snarkitecture ever design a whole city?
Daniel Arsham: City planning?
Alex Mustonen: We’re starting a little bit smaller, but I would never rule it out. Snarkitecture is basically moving in two directions. One is architectural scale work, which is nearly the size of a room or a building. The other is these functional objects, which are the size of a coffee cup or this recorder. Between the two of those, they can start to create a total environment. Maybe it's not to the scale of a city yet, but it would be something where you can walk into a room, pick up a cup, and have it be designed by Snarkitecture, and then look at the space, and have that be designed by Snarkitecture, as well.