Inspired by nothing Janky: something old with a story around it
Who would expect such spare living from these wild minds? For Lift collective, products come with a punch line.
By David A. Keeps, Times Staff Writer May 18, 2006
Quic kTim e™ and a TIFF (Uncompres sed) decompressor are needed to s ee this pic ture.
THEIR jobs call for them to inject California cool into laptop computers, extreme sports gear and other 21st century boys' toys. As five industrial designers, average age 26, annual incomes upward of $75,000, they should be living large — at least large enough to, in MySpace parlance, "pimp their cribs." So why, exactly, would these young men choose to lead an existence that takes minimalism to near-monastic proportions? "I'd rather be in an empty room than have something I don't want to keep forever," Nick Cronan says. "I hate going to the store to buy chairs just so guests can sit down. Until I get something nice, they will just have to stand up." Whereas many adults who achieve similar professional success at this age might get caught up in that first-home-of-their-own decorating, filling kitchens with sleek appliances and living rooms with the latest chain-store collection, these designers have brought almost nothing to the coffee table. Their mantra: Way less is way more. These guys — all 2002 graduates of the California College of the Arts — clearly have a different design for living. By day Cronan, Amit Mirchandani, Eric Bergman, Karson Shadley and Pichaya Puttorngul hold jobs with firms designing products for Toshiba, North Face, Infinity Audio, Bollé and other clients. But on the weekends, the five morph into the Lift collective, convening about once a month to hatch creative ideas for inventions that are informed by their Spartan domesticity — not to mention sly sense of humor. "We make jokes and turn them into products," Puttorngul says. "No," corrects Bergman. "We consider compelling concepts and issues and give a physical form to them."
TAKE one look at Veggie Love, and it's clear both may be right. The collective's cutlery set looks like Shrinky Dink versions of garden tools and was designed as a way of getting people to think about non-processed food. Then there's Lift's Johnny Apple Sandal, flip-flops with seeds embedded in a recyclable sole that's designed to wear away and sow plants randomly. The sandals were a prizewinner in Metropolis magazine's annual Next Generation Design Competition. "Everybody buys shoes and eats apples, and nobody puts the two of them together," says Metropolis editor Susan Szenasy. "Putting the American mythology of Johnny Appleseed and environmental issues together was an act of pure imagination — very wild and very smart." Equally inventive but less likely to land on store shelves is Lift's concept for a temperature-sensitive, color-shifting urinal for the artistically minded. Yes, the Peesel. Scratch the surface of the tongue-in-cheek innovations and product names and you'll find born-in-the-'80s tree-hugger idealism under your fingernails. The prototype products that Lift designs for competitions, exhibitions and their own amusement have a strong green component and serve as a critique of the consumer culture that, ironically enough, is fueled by their day jobs. Impressed by the Johnny Apple Sandal, last year organizers of the behemoth International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York gave Lift its own display booth. Their exhibit, a 5-foot, brown and Smurf-blue upholstered gorilla named Ooh Ooh, caused a lot of oohaah. "We had people wanting us to turn it into a children's chair," Bergman says. "That was never the intention." Though the piece looks like little more than a computer-designed stuffed animal with a faux fur mullet, Ooh Ooh is actually a highly functioning piece of modular furniture. With a few strategic tugs, it can be reduced from statuesque simian to a collection of foam-filled lounging units. "Modern furniture is so cold and hard," Mirchandani says. "We wanted to de-evolve the idea of seating into something more approachable." Ooh Ooh may have sprung to life as a nod to evolution, but it began on a more primitive level — a seating system called Cellu that Mirchandani and Puttorngul designed for a class project. Composed of curved modules that fit together tongue-and-groove, Cellu forms a sculpture that looks like a mouth with tongue. "We wanted to make something with an organic form," says Mirchandani, "without trying to impose how to use it, because that depends on the environment and how it fits your needs."
Projects such as Ooh Ooh, Shadley says, serve as an important outlet for the blue-sky brand of creativity that Lift members aren't always allowed to exercise while designing for corporate clients. While collaborating as Lift, "We don't care if what we do is not well received," he says. "This is for our personal growth, a way to get the experimentation out of the system."
THOUGH cool new products define their careers, members of the collective seem to need few at home.
"I have one chair, one bed, one side table that I put in the closet when it's not in use," says Puttorngul, who lives in a 450-square-foot studio apartment in San Francisco's Twin Peaks neighborhood. "I like that it only takes me an hour to clean." The lack of clutter, he says, frees up his time and his imagination, making the design process more fruitful. "Everything I interact with — toothbrush, dishes, bedsheets and towels — is white or clear." The sole exceptions: "memory pieces," a collection of colorful plastic Japanese action figures from his relatively recent childhood. Cronan recently became the group's sole homeowner, purchasing a four-bedroom house at the base of the Oakland Hills. "I lived at my parents' house for three years after college and saved like a son of a gun," says Cronan, who works with Puttorngul at San Francisco-based Fuseproject, founded by design guru (and star of recent Target store commercials) Yves Béhar. Renovating his new home heightened Cronan's environmental consciousness. "You see just how much waste comes out of houses and goes into landfills," he says, adding that he's in no hurry to decorate. Bergman, Mirchandani and Shadley work together at Lifestyledesign in Santa Barbara and collaborate with their San Francisco counterparts by e-mail as well as in person. All three Santa Barbarans live in rentals. Bergman's studio is atop a two-car garage. A cast-iron stove and lighting concealed in the ceiling beams provide most of the ambience. For furniture: just an IKEA sofa, college-era plastic stools that double as side tables, and the requisite platform bed. He spends a lot of time on his narrow terrace, chilling in a woven hammock he bought on a surfing trip to Panama. "This is bachelor living 2006," Bergman says. "I can see the ocean. I like hearing it even more. When you are designing products, you want to come home to clarity and functionality. Empty space can be inspiring." Here and there, he places natural objects from his travels and retro tools. "Janky things," he says. "Janky is a technical design term for old objects with a whole story behind them."
Shadley has a room in a hilltop Victorian — a place for his bed, a few wood-and-steel side tables, prototypes of chairs he made from felt and elastic cord, his books and his surfboard. Mirchandani also shares a house, bunking in the master suite with an absurdly large bathroom and a bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling — a gift from the previous tenant. There is room for his Cellu chair, his Gretsch jazz drum kit, a lamp with an umbrella shade and his bed, "an IKEA knockoff of the E-5, a German brand, for one-sixteenth the price," he says. ONE recent weekend, members of Lift sprawl out in Mirchandani's room. He has just returned from purchasing an apartment in his native Mumbai, India, and is explaining that he has lived in five different places in the last four years. "The more stuff you have, the more your brain gets cluttered," he says. "Having fewer, more important, things makes a difference in your life, raises your standard of appreciation." "And," says Shadley, "it is easier to pick up and move, which I usually get roped into helping him with." Hanging out like this, it is easy to see Lift as a model for a global design community. Coming from different backgrounds yet sharing the same interests — foreign cars, designer jeans, "sweet sneaks" (expensive shoes), music, women — the men seem unaffected by international borders and cultural baggage. They speak in a common language of ideas and ideals. "There are three guiding principles for Lift collective," Mirchandani says. "Design must be aesthetically pleasing. It must also provide a deeper meaning, a social commentary. And the third comes from us consciously trying to poke fun. But we want to push it further and create different emotions even more complicated than amusement." Adds Cronan: "Design is taken too seriously. We want to screw with people." But, others add, in a way that also enlightens them. "We're not Carrot Top," Cronan says. Shadley agrees. "We're more George Carlin."