An Interview with Knauf and Brown
New to the world of product design and dedicated to the local creative community, Calen Knauf and Conrad Brown have spent the last couple of years hatching a promising collaboration under the banner Knauf & Brown. Before joining forces, the two designers were working separately on a variety of projects involving graphic design and photography. Now Calen and Conrad are focused on industrial design, promoting their studio while finishing up degrees at Emily Carr. The duo is gaining considerable attention for projects like the ‘Profile Chair’, Knauf and Brown’s sophisticated redesign of the archetypal folding chair, and the ‘Flight Lamp’, a flat pack lamp with serious form and personality. With high-end products on the horizon, Knauf and Brown are in the process of getting some of their designs signed to major design companies before even graduating. We met Calen and Conrad at their studio in East Vancouver where they shared some of their work and ideas about design.
Here and Elsewhere: You both have backgrounds in design that focus on graphics or photography – what made you want to expand your work into the field of industrial design?
Calen Knauf: I have always had a great appreciation for things created by humans, manmade things. My dad was a graphic designer in the heyday of analogue design, so I was pretty exposed to the graphic arts at a young age. As I grew older, I found that what I liked doing best was graphic design; but it took meeting Conrad to realize that I should get my act together and start trying to make money doing this.
Graphic design feels very accessible, especially now with the computer being the main tool of production. It’s a good gateway discipline. Industrial design seems far less accessible. Most people don’t really consider the fact that someone made the objects that surround them. A group of people spent considerable amount of time talking, drawing, and modelling to create the door handle you use to open your cupboard, or the handle of your potato peeler. It’s not something that dawns on most people very often. After making things for the two dimensional world, we started feeling a need to try and contribute to our physical world. Graphic design doesn’t have the same longevity that it once did. In our digital age work is made and once it has fulfilled its purpose, it disappears. It’s not like you’re going to find some old amazing Nike website in a dusty box at a thrift shop. So I guess our need to leave a physical legacy was also a big part of our need to work three dimensionally. There is rarely a day that goes by that we don’t come across an object that is terribly designed. So until the world is free of poorly designed objects, we will want to design things.
Conrad Brown: Coming from an image-based practice, it was apparent that product design was a better career choice. It seems like everybody is a graphic designer/photographer. The market is pretty crowded, and there’s a constant struggle to convince people that the work you do has monetary value. With product design, even if people have no idea how much time and effort went into making an object, it’s still ingrained in people that they would have to exchange money for said object.
It was also an opportunity to peek behind the curtain, so to speak. There’s always a mystery in how objects are designed and created, for most people. With image-centric design, you rarely hear people asking “Wow! How’d you do that?” They just assume you have a good camera and use the Photoshop. If you make a three-dimensional object like a chair, you’re never accused of just owning a bunch of tools and having a fancy CAD program.
HE: How did you end up working together? Do you focus on different aspects of the creative process or do you collaborate on all aspects of the design?
CK: When we first started hanging out, our conversations were pretty skateboard heavy. As time went on, the focus tilted toward graphic design criticism – seeing work here and there and really discussing the flaws in it or the surprising greatness in obscure utilitarian design. Or looking at some manufacturing sticker on the bottom of condensed milk, and finding the “coolness” in something that was clearly not designed to be cool. Our conversations started expanding to nitpicking the physical world. We would notice things and wonder why certain details existed or why an object was worn out in a specific spot. As we got older we would consult each other on work that we were doing. We finally decided that talking about objects wasn’t enough; we needed to go to school, and make what we were talking about. We applied to university at the same time, enrolled in all the same classes, and worked together whenever possible. When we enrolled in school it wasn’t really a plan to have a studio together. It was after completing several projects together that we felt were rather strong, that we realized that we couldn’t pin point exactly who contributed what to the project. The final design just materialized organically through really collaborative work.
CB: There are very few aspects on which we don’t fully collaborate. I do all the pictures and motion, but even that is a collaborative process. By the time I press the shutter, we’ve already both settled on art direction for the shoot. We’ll come up with an idea, and both compare storyboards a week later.
HE: What kind of objects are you looking forward to designing as you further your career as industrial designers?
CK: HAHAHA, oh man. EVERYTHING. We get giddy like schoolgirls over the thought of the future. The objects I always find myself wanting to design are things that I want but can’t find an option that I am happy with. I have had three of the same phone for the past seven years, and they’re getting harder and harder to find. It’s a small credit card sized phone that Samsung made in around 2004 called the p300. It’s tiny and fits in the 5th pocket of a pair of jeans. Every other phone on the market these days needs a purse to carry. So I would really like to work on a smart phone that looked like a phone and not the Ten Commandments.
CB: An electric bicycle that isn’t aesthetically offensive.
HE: What do you imagine to be the biggest challenge as designers working in a city where the design community is still emerging compared to more established North American centres like New York or even Toronto?
CK: Building real world clout. In Vancouver your opportunities to be seen by influential people in the industry are rare. It’s not often that there are industrial design focused events going on where you can actually talk to other people in the industry. Even when there are, you’re usually only meeting people at a local scale and not really being seen by international heavy hitters. The Internet makes being successful in a city like Vancouver easier though. You can get press and attention internationally without being embedded in a design hotspot. The great thing though about being a designer in Vancouver is that you can be a part of building something new. All the other design meccas have their own flavour that the world is familiar with. I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of a budding stage in Vancouver’s design history and able to have a finger in the pie that is Vancouver’s currently undefined aesthetic language.
CB: Probably everything you would imagine. There aren’t many industrial design studios here. There are, however, some good in-house design teams for local brands. CYC is here, Bensen, Arcteryx… lots of garment and sewn goods. They all have full time designers. It hasn’t been that problematic for us as a studio so far though. We are currently working with a brand in Toronto, and a manufacturer in Taiwan, and aside from being able to physically pass prototypes back and forth, the design process isn’t affected. The biggest thing I imagine we’re missing out on is chance opportunities, the kind you get when you’re surrounded by industry. But I, of course, have no idea how many opportunities we’ve missed!
HE: Many of your projects are not only designed to be beautiful in their final and stationary position but are also designed to be attractive and functional in their disassembled or stored positions. Do you feel that taking on dynamic projects like ‘Flight Lamp’ or the ‘Profile Chair’ limit aesthetic opportunities or do the added parameters produce more interesting results?
CB: The more constraints there are, the more there is for you to push against. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that form follows function, but constraints can narrow down the types of forms available to use, which is invaluable in terms of finding a direction. If anything, I’d say form and function play off each other constantly.
HE: ‘The Flight Lamp’ incorporated sustainability into its design by minimizing transport energy with an easy, flat-pack shipping strategy that depended on the user to assemble the lamp’s simple components after the product’s arrival. Will sustainability continue to be incorporated into your designs in the future?
Both: Both of us have a big problem with greenwashing. One of the most common tools for rating the sustainability of a product is LCA, or Life Cycle Analysis, which looks at every part of a product’s life, from how the raw materials are acquired, to what happens after it’s thrown away. Most products that are sold based on being green concentrate on the sustainability of the materials used, the packaging, and the recyclability. Our philosophy is to keep the product in use for as long as possible, which is probably the least talked about part of the LCA. It might seem like a lofty goal, but we are aiming to make things that just don’t get thrown away. There are a lot of Eames shell chairs out there made out of fibreglass which wouldn’t score very well on the LCA charts, but most of them aren’t in landfills, they’re still in use, and have probably changed owners several times. Now there are much more low-impact materials to choose from, so product end-of-life can be improved, but that shouldn’t be an advertised selling point, it should be a given. We almost don’t want to talk about sustainability. Obviously it needs to be discussed, but at this point in history it shouldn’t be if, rather how.
HE: On your website, film is used in addition to photographs as a representational tool for your work. The short films provide a brief illustration of the objects function, materials and scale, giving the piece a specific personality. Do you ever think about how the object might behave cinematically as you are in the process of designing it?
CB: I wouldn’t say the cinematic aspect really influences the design. They are closely related, however. When we design something, there’s a sort of ideal context and user in our heads. It’s our goal to have the object behave in a way that reflects that ideal, and also a goal to communicate that idea through the films.
If anything, it’s important for the object to be able to be used in a cinematic fashion. It should look too easy. If you ever played Tomb Raider back in the day, you may remember Lara Croft could just put things close to her backpack, and they’d be inside. And then in the movie, they totally did the same thing. It was a neat gimmick, but more importantly, she could use the backpack in a way that didn’t interrupt the flow of the action. This is the kind of design we strive for. ‘The Profile Chair’ opens and closes in one motion, ‘The Tenth Avenue Backpack’ transforms into a tote in one step. You won’t see us making anything involving a complex Rube Goldberg series of steps.
There’s also a cinematic romance to which we aspire. When we made ‘The Nine by Nine’ furniture collection, we were tasked with making a full collection of furniture that fit in a 90ft2 apartment. We briefly considered incorporating a bunk bed, but axed it after realizing that you wouldn’t get laid in it. We just couldn’t imagine a scene in a movie where a couple bursts passionately into the bedroom, and then climb single-file up a ladder into bed. We haven’t made any sex toys or anything, but we’re not about to make anything that makes it harder for you to get your game on. This factors in heavily in both our grad theses, which we can’t reveal just yet, but believe me they’re gonna have some sexy promo films.
HE: Thanks so much for chatting with us about your work and best of luck on all your future projects!
Jessie Croll is an architecture student, currently interning at a creative practice in Vancouver. Collaborating, building things and drinking coffee are among her favorite activities.
All photos Courtesy of Knauf and Brown