Ayse Birsel in her studio. Photo by Hello Design.
Get tickets to see Ayse Birsel present at the 2015 Core77 Conference in Los Angeles.
This is the third installment of our Core77 Questionnaire. We'll be posting a new interview every other Tuesday.
Name: Ayse Birsel
Occupation: Chief De:Re Officer at Birsel + Seck. My occupation is product designer, but my design process is deconstruction and reconstruction. So I declared myself Chief De:Re Officer a while back.
Location: New York City, Istanbul and Dakar. Our office is in New York, and the majority of our clients are in the states. But we also have clients in Istanbul, and then Dakar is really my partner, Bibi Seck's, specialty.
Current projects: At NeoCon, I had a collection with FilzFelt, a company that makes beautiful felt products. Most of their focus is custom felt products, and they asked me to make some ready-mades for them, including screens, rugs and tabletop products.
We have a project for the Herman Miller Collection, but I can't say more than that. We've been working with Toyota, deconstructing and reconstructing driving around some of their current segments. For Bridgestone Turkey, we're developing an innovation culture for them, from the ground up.
I also teach at the Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and I've launched a workshop, Design the Life You Love, which I continue to do. Then we do Design the Work You Love with corporate clients, and I'm also working on the Design the Life You Love book.
Mission: Think differently and design the life you love.
Photo by Hello Design
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? I thought that I was going to become an architect, and then a family friend came to tea and told me about product design, using a teacup as an example. It changed my life. I fell in love with the humanness of product design and decided to become a designer.
Education: I studied product design at Middle East Technical University, in Turkey, and then came to Pratt Institute to do my graduate studies, also in product design.
First design job: Bruce Hannah was the chair of the product-design department at Pratt and my thesis advisor. As I was graduating, he offered for me to collaborate with him on this new project that he was working on, which was office accessories for Knoll. And when the product came out as Knoll Orchestra, they gave me credit with him. So that was my first design job.
Who is your design hero? Rowena Reed Kostellow. She was my teacher at Pratt. She was 80-plus years old when I met her, and she became my teacher and then my friend and my hero. She was the co-founder of this methodology of three-dimensional visual thinking—she taught you how to create something beautiful, dynamic, and well balanced in three dimensions, just like you would create a beautiful piece of music. It's one of the key building blocks of design education at Pratt to this day.
Bookshelves and a poster in Birsel's studio. Photos by Hello Design.
Describe your workspace: Deconstructed. It's work and life together. That's the best way to describe it.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? My team.
What is the best part of your job? Thinking creatively together with smart people. Getting excited by new ideas. The sense of purpose we share. Being in the flow together.
What is the worst part of your job? Accounting. I outsource it—we have a great accountant—but I think that for creative people, creating and doing the work is our passion. So when you bring money into that, it's really a downer. But you have to. I'm a businesswoman, but it's the part that I like least.
Birsel with some of her new products for FilzFelt, and sketches for the collection
What time do you get up and go to bed? I get up early—I'm usually at my desk by 5:00 a.m.—but then I go to bed very early as well. When my kids go to bed, I go to bed.
How do you procrastinate? The snooze button
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? This app called Pomodoro. It's basically a tomato-shaped timer, and you type in what you're working on and give yourself, say, 20 minutes, and then during that time you concentrate only on what you're doing. I like 20 minutes because it's a very manageable amount of time. And it's amazing what you can do in 20 minutes.
What is the most important quality in a designer? It's hard to generalize. Speaking for myself, it's thinking differently, learning like a sponge and making up for my bad memory with my imagination.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? No one knows what we do. Fashion designers they get, but with product design it's like, "What's that?" And then people say, "Oh, so you style stuff? Or you engineer stuff?" And I'm like, "Neither." There's no easy answer.
Drapery, a table mat and a rug from Birsel's new collection for FilzFelt
What is your most prized design possession? My partner, Bibi Seck. I wouldn't want to do this without him. Of course he's not really a possession—he knows that.
What is exciting you in design right now? I'm a believer that to do something new, you need to break preconceptions. And, today, when you read the papers, it just feels like there are all these preconceptions that are being broken left and right. And I find that fascinating.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? Modern living. Specifically the home environment—it seems untouched compared to everything else that's going on. Our living rooms are still living rooms, we still sleep in the same way, the bathroom is more or less the same. I would love to have the chance to rethink that.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years? I always find myself thinking about not what I want to design, or who I want to design it for, but who do I want to work with? There are all these people that I admire, some of whom I know and some that I don't, so I made the following wish list: My kids. Beth Comstock. Helen Walters. Michelle Obama. Jacqueline Novogratz. Sheryl Sandberg. Jenna Lyons. Muhtar Kent. Canan Ozsoy. Larry and Sergey. Jonathan Haidt.
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers, or graphic designers? Graphic designers. They're funny and lighthearted.