Starting Out is a series about designers who have recently struck out on their own. More than a string of studio visits, the series profiles talented, risk-taking professionals all around the world. We hope their anecdotes will inspire your own entrepreneurial spirit.
In our second installment, we talk with Nelly Ben Hayoun, a London-based experience designer who mixes science with theatre, fact with fantasy and is no stranger to the pages of Core77. We visited her at the Sunbury Workshops in Shoreditch (not 5 minutes from Jasper Morrison's), met some of her studiomates (we'll be hearing from them later), and got caught up on what she's all about.
Top: Nelly in her workspace. Bottom: Airspace Activism, a project that helps citizens regain control of the military airspace above their heads.
Core77: Nelly, in a few words, how would you describe what you do?
Nelly Ben Hayoun: I am interested in how we can use design in our everyday lives to make them more thrilling, creative and passionate. I design experiences.
C77: How did you first start out?
NBH: Starting out on my own is closely linked to my life as part of the studio. Olivia Decaris who I knew from the Royal College of Art , approached me about sharing a studio with 4 other ex-RCA graduates around October 2009. I remember it very well; at that time I was organizing the Super K Sonic BOOOOum show at Shunt under London Bridge. She made me visit it and I was very charmed by its location - central London and very close to so many workshops. So, literally 4 months after graduation at the RCA.
Before sharing the studio and during the interim period of finishing study, you kind of wander around looking for new challenges and places to exhibit your work. I did one more show with my RCA Design Interactions colleagues under the label Disruptive Thinking at 100% Design with Designers block during the London Design festival.
Nelly and other Sudbury Workshop designers with the broken down car of a friend.We exhibited our final show pieces to a very different audience to that of the RCA final Show, who were predominantly creative and academic rather than industrials and proper design products customers. So we were there, with our 'speculative designs' with a critical view on what the future of new technologies and science may hold (which is really what Design Interactions at the RCA is about).
I think this when I thought that it wasn't the best time to be a graduate during the financial crisis but it was actually the best moment to develop alternative ways of thinking and making designs that had an audience.
Also, this is the moment when I defined what my practice was about and when I started to crank on writing tons of proposals to keep experimenting with it!
The Physics of The Impossible is about contemporary physics, at the crossroads between science and science fiction, testing our perceptions about reality and scientific potential. Here, you are the hobbyist-amateur maker who decides the possible, the believable, and the alternative. You are the astronaut in the living room, generating dark energy from pigeons' eggs in the kitchen and colliding atoms in the bathroom.
C77: What are you trying to achieve with your practice?
NBH: My work is about collaboration with experts&nmdash;scientists and amateurs; it aims to adapt science to our creative needs. My method is to go 'in situ,' to visit peoples' place of research to find a common ground to develop new ways of engaging the public with that research.
Often science seems to be reserved for scientists - expert practitioners who alone have the privilege of experiencing the fringes of human knowledge and the extremes of nature. My work aims to combat this (real or perceived) aspect of science, by enlisting willing scientists in experiences that mix the creativity with technology, science with fiction, factual with artistic, amateur with expert...
I think that design MUST be ENGAGED and therefore I am particularly interested in questioning its set up. I build installations as a set to facilitate and encourage surreal interactions. I often perform in them allowing me to have direct feedback and improve the experience for next time. I consider all the work I am doing as a massive pile of experiments. Every installation and project I am doing is 80% risk. I never know if I will be able to give a valuable experience to the public until the day they are all there and we switch on the light...
The whole thing is very similar to theater and comedia dell'arte in a way. We have the characters, the set up and the main theme but a lot is about improvisation. I love the idea of being able to improvise with design and having a sort of liberty in the process which is difficult to conceive with so many highly defined new design tools ( 3D printing, 3D software...).
I really think this is why I am more and more attracted to larger scale projects; like trying to create a new landscape from scratch.
Design should be embedded in a physical experience, something that lasts in your memory similarly to seeing a painting and remembering the tone of it.
Nelly in her element.
C77: How do you use your space? How does it uniquely affect your practice?
NBH: I use every single bit of this space. It is too small. I have a tendency to put things on the top of one other. I'm messy and it is sometimes hard to find where I have organized things. Maybe that's why I like big scale projects, I'm somehow tired of the very small. You can see everything better in big, yes?!
I now have a giant crate where the Soyuz Chair is and that is going to go outside.
The space doesn't really match my practice. The last project I did was a 4 meter high windmill. This windmill should have been 10 meters high but even if I did it in the way whereby it comes in 4 one-metre pieces that are then screwed together, the studio was completely full and I had basically used every table of my colleagues!
Having painted the windmill blue and pink, I also repainted the whole floor and the wall...Luckily the floor was already damaged!
But to be honest, when you start you can't really expect to be in a giant studio right away! And that is being optimistic! It makes you face reality. Living in a city like London or Paris forces you to accept that your working space will be smaller—and as a designer you should be organized in it and find a solution that works (but I'm not that great at this).
C77: What do you think of working in London?
NBH: I am not a big fan of London, I think it is a tough city where you can feel very lonely. However the community of designers and artists is well defined and we nearly all know each others, which make it easier when you look for a specific workshop, or supplier.
Another shot of Nelly and her studiomates at the door to their workspaces.
I work with many of my neighbours, flatmates, or locales. For example the film Suzy: Passion, Whales, which is about a lady who dreams to become a whale, was done with my Hungarian flatmate in one of the flats I used to live in. In Cathy the Hacker, a project about hacking your blood pressure implant, the main character is my bookseller. In the Soyuz Chair, the main character on the picture was Helen, the amazing canteen lady at the RCA .
It makes sense as the main concern of my work is about giving access to amateurs to expert domains, so I usually work with them.
Super K Sonic BOOOOum, produced in collaboration with Imperial College and QueenMary University, London, is a large installation consisting of a fifteen meter long 'river' of water running through a tunnel lined with thousands of silver balloons (photomultiplier tubes). On a journey, a small audience learns of neutrinos, their role in the Universe and how scientists detect them.
C77: Who are some of your influences, mentors and peers?
NBH:Brendan Walker for all his work on 'tailored emotional experiences' and 'thrill.'
Nina Pope, an artist with Karen Guthrie, who always involves amateurs in their fabulous films and works "Living with the Tudors" or "Bata-ville, we are not afraid of the future." Also her partner, Tim Olden, sound artist, with whom I did the Soyuz Chair and Super K Sonic Boooum sound. Really, I never start a new project before seeing and having a chat about it with Tim. He knows everything about everything and always come up with very extravagant references that inspire all the craziness of my projects.
Tonny Dunne and Fiona Raby, my tutors at the RCA, They developed a unique design practice involving story telling, speculation and poetics and theory of 'critical' design and 'speculative design.' Their book Hertzian Tales and Design Noir have inspired and taught many designers such as myself that design is about experimentation and that there is no limit in that. And, of course, my tutor James Auger for teaching me rigor in making and design!
Maywa Denki, the most amazing Japanese designer, artist and performer. I had the chance to work with him and he introduces me to the philosophy of his company: NONSENSE. For Maywa Denki, life is Nonsense and Design as well as art must reflect that. He initiates me to performances and costumes. I own him a lot!
Thomas Hirschhorn, Swiss artist, for his aesthetic. He develops unique intricate spaces using low tech mediums like corrugated cardboard. Part of his work is also related to literature; some of my projects involve specific writers and stories. Recently I worked "with" Balzac and his Human Comedy, and Kafka on critical design.
Olafur Eliasson, artist, famous for the unusual and intriguing spaces he creates.
One of Nelly's fantastic sketches.
C77: What are tools do you use the most in your work?
NBH: I really think my pencil is one, I always sketch (badly but still!). I think my hammer is one of my favorite tools, my friend Tommasso Lanza likens me to one as I harass everyone until I get what I want made! I have always had an obsession for electric jigsaws, probably because I like it when things are going quickly—one of my bad points!
C77: Give one piece of advice for others who are thinking of starting off on their own.
NBH: Fight! It's very hard but remember that failure is always part of the process. I fail so much this is insane. 'If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same' (Kipling, 'If' ). This articulates my approach to work as whether you succeed or fail, you take what you can and you move on onto the next project. Continuously look to the new challenges, to the future without dwelling on what happened.
The Soyuz chair accurately reproduces the 3 stages of the Soyuz rocket launch. Reclining into launch position, you face the sky, put on your headset, and use the control panel to select your mode; just a single stage, or the full lift off experience. The project was produced in collaboration with the astronaut Jean Pierre Haignere who lifted off twice in the Soyuz rocket.