At 9:40 a.m. on Thursday, a white van pulled over near the corner of 68th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. A cameraman armed with a telephoto lens watched from the corner. A video crew snooped from a rooftop. Half a dozen operatives on the street murmured discretely into walkie-talkies, calling each other "Hound Dog," "Crow's Nest," and other code names. Within minutes Andrew Haarsager, an interaction designer with the technology firm Tellart, removed a white steel chair from the van and placed it on the sidewalk. He crouched over to activate a Motorola cell phone with GPS software affixed to the underside of the seat, then skulked away.
Over the course of two days this week, Mono, an advertising firm based in Minneapolis, dropped off 25 Real Good Chairs, a $129 item designed and manufactured by Blu Dot. Whoever found the chairs was free to take them. The chairs were left outside the Apollo Theater on 125 Street (below), at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and atop the Highline, elevated park on the West Side, among other New York locations.
The recipients did not know that the video crew documented their snatch and get-away, sometimes trailing them for blocks. "I've never actually trailed anybody before," said Henry Joost, an executive producer for Supermarche, the video production firm. "The only thing I know about surveillance is from movies."
The 10 chairs equipped with GPS have their own twitter feeds updating their locations in real time. A Web site will display the drop point of each chair and its current whereabouts until the GPS batteries run out.
Some chairs have traveled surprising distances. A chair dropped Wednesday on the lower Bowery had migrated dozen or more blocks to Union Square by yesterday afternoon. And within a few hours a chair left on Central Park West showed up a couple of miles away in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Mono considered Twittering the drop locations in advance in the style of flashmob events, but decided against it for fear of drawing unmanageable crowds.
The drop-offs are an exercise in interactive marketing timed to the first anniversary of Blu Dot's Soho store, which opened Dec. 11, in the thick of the economic collapse. The company will show a short video documentary about the project at an anniversary party held in the store next month. "We want to be the friendly modernists," said Medora Danz, director of sales for Blu Dot. "We're Midwesterners and we want the showroom to reflect that. We want to emphasize that we take design seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously."
This weekend the Supermarche video crew will try to track down the chair's new owners for interviews. The GPS may lead them to a building or a stretch of buildings but not to individual dwellings. So they're planning to post leaflets asking for help. "It's going to be tricky," said Heather Burnikel, a Mono project leader. "That's the biggest mystery of this project: Will they talk to us?" Each chair comes with an 800 number and the promise of a second chair if the owner calls in.
The only hitch occurred Wednesday in Chinatown, where a chair sat in Cunfucius Plaza (above) for an hour and a half without gaining notice. The crew eventually twittered its location, and it was snatched almost immediately. Minutes later a woman showed up asking passersby if they'd seen a chair sitting around anywhere.
Yesterday the crew on West 68th Street conducted themselves with utmost caution, suspecting that chair stalkers might have sussed out their location. "A treasure hunt mentality has taken hold," said Danz. "We have fans who are willing to cyber-stalk us."
Meanwhile, the crew was watching for potential takers. A handful of passersby double taked, but walked on. Danz spotted a hipster in a hoodie and porkpie hat approaching. "He'll be the one," she predicted. Sure enough, he stopped and sat on the chair, but unaccountably strolled off. At 10:23 a.m. a man with long hair and an army jacket abruptly picked up the chair and carried it into a Christian Science reading room. Moments later he left and walked west without it. A crew member went in to investigate on the pretense of needing to use the ladies room, but did not see it. "It's so cloak and dagger," Burnikel said. Within moments the chair showed up on the Web site, joining the constellation of other chairs loose in the city.