It's Vito Acconci's delivery that throws you—a certain hesitation and repetition of words and phrases that has a way of knocking things off conventional footing. It's the verbal manifestation of a design philosophy that the 65-year-old poet/artist turned architect defines in terms like "push-pull," "flow," and "overlay." Members of his studio echo this, turning presentations into edgy performance pieces.
They staged one in October, when Acconci dropped in on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to mind-meld with, and provoke, every department he could. Invited to lecture and open a traveling show of his work, Acconci and his protégés spent a frenetic two days with campus heavy hitters.
Acconci Studio designs spaces for clients ranging from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to a Tokyo boutique. But in the '60s and '70s, Acconci made his body the focus of his work, in one piece biting himself, inking the tooth marks, and making prints.
You'd expect a disconnect between an out-there conceptual artist-designer and archetypal straight-ahead engineers and scientists. But Acconci has morphed into something of a chief creative officer, working through and with more conventionally trained designers. For its part, MIT may be the most entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary university around. So Samir Nayfeh, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who has collaborated with artists before, had no trouble relating. Acconci and company picked his brain on advanced weaving technologies to turn out 3-D structures and on small-batch production techniques that could allow designers to create their own custom materials.
And they talked with Erik Demaine, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, about "dynamically reconfigurable" buildings and packaging (why not a lunch box you can change on the fly to hold different foods?). The meetings weren't about commerce per se, but Acconci didn't dismiss that possibility. "We shouldn't be put off," he said. "You get a spark from the world of ideas, but we want these things to exist in the real world, with ordinary rules of physics and an ordinary price structure."
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.