He has won plenty of awards for graphic design, but Jason Schulte prefers to think of his seven-member team at Office as "creative problem solvers, idea generators, and storytellers." While some clients come calling for help with graphics, Schulte almost always takes a step back to look at the larger brand. His peers may be surprised that such a tiny firm is working for big guns like Coca-Cola, Target, and Adidas (Office did marketing for the Tour360 II golf shoe), but he says Office's size keeps ideas from getting watered down. "When people see the work, they need to be amazed or have a smile on their face. I would almost rather have them hate it and react instead of feeling nothing."
Clients: Adidas Golf, Coca-Cola, Target
Claude Cormier is a landscape architect who is as likely to work with fuchsia fiberglass tree trunks and silk flowers as with live greenery. For the 2006 Art Biennale in Le Havre, France, he hung multicolored plastic balls like alien grapes in a vine-covered gazebo. "It's artificial but not fake," he says. "It's actually more true than an imported tree that tries to look natural." Other projects include a design studio for Nissan, a convention center in Montreal, and a courtyard for the Four Seasons hotel in Toronto. There's nothing wrong with being green, Cormier says, but that doesn't mean people should give up on pink, orange, and blue.
Clients: Cirque du Soleil, City of Toronto, Nissan
Sheila Kennedy & Frano Violich
"An existing material has many hidden uses," says architect Sheila Kennedy, "and the role of an architect or designer is to see into that material and to misuse it, if you will, for many other purposes." That kind of thinking led Kennedy and partner Frano Violich to launch a materials-research division. MATx has developed textiles that release light and harvest energy from the sun. Their paradigm-breaking product is the Portable Light, a flexible mat with integrated thin-film photovoltaic panels and LEDs with no breakable glass parts. Prototypes are being tested in Mexico. Kennedy and Violich are now building a ferry terminal in Manhattan that will have a high-performance, energy-harvesting textile roof.
Clients: DuPont, Harvard University, Herman Miller
Brooklyn, New York
On wefeelfine.org, a universe of colored dots explodes across the screen. Clicking on a dot reveals a sentiment that Jonathan Harris has pulled from the Net zeitgeist. "I make projects that use the Internet as a means of studying and understanding the human world," Harris says. "Those projects end up being one part computer science, one part anthropology, and one part visual art." In 2006, Yahoo hired Harris to create a digital time capsule to be sealed until 2020. With a project on the way for MoMA in 2008 (a study of online dating), he will soon be sharing his way of seeing the online world with many more of us.
Clients: Seed magazine, Sputnik Observatory, Yahoo
Laura Guido-Clark designs the skins of consumer goods—the finishing materials, colors, and textures—but her interest in product development goes much deeper. "If I don't understand the heart of a product, I could never express it," she says. Generally she consults with her clients from the very beginning of the development process. Whether it's bedding for Design Within Reach or an across-the-board change of finish options for Steelcase, she aims to elicit a visceral response from consumers: "You should just know you want it."
Clients: Hewlett-Packard, Mattel, Oral-B, Samsung, Steelcase
Humanscale Design Studio hired Manuel Saez in 2001 to manage the freelancers who designed the company's office furniture, but he promptly built an award-winning in-house design team. Humanscale's latest product is the Switch Mouse, an ergonomic mouse with a tilted base to allow for a neutral arm position and adjustable palm support. The prototype Daybed workstation was introduced at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair. In May, the studio announced that it would offer design services to outside companies; office products company Fellowes has signed on.
The founder of the design firm Wonderwall, Masamichi Katayama creates retail stores with a few quirks, like shoes displayed on conveyor belts. His latest shop for streetwear company A Bathing Ape—Bape Kids in Tokyo—is all curved-wall pockets and soft lights, except for a pool filled with foam bananas. "The Bape stores drew a lot of attention because I broke the formula for the retail clothing business," says Katayama, explaining that he focused on the brand rather than maximizing shelving and display space.
Clients: Dean & Deluca, Harrods, Marc Jacobs, Uniqlo
Monica Ponce de Leon & Nader Tehrani
A canopy of crumpled steel appears to have landed on a BP gas station in Los Angeles. Designed with Johnston Marklee and Ogilvy & Mather's Brand Integration Group, Helios House is equipped with solar panels, a water collection system, and recycled materials. Although gasoline-powered cars aren't environmentally friendly, the station itself achieved LEED certification. Monica Ponce de Leon and Nader Tehrani's firm, Office dA, just completed Boston's first LEED-certified residential complex. (For more on LEED certification, see "Green Standard.")
Clients: BP North America, Pappas Enterprises, Rhode Island School of Design
Asked to help design a two-part shoe system that separates function from fashion for Skins Footwear, Dror Benshetrit of Studio Dror sculpted an orthopedic "bone" that slips inside a floppy "skin." All his creations, from a Swarovski chandelier that sits on the floor to a folding chair that hangs on the wall, suggest that things are not as they seem. "When you have a vision, you need a designer to pull it from your subconscious out to realization," he says.
Clients: Levi's, Puma
For most of us, a "cease and desist" letter from McDonald's lawyers would be cause for concern; for Tobias Wong, it was a badge of honor. The provocation: a gold-plated replica of a McDonald's coffee stirrer renamed Coke Spoon. Wong makes a career of hijacking brands; this summer, he went after retailing. Wong and Gregory Krum set up the Wrong Store, filled with designer goods. Shoppers showed up, but the doors never opened. With his work, Wong says, "there's always a nice little twist."
Clients: Alessi, Citizen:Citizen, Swarovski
Digital image maker Joshua Davis drops hand-drawn art into elaborate computer animation programs of his own design, sets some boundaries, and lets the software do its thing. He splits his time between art projects and design commissions for the likes of BMW, Nike, and Nokia. Recently, Davis created an online kaleidoscope for Motorola's Motokrzr that viewers can customize and send to their mobile phones or save as desktop wallpaper. "Design is harder than creating art," he says. "You have to create something that adheres to strict rules and guidelines—logo treatments, brand identity, style guides, mood boards—and create something fresh."
Clients: BMW, Nike, Nokia, Motorola
Calvin Klein's new fragrance, CKin2U, owes some of its success to the bottle, a simple glass vessel sheathed in plastic with a cutaway logo, designed by Stephen Burks. Burks says he aims to communicate "on a structural level, a conceptual level, or a material level," and convey a sense of how the product is made. For B&B Italia, Burks formed each table in a set from one sheet of folded aluminum and left visible seams. "The seams are remnants of the industrial process," he says. "By building in an industrial legibility, you can pique consumer interest."
Clients: B&B Italia, Coty Prestige, Estée Lauder
A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.