Zaha Hadid and Rem D. Koolhaas On Designing A Shoe For The 21st Century

Fast Company hosts a conversation between the legendary architecture diva and Koolhaas (the other Rem’s second cousin), who founded United Nude, a future-forward shoe-and-accessory company.

Rem D Koolhaas

Koolhaas, 38 and a cousin of that other Rem, is the creative mind behind footwear-and-accessory brand United Nude.


Zaha Hadid

Hadid, 61, has designed such modern masterworks as Guangzhou’s Opera House and the London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

Rem D Koolhaas: As an architect, you’re very sculptural–a sculptor and an architect combined. Your buildings are massive sculptures and our shoes are tiny sculptures.

Zaha Hadid: Architecture is how the person places herself in the space, whereas fashion is about how you place the object on the person. You could say that the fashion collaborations are fragments of what could occur in architecture.

RDK: I was trained as an architect, but I didn’t really want to become an architect. I realized how much gravity there is in architecture–forces that pull you down! You’re working always for clients, and you get pulled from all different sides.

ZH: It doesn’t matter how important or unimportant an architect you are–you have to constantly fight to get a better building. After working for almost 40 years, I still face resistance. It’s not as if I just appear somewhere and everybody says yes to me. But we do have wonderful clients that are definitely becoming more experimental. For example, China has become one of the most exciting arenas for the realization of my architecture.

ZH: I first traveled to China in 1981 at the very beginning of my career. Studying its traditional arts, architecture, and garden design played a role in the development of my creative work. On each visit, I can feel the enthusiasm and energy of the upcoming generation of Chinese architects. They seem to find some inspiration in my work, as it demands a degree of commitment and optimism that one finds in places where the young have embraced the future with confidence. There have been significant advancements in both construction and manufacturing in China, and they are very geared up to what we are doing.

RDK: I can get things mocked up much more quickly in China. You can take more risk. You can experiment more.


ZH: The faster time frame leads to greater opportunities for experimentation. These are the journeys within design that I think are most exciting.

RDK: I like to look at buildings and at good design, but much more so, I like to make stuff.

ZH: When I was a kid, I used to make my own things, put things in my hair, funny stuff like that. Now we can do things beyond architecture and learn from the process, like this collaboration–things that reflect our ideas about how the body connects to space and to the objects around it.

RDK: Your own creativity is limited. With collaborations, you can help people with their identity and they help with yours.

ZH: It’s a two-way process: We apply our research and experimentation to these designs, but we also learn a great deal from collaborating with others. A brilliant design will always benefit from the input of others.

RDK: When we collaborate, we’re helping others make beautiful shoes–shoes people wouldn’t make without us.


ZH: Hopefully I would have been okay as a fashion designer. I focused on architecture, but I think I could have done many things–but maybe not all that well! I’m into fashion because it contains the mood of the moment, like music, literature, and art, whereas architecture is a very long process.

RDK: I never chose to be a shoe designer. The shoe chose me. I was heartbroken over a girl and started sketching shoes. It’s just one of those things you do when you’re sitting at home listening to Marvin Gaye and feeling sorry for yourself. Anyway, I’m just trying to do a good job. If you ask me, Are you an architect or a shoe designer? I would say I consider myself a brand maker.

ZH: People often ask me if I consider myself to be an architect, fashion designer, or artist. I’m an architect. The paintings I’ve done are very important to me, but they were part of a process of thinking and developing.

RDK: I think I can continue to get better as well. That’s what keeps me so ambitious and working so hard. If you’re bigger and stronger, you can have more fun and more freedom.

ZH: Even though our office is now well established, I always try to capture the exhilarating sense of freedom and passion for discovery we all have at the beginning of our career. It is important for a designer to learn to trust your intuitions and instincts, even if people say they seem bizarre and strange.

RDK: Pride is important for design. I’ve learned from you that I shouldn’t feel guilty if I make my designers work hard. I see your guys work very hard and it pays off with a great deal of pride. If people don’t want to work hard, they should work somewhere else.


A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.