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Two Models of Collaboration

June 12, 2013


In my decade plus as a lighting designer for downtown theater and dance in New York, I was a student, more than anything else, of collaboration. Most of the shows were short in duration – three or four days of rehearsals and then a weekend or two of performances. Sometimes I would hear from the choreographer or director, but many times I would never see them again. I was a small-time operator, surfing a peculiar little wave of people spending their savings and considerable energy on their short New York season.

After what must have been tens or hundreds of these shows, I noticed two strategies of collaboration. I did not consciously develop them, nor are they the only ways to approach working together.

The first approach is the Tennis Match. This is what we were taught in school that working as a designer would be like. You show up for a meeting, having read the script and developed your own concepts, and lob a fat serve at the director, who hopefully returns the ball. This ignores the fact that the director has already spend more time imagining this show than you could ever hope to (or care to). While serving the ball gives you the feeling of control, of contribution, you may in fact be on the wrong court entirely.  There was always the danger that you invest a great deal of time imagining the wrong show.

I developed a variant on this (cowardly, I know) – my goal was to avoid visualizing the final result for as long as possible – to concentrate on not knowing until it was no longer possible. Not only did this force me to observe what the piece was already, but it kept me from getting stuck in my initial impressions. I would play a quiet game, until I understood what was going on enough to set up a few good shots and often profoundly change the whole show with before they could get defensive.

The other approach is the Ballroom Dance, though I’ve privately called it the “rope-a-dope” before. When beginning to work with a collaborator with a very strong, fixed vision of how the show would look, I often found that the only approach that worked was to match them step for step, offering minimal resistance at the beginning. Once you have matched their speed and direction intimately, it becomes possible to inject your own direction into the collaboration – when this works best, your partner believes they came up with the idea themselves.

It is sometimes necessary to take this approach even when you believe that the direction the project is headed will come to grief – it is merely necessary to walk them to the brink so that they understand. The skillful collaborator, by this point, may have worked out a way to save the show, and is able to present a way out. However, I often found it valuable to sit for a moment with my collaborator, staring into the abyss, neither of you knowing what to do next. More than likely, you will both pick up the pieces and begin to work together as equals. If you’re lucky, they will begin to trust you a little.

What do we hope to contribute as a designer? The egoist will maintain that they are the artist, creating an original work from whole cloth. At the other end of the spectrum, a designer is merely another service provider, like a lawyer, skillfully guiding their client towards realizing their vision. I fall somewhere in between. I have learned the most from some of my most difficult collaborators – and the end result was much more than either of us imagined. Ego can get in the way of skillful listening, but you have to have the backbone to tell other people when you know something is finally right.




Making Ecologies

January 26, 2013

We submitted an entry to the Industrial Arts Center Cincinnati’s “Live/Make” mixed-use competition. Cincinnati is a city I know mostly from periodic visits to museums growing up. I particularly used to enjoy the Contemporary Arts Center (and no, we never went to see the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit), which always managed to mount these small, jewel-box shows that gave you just enough contemporary art to chew on before you were back on the streets of Cincinnati’s bleak downtown in search of Indian food. The CAC has since purchased a very expensive edifice by Zaha Hadid – the one time I’ve been back , it seemed like a little too much building and not enough art.

The city has been trying very hard to achieve a renaissance in the past ten years, partly by undoing some of the poor urbanisms of the last fifty years (ia. skywalks), and now apparently by rediscovering their brewing past to create a post-industrial destination in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

For more details, you can go to the Studio website, but here are a few images:

1_Alley perspexterior3hallwayrefectory2_Program_diagramsectionDrawing

soundBall prototype

July 21, 2011

This is a blue foam test cut for a dodecahedronal speaker – twelve full-range speakers mounted in modular tiles.  The original idea was to mill all the tiles from some beautiful reclaimed old-growth spruce, but the milling time for 24 tiles is prohibitive.  I’ll probably cast them, either in acrylic or concrete (!). Its my first attempt at two-sided milling, and it worked pretty well.  I decided to use a caul rather than keep the piece secure with sprues and try to flip it and line it up exactly:


May 20, 2011

Some test pieces for a furniture project with impossibly obsessive joinery.  Its been useful in identifying the weak spots in the mill – I’ve since re-designed the Z-stage and I’m in the process of cutting the new pieces for that.  I should be able to bootstrap a little more precision with each iteration.

Full program, no payloadload

February 22, 2011

Work continues on the CNC mill – I’ve decamped from the sunlit halls of the Metropolitan Exchange, so the mill has been re-assembled in the unheated Undisclosed Location.  Note the hair dryer – I discovered that some lubricating oils actually need to be above freezing to work correctly – the Z-stage requires a minute under the hair dryer before it will work.

More jogging

November 15, 2010

I finished the X-axis last week – the #25 chain-drive works great, seems very precise.  I discovered that EMC jogs at a slower rate – the rapids (not shown here) are pretty fast.

It Jogs!

November 10, 2010

I finally hooked up the Z-axis, closed my eyes, and pressed the jog button.  No smoke, and it appears that my stepper calculations where spot on: