Constantin Boym: “Design is a way to pose questions and leap into the unknown”

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Constantin Boym, a New York City-based architect-turned-designer who expresses big architectural ideas in small forms.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Nov 16, 2022

In their 2002 book, Curious Boym: Design Works, husband-and-wife design partners Constantin Boym and Laurene Leon Boym state, "The role of the designer today is to be on a continuous lookout, to detect all the intangible waves of emerging needs, trends, and desires, and then, as Tom Ford of Gucci puts it, to “try to give people what they want before they know they want it.” The Boyms’ products and projects—furniture pieces, everyday household items, light fixtures, kitchen objects, clocks, souvenirs, décor, and exhibition designs—border on being familiar and provocative, utilitarian and funky, ordinary and eccentric, factual and emotional, design and art. References for their inspirations are broad — American lifestyle, conceptual art, Pop Art, Surrealism, Social Realism, mass culture, fashion, history, and, of course, architecture. In our interview with Constantin Boym, which follows a short introduction, he spoke of the role of design as a conceptual act, switching from architecture to design, his ‘outsider’s’ approach, discovering his signature style, becoming known for his fascination with souvenirs, what makes design and architecture similar, and how design is not art.

Constantin Boym was born in Moscow, Russia in 1955. In 1976, two years before graduating from the Moscow Architectural Institute, MArchI, together with three of his friends, he won The Theater of the Future international competition organised by a French company. But for political reasons, the students never received their prize—a three-week trip to the Netherlands and participation in an exhibition at the then-just-opened Centre Pompidou. It was that isolation and suppression of what could be achieved in the USSR that ultimately led to Boym’s immigration to America in 1981 with his first wife, the late cultural theorist and Harvard professor, Svetlana Boym.

For the first three years, Boym worked at a Boston-based architectural practice Gund Partnership, one of the earliest proponents of Postmodernism. But being bored in a corporate environment, he left for Milan to study design at the then-just recently opened Domus Academy where he earned his master’s degree the following year. In 1986, following a short stint at the office of Alessandro Mendini, his mentor at the Academy, Boym returned to the States and founded his design practice in New York City. In the next couple of years, he became a registered architect and met American-born Laurene Leon, his then-student at Parsons School of Design and now wife and partner. Since 1989, the studio has been known as Boym Partners.

  • Buildings of Disaster (Chernobyl), 1998 |Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Buildings of Disaster (Chernobyl), 1998 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners
  • Buildings of Disaster (US Capitol), 2022 |Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Buildings of Disaster (US Capitol), 2022 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners
  • Buildings of Disaster (WTC 9/11), 2001 |Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Buildings of Disaster (WTC 9/11), 2001 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners

Some of their most emblematic and memorable designs include the Rubber Band Clock (literally six colour bands stretched over what looks like a white dinner plate holding the clock), Strap Furniture (made of discarded polypropylene strapping tape wrapped around the tubular aluminium frame) Salvation (a series of ceramic pieces found in thrift shops and assembled into sculptural compositions), Vitra Showroom in Chicago (a display of colour chairs inside a white box room with basic blackline drawings in the cartoonish style of an imaginary showroom drawn over walls, floor, and glass storefront), Missing Monuments (miniature replicas of famous buildings either never built or long demolished), and Buildings of Disaster, the Boyms’ claim to fame.

Vladimir Belogolovsky: You are referred to as a conceptual designer. Is it an accurate description?

Constantin Boym: The idea of being a conceptual designer goes back to my studies at Milan’s Domus Academy in the mid-1980s where Andrea Branzi and Alessandro Mendini were my mentors. They taught me that design is always a conceptual act. Design is a way to pose questions and leap into the unknown. So, when I started my multi-disciplinary design studio in 1986 that was the idea—to do very experimental work.

Let me give you some examples. My first independent project was Recycle. It set a direction, which is valid for me to this day. At the time this theme was unexplored. The idea was to recycle the aesthetic and cultural significance of everyday objects such as containers from mainstream department stores. I placed each readymade object in a kind of frame, turning them into vases, platters, and desk organisers. Then there was the Searstyle project inspired by the Sears catalogue which is a kind of treasure trove of the American suburban domestic culture with many practical, dependable, and affordable things. Yet, this world seemed to be entirely unnoticed by many leading designers who would dismiss it as kitsch. My idea was to reflect on some of the basic strategies and try to bring them to the attention of the design world. For example, I like the idea of replacing parts offered by the catalogue, such as a set for a chair; if one part breaks or wears out it can be replaced without the need to buy a new chair. That is completely gone from the current design culture. I also wanted to play with the aesthetics of these things, particularly furniture—clunky design, brown colour palette, fake wood surfaces, and so on. All of that was not typically seen in design magazines. But it is these projects that inform my design ideas even now.

VB: There is something American about this approach, wouldn’t you say?

CB: I think so. But many journalists point out my Russian upbringing. They say, “Only a Russian could pick up a Sears catalogue and get inspiration from there.” But the important thing is not that I am from Russia but that I was an outsider here. It was the outsider’s point of view that allowed me to see fragments of American culture in unorthodox ways and to find something interesting.

  • Exhibition Radicals in the Bronx at the Museum of the City of New York, 2006 |Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Exhibition Radicals in the Bronx at the Museum of the City of New York, 2006 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners
  • Exhibition A Day in the Life of Africa at Grand Central, New York, 2005 |Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Exhibition A Day in the Life of Africa at Grand Central, New York, 2005 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners

VB: You came to the US in 1981 and soon started working at Gund Partnership, an architectural practice in Boston. But just three years later you went to Milan to study design. What caused that sudden change of course?

CB: I wanted to continue advancing my education in terms of culture. Of course, I could do that in Boston with the best architecture schools right there. But, curiously, I saw people who graduated from these schools sitting right next to me, doing the same exact work I was doing. [Laughs.] So, I didn’t feel motivated following their footsteps, whereas at that time, the Domus Academy was just starting. The Memphis Group started in 1980, and Italian design was at the peak of its popularity then. The school was promoted as a new Bauhaus, a great experiment of design and architecture. I was sold and I went to Milan, the capital of the design world. Ironically, I went there as an architect without thinking of switching to design. But in the course of the first year, my thinking changed. I realised that big architectural ideas could be expressed in small forms. That’s how I started drifting toward furniture design and environmental design. I also realised that I could create prototypes and create products, promote them, and sell them to companies, all by myself. In contrast, as an architect, I would be facing years of apprenticeship, and great difficulty to find clients, which was even more challenging for an immigrant. So, when I returned to Boston, little by little I started experimenting with furniture design, and every time I showed my portfolio to people, they would recommend me to go to New York. And I always wanted to live and work in New York. So, in 1986, I made another move.

  • Missing Monuments, 1995-2001|Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Missing Monuments, 1995-2001 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners
  • Buildings of Disaster, Oklahoma City Federal Bldg, 1997|Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Buildings of Disaster, Oklahoma City Federal Bldg, 1997 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners

VB: What were some of the main lessons that you learned from Domus?

CB: I learned that the design act is not a service but an exploration of ideas. Design is a proactive attitude and discipline; you don’t wait for a client to bring a commission to you. Design is a constant experiment and it is a multi-disciplinary activity. You have to be able to do everything. Ernesto Rogers famously said that he wanted to design everything from a spoon to a city. So, in addition to industrial objects, design communication, graphics, furniture, and exhibitions, I am doing writing, teaching, and more. In a way, I follow the advice that Andrea Branzi gave me—to pursue my efforts in as many disciplines as possible. This point of view was shared by many Italian designers at the time. The design was opened to a much larger field of culture. That was my main lesson—design is not an insular discipline; it is an integral part of culture.

VB: One of the words you use to describe your work is “critical.” What other words would you use to describe what you do?

CB: Design is about expanding culture and pushing the envelope, so to speak; the term was originally used by aviators who pushed the limits of flying by going higher and faster. So, I would use words such as experimental, culture-oriented, and humorous. I see humour as an area for finding freedom. A comedian can say pretty much anything. And, in fact, many of our designs were often described as hilarious, black humour, and crazy. That became our reputation and even helped us with the press, which eagerly publicised our work because it was quite uncommon at the time. Some fellow designers even asked us what kind of press agent I have, but it was the work itself that attracted attention. [Laughs.] The Searstyle project alone was published in at least 1,000 articles all over the world.

  • America, Exhibition at Mudac, Lausanne, 2004 |Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    America, Exhibition at Mudac, Lausanne, 2004 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners
  • Exhibition Toledo Designs at Toledo, Ohio Art Museum, 2002|Constantin Boym | STIRworld
    Exhibition Toledo Designs at Toledo, Ohio Art Museum, 2002 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners

VB: It is said about you that your design is less about things and more a way of seeing.

CB: Murray Moss, a design impresario who used to run his famous design store in SoHo, which was a real cult place and a mecca for people of culture and taste, was another person who had a very important presence in my life. He said, “Our objects are souvenirs of our ideas.” It was very provocative. This meant that an idea would come first, and an object would be an illustration or material manifestation of that idea. And an illustration should be, of course, eloquent and visually striking, but more importantly, it should communicate that original idea and not get lost in the final object.

In my case, the project that manifested this idea most successfully is Buildings of Disaster. That’s how I am often introduced—the guy who made Buildings of Disaster. And the reason it resonated with people is that its function was more than just symbolic. There is another function, which is even more important and that is the function of these objects being collectible. We all have functional objects around us. But there is a need to also have souvenirs, emotional objects that hold special memories for us—either historical or personal. So, this series expanded the function—being both useless and useful. There is black humour in it as well. And, finally, this project brought me back to the world of architecture, even if on a tiny scale. All original models were done with my own hands and I enjoyed making them.

VB: Could you talk about your design methodology and key inspirations?

CB: We always try to challenge the brief. The idea is to subvert it enough to make it interesting, but not too much to make it unacceptable to the client. And, sometimes, our clients are the ones who get inspired by our earlier works and they ask us to come up with something of that sort. For example, the Babel Blocks were the result of our client being inspired by Buildings of Disaster. We were asked to come up with something similar but not about buildings and not about disasters. [Laughs.] So, we designed souvenirs about different people in New York, which is what makes New York so unique. This souvenir celebrates the people of New York City, a mix of races, religions, and cultures. The project also became an open-ended collection.

Souvenirs are originally connected to the tourist industry, which is very lucrative. So, one would think that it would attract many top designers. But no respectable designers would ever touch the subject. Souvenirs were not explored in design schools and there are still hardly any books about them. But I like an attitude of pursuing something that has never been done before. Someone may ask, “Why do it?” But I would counter-argue—Why not?! So, we tried to bring souvenirs from oblivion into the essential design typology where they should belong. I love the fact that these small objects hold memories and associations beyond their look, they bring back personal memories, sentiments, and, ultimately, emotions. After all, it is emotions that I always wanted to bring into the design. And curiously, once we did get involved in working with souvenirs we were approached by many museums and stores who wanted to work with us to produce their own souvenirs.

Canisters by Alessi,1993|Constantin Boym | STIRworld
Canisters by Alessi,1993 Image: Courtesy of Boym Partners

VB: In your book, I came across a quote by Tibor Kalman: “Real challenges do not come from clients, but from designers themselves.” Could you touch on that?

CB: Tibor was, of course, influential on a whole generation of designers. He said to me, “You have to find cracks in the wall.” By “wall” he meant the corporate mainstream design. It is, of course, difficult to see them, but there are cracks to be sure. This also means you don’t have to destroy the wall but find ways of how to negotiate it. That’s what he did, and we and many others followed his example. Our product design for such companies as—Vitra, Alessi, Swatch, and Acme, among many other Crème de la crème companies, as well as exhibition design commissions, are about finding such cracks. But the real challenge is in initiating projects and looking for ways to realise them.

VB: Any thoughts on a signature style? You seem to try to avoid it.

CB: The issue of style was my concern in the very beginning. Take Karim Rashid, for example, who is a friend of mine and we started our practices here in New York around the same time. It was clear—he had style. I didn’t. It was not until 2002, when I did my book Curious Boym, that I realised—that’s it; that’s my style! If you can’t see that all the work in it belongs to one studio then I don’t know what style is. And sure enough, once the burden of this question was removed, it became very clear to me. Ultimately, every mature artist will tell you that if you produce something genuinely and with conviction, it belongs to you. Sometimes you get trapped in the limits of your own style and sometimes it gets constantly expanded. And, interestingly, the most successful projects in our studio are the ones that belong to the fields that we have not experimented with before. 

Babel Blocks, 2008|Constantin Boym | STIRworld
Babel Blocks, 2008 Image: Courtesy of Davis+Starr

VB: What would you say is the difference between design and architecture?

CB: I think the point is to look for what makes them similar, not different. In fact, the difference between the two is becoming less and less noticeable compared to the time when I was starting. I think if architecture in the 1980s was as creative as it is now, I would never leave it. Architecture used to be a lot more about the object, whereas now, it is a lot more exploratory on so many levels—it engages local communities, integrates with the landscape, experiments with materials, and deals with sustainability. So, as far as design methodology, I don’t see much of a difference. Again, the idea that design is everything from a spoon to a city is quite valid. This was always valid for great architects and designers, and now this idea is compelling for the new generations.

VB: In a way, what you said about design in the beginning, that it is a way to pose questions and leap into the unknown, can also be said about architecture. And how would you differentiate between design and art?

CB: I am sometimes asked—"How is your design not art?” Many people told me that it is. But I would question that. I think there is a difference. For example, the way design objects are distributed is fundamentally different from the way art is distributed. Art is often very exclusive and belongs in a gallery whereas the design objects are more accessible and are used by many more people. But, more importantly, design is always a part of the everyday environment. They are not untouchable things hanging on the wall or sitting on a pedestal, they are very much a part of people’s everyday life. And if it is OK for art to be provocative in a museum setting, it is quite another matter for a design object to be provocative and be among us all the time. In a way, being a good designer is like walking a tightrope that’s stretched between art and design, and you are hanging right in between. That’s what I find productive—that area between art and design—because it enriches both disciplines. I think we need more designers who negotiate these boundaries. It is the art that makes design less of a service discipline.

What do you think?

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