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Q&A with Houminn Practice (Marc Swackhamer and Blair Satterfield)

Houminn (pronounced human) is a design collaborative primarily between Marc Swackhamer, who lives in Minneapolis, and Houston-based Blair Satterfield. The two will be speaking at the Walker this Thursday, February 25th, as part of our Drawn Here series. 1. What have you been obsessing about? Marc – We are included in an exhibition opening on March 4th at […]

Houminn (pronounced human) is a design collaborative primarily between Marc Swackhamer, who lives in Minneapolis, and Houston-based Blair Satterfield. The two will be speaking at the Walker this Thursday, February 25th, as part of our Drawn Here series.

1. What have you been obsessing about?

Marc – We are included in an exhibition opening on March 4th at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery called “Envelop{e}s.” It is curated by Associate Professor Christopher Height from Rice University. The exhibition has a strong lineup of talented designers, including David Clovers Architects, WEATHERS, Ocean North, Francois Roche, and Anderson Anderson Architects. We’re one of the young punks in the lineup and so we want to make a good showing. Our piece is a full-scale installation called “OSWall,” which stands for “Open Source Wall.” For this project, we’re soliciting design input on our website through “crowdsourcing,” or tapping into a larger design community for new construction strategies and technical innovations. This is the big idea behind the piece. So at the moment, we’re obsessed with this project and the coordination of all the voices at the table. It’s both really exciting and really daunting. Designers generally aren’t very good at giving authorship up to other folks…but that’s kind of the point.

Blair – A flash animation I can’t figure out and of course OSWall. Marc nailed it. It is all in process and largely out of our hands. It has a ways to go.

Along with the logistics of production, there is also the task of getting all the component parts to NYC intact, sorting them out and assembling them. We have found that installation and construction is never predictable and always involves some pain. Sometimes more than some.

2. What’s your most prized possession?

Marc – I’ve become less and less obsessed with stuff. I’m more interested in how I can have less of it. I was really enamored with my iphone when I first bought it (it enabled me to carry less stuff around), but I just shattered the front of it. Instead of getting it replaced, I’m just going to live with it for a while. It suddenly feels a lot less precious. Blair and I both collect Kid Robot “Dunnies.” (although he has a lot more than me). These are 3” Japanese style plastic figurines in the shape of bunnies that are sold like baseball cards; in other words, in blind boxes. So, you never know what you are going to get until you buy it and open the box. They are worth virtually nothing (they’re made out of cheap plastic), but what we love about them is that Kid Robot just designed a generic template, or shape, for a base “Dunny.” Then they started soliciting ideas from designers and artists from around the world on how to skin them in different ways. This model has been a big inspiration for us in the development of OSWall.

Blair – Not much. I agree, the Vinyl toy collection is up there for things we don’t need but we really talk about in our work. In addition to the dunny’s there are other various toys that fall under the same heading. I know Marc also has some Peecols, I have a series called “Friends with You”, “BFF’s”, “Acid Sweeties”, “Smorkin’ Labbits”…the works. Personally, I am almost as fond of the packaging as I am of the actual toys. There is a great graphic language that goes along with the toy culture. Opening them is an event. Dunny stands for “Devil Bunny” by the way.

There is a coffee mug I have that I really like. It was hand thrown by the mother of one of Marc’s former students. Pat worked with us on a project a few years ago. His mom made a mug for both Marc and me to thank us for including him. It was a great gesture, the  mug is a good size and feels good to hang on to.  I use it every morning to have coffee with my wife. It is one of my favorite rituals and it completely reinforces my fondness for the mug. I do love my Big Green Egg. It is the greatest grill in the world.

3. What are you reading?

Marc – My current academic reading is BIG Architect’s Yes is More. It’s a really unique take on the architectural manifesto and it plays well into that firm’s strengths (it’s written as a graphic novel). They are masters of the diagram. Their ability to distill complex ideas down to simple diagrams is remarkable. The book provides a narrative of their working process and explains how and why they make decisions throughout each project. I think I’m going to have my students read excerpts from it. Students struggle with clarity in their work, and BIG is nothing if not clear. My pleasure readings include a backlog of nonfiction at the moment: a couple of Malcolm Gladwell books, Super Freakonomics (the follow up to Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner– a favorite book of mine), and a book called The How of Hapiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky.


The Brother Gardeners

It is a great book written by design historian Andrea Wulf. It chronicles the development of the modern English garden through a series of improbable relationships that spanned the Atlantic.

A small group of men in England and the New World were largely responsible for the English national obsession. It is a really enjoyable read.

I am a bit of a presidential history nerd I just finished reading

The American Presidency

It is edited by Alan Brinkley and Davis Dryer. It is a series of historical essays chronicling the political emergence, reign, and legacy of each of the presidents of the US. It is pretty fascinating. Each essay is a closed piece. I love that they overlap and are written by a different historical expert on each leader. The result if a kind of crazy quilt of voices telling a running narrative.

Design Engineering AKT

This is a book that presents the work of Adams Kara Taylor, a London based, design-led, structural engineering studio. I am really interested in other design practices and how they go about achieving their goals.

4. What’s one of your guilty pleasures?

Blair – Movies, animations, and well produced television shows. Marc will tell you, I watch a pretty wide range of stuff.

I also listen to podcasts. I am currently a fan of “Comedy Death Ray”. It is a loose round table format of comedians organized and hosted by Scott Auckerman, formerly a writer for “Mr. Show”.  It is an occasionally themed and largely improvised series of conversations and word play. There are some really talented people involved. It is something I listen to while I am working. I am man enough to admit that I still follow Project Runway. Some of our “cooler” design friends have dismissed it because they claim the novelty has worn off. I suppose my threshold is higher. I am still in.

Marc – I like playing video games. I have a Playstation 3 and I’m at a point now where I prefer playing games over watching TV, surfing the web, or even watching movies (of course, I still love movies). Some of the best games are incredibly immersive, challenging, graphically beautiful, like the best CG movie, and are even starting to have decent story lines. My brother lives in Buffalo, New York and so the other aspect of gaming I enjoy is that it enables us to virtually sit on the couch together, play a game, and hang out. I miss him a lot, but when we do this a couple times a week, it is a great way to stay connected.

5. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Marc – “Smarts.” In our field, they mean very little if they are not paired with action. As a professor, I notice time and again that the smartest students don’t always make the best designers. They are great to have in class. They enliven group discussions, ask pertinent, tough questions, and present their work well. But often, they impede their own progress by overthinking. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but smart students tend to spend so much time talking and chin-scratching, that they never get down to the business of producing. Blair and I learn the most through working with our hands, through drawing and building, and through making mistakes.

Blair – Can I use Marc’s answer? I will go Roman: Honestas – Respectability, especially if it is only meant to “keep up appearances”.

Otherwise, it is really hard to condemn virtues. The Hindu’s have one called Universality: Showing tolerance and respect for everyone, everything and the way of the Universe.

I think that one is really under-appreciated.

6. What is one of the most unexpected influences on your design?

Marc – Where do I start? All our projects are inflected by a strange array of unexpected influences. For example, we’ve recently developed a modular panel for our OSWall prototype that is influenced by three things: the desert rhubarb plant (which is nature’s champion at collecting and channeling rainwater), the pleated sheet metal on new concept car by Hyundai called the “Blue Will” (which stiffens the body of the car), and the folded skin on the belly of a humpback whale called “ventral pleating” (which allows the whale’s skin to expand when it takes in sea water and fish). In the past, we’ve taken inspiration from shotgun ammunition, muscle car air scoops, and high tech athletic apparel.

Blair – This is a who more than a what, but we get a lot of interesting ideas from people playing out of position. There is a lot of cache placed on “expertise” in our profession. Expertise has its value, but it can be extremely limiting. One of the problems with an expert, is they filter information and problems through their own expertise. They try to make solutions take the shape of what their expertise tells them to expect. This breeds predictability. Having an amateur on the team, or putting a highly skilled individual on a problem that is out her comfort zone can net some interesting results.

Marc – As a supplement to this…I think Blair probably has one person in mind, and we should call him out by name: Dave Hultman. He is a shop director in Engineering at Minnesota and he is a truly remarkable, nimble-minded, do-it-all ass-kicker. Our work would amount to to a pile of scrap wood if it wasn’t for his selfless efforts to help us. We are indebted to him. The U doesn’t know what a gem they have in Dave.

7. What were you doing before you responded to this questionnaire?

Marc – I was working from home for three days because of a sick 2 year old. I’m lucky that my schedule is flexible. She brings all kinds of creeping crud home from daycare, so we’re constantly scrambling in our house to keep everyone healthy. I secretly enjoy this, though, because even though she’s sick, I have an excuse to spend the day with her.

Blair – Waiting for a cab in Vancouver and wondering if I set my DVR to record Burn Notice.

8. What question do you wish we’d asked you?

Marc – I’m sure Blair will have a funny answer to this question. He usually provides the comic relief. It’s why we work well together and it’s is a big part of the answer to a question we usually get, which is “how are you able to work from two separate cities located so far apart?” The answer is long and complex (we have delivered a whole lecture on it), but it can be boiled down to two things: our personalities and our senses of humor. We get each other, we don’t get uptight about too many things, and we laugh a lot…probably too much. In fact, when we’re in the same place, we usually spend so much time laughing that we accomplish less than we do when we’re remote.

Blair – No Pressure

To add length to the questionnaire, ask Marc how he feels about professional teams in Cleveland. Ask me about my Big Green Egg.

  • Q&A with Houminn Practice (Marc Swackhamer and Blair Satterfield) –

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Hometta says:

    Presidential History, Japanese toys, and big green eggs–HouMinn Practice talks to the Walker:

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Hometta says:

    Presidential history, Japanese toys and big green eggs: HouMinn Practice talks to the Walker

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • siborg81 says:

    @siborg81 for the car pleats

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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