Stories from V1: PlayLab Interview

Boundary. Simply the conception of something that separates one thing from another must be entirely foreign to Archie and Jeff, the  proprietors of PlayLab. As if somehow the two avoided learning the confining lesson which boundaries instill in us. Archie and Jeff, graduates of Virginia Tech with degrees in graphic design and architecture respectively, met in Cowgill and have since been collaborating under the name PlayLab. Since then, they have been doing just about anything that interests them.


The partnership between Archie and Jeff was set into motion at Bollo’s coffee shop; the name PlayLab was conceived in the cafe. With napkins as their medium, the duo produced sequences of sketches–continuing until they made the other laugh, or cry. Even today they develop ideas through similarly humorous methods, a great example being the Marc Jacobs collaborative (see next page). Upon graduating from Virginia Tech, PlayLab produced some records and album art in 2008 before moving to Greensboro, Alabama to Launch PieLab. With the hope to reinvigorate the small town, people were brought together at one table. PieLab was a critical catalyst informing PlayLab how to move their design firm forward.


“We went door to door asking people to come have pie for $2 a slice, and eventually people came, and the pastor brought his guitar in and people started sharing local stories. And then we got a grant to buy a building on main street. It was the first building to open in the town in ten years. At the same time it was rated the #1 pie in America by the magazines my mom reads, but it was never really about pie, it was about people. And then we came back to New York and we were like, we need to do shit like that again and again. It wasn’t about making a ton of money, it was about doing a good project and making it sustainable. That was the thing: make something and give it to people.”

 

Design, in it’s attempt to be significant and esteemed is often inclined to neglect the people and communities for which it is intended. Archie and Jeff learned through their work on PieLab that design is never about an individual, it’s about people. They applied this principle to their design work in New York, where they established the PlayLab firm to output their ideas. Just a few of PlayLab’s present ventures include an architecture journal, a small clothing line, and a water-filtering pool to float in the rivers of the Hudson River.


Over coffee, we had the pleasure of talking to Archie about what allows PlayLab to operate effectively in so many contrasting domains. “Stay interested in things, be critical but not too critical, and make things you want to make. Realize you have all the power in the world to make them.” You can feel the sort of youthful exuberance that floats from his words when discussing how PlayLab grew from two students with a propensity for design into a studio in New York that collaborates with the likes of Marc Jacobs and Google. This palpable enthusiasm is derived from the absence of boundaries, as the excitement is not limited by one’s preconceived notions. When starting a project they are not hindered by what one thinks the idea should become, achieved by constantly reconsidering assumption, which is undoubtedly one of PlayLab’s strongest assets.


Archie and Jeff realized while studying at Virginia Tech that their work was more than a task to complete, and that individuals couldn’t thrive functioning as islands in the sea of design. “You’re drinking coffee and listening to music and sharing things with people and joking around and being assholes. You’re not working 100% of the time and you do that because in those moments, some really nice things happen, but you might only be working 15% of the time.” The bond between Archie and Jeff, one fostered within the walls of Cowgill Hall, remains a constant in their lives. This connection is why their work remains unmistakably strong regardless of the current PlayLab directive. “Most days start off just meeting with Jeff to talk. ‘What happened last night? What did you see?’ We just try to share what’s happening and get right into it, looking for something stimulating.”


In emphasizing the partnership, I certainly don’t want to discount the aptitude for design that Archie and Jeff possess. Talking with Archie I think he tends to do this himself, only out of modesty. But it really is the youthful spirit in their collaboration that makes PlayLab unique and has started to attract a high echelon of clients that provide them with the resources to do their most inspiring work.


At present they’re working on PlayLab’s most ambitious project to date, the +POOL. The walls of the pool will actively filter water from the Hudson River into the pool itself, offering the opportunity to swim in a river that would otherwise remain too polluted. The shape of the pool itself will introduce a high surface area of filtration material into the river that would not be possible with a different shape. The +POOL has established itself as an optimistic beacon for a cleaner, healthier river and it’s a beautiful display of an initiative in new technology.


A top class of engineers, such as those from ARUP and IDEO, are working on the pool’s filters and a test called FloatLab is currently underway. “We raised money this summer to test the filtration system that we designed to float in the river for six months and to test every 15 minutes. The filters are looking good so far. They seem to be working, but we’ll see at the end of the six months.” Additionally, a long list of high-profile corporations have offered capital and publicity for the +POOL, now a nonprofit initiative. There’s an ecosystem surrounding each PlayLab project.


“Because of the publicity from +POOL our phone rings a lot more, but we just keep it chill. We still just do the work we want to do. Now we just have a lot more freedom because of all of that. Right now we’re talking to Marc Jacobs. They asked us if we had ideas for this one specific thing and we gave them something they didn’t really think they were going to get. And they said yes, let’s do that. And we were like, exactly.”
 

Interview conducted by Luisa Lacsamana, Austin Ledzian, Kevin Garcia, and Stephen Good

Words by Stephen Good

Photos by PlayLab and Luisa Lacsamana