CREATING DIALOGUE WITH CRITICAL DESIGN
Like a real-life Gyro Gearloose, Talia Radford is a modern day inventor, creating tangible examples from abstract concepts by combining technology and critical thinking. With a human-centered approach to product design, Radford explores the limitless world of science and design for it's impact for greater good. Working with tech companies, as well as on personal projects, some of TaliaYStudio’s products are simple prototypes, while others stretch the limit of your imagination. The days where design was only about chairs are long over. Design is about people - claims the straight-shooting creative.
I visited the designer at her studio, at a small charming courtyard nestled in between buildings dating back centuries. A place where narrow doors and cobble stone flooring reminds you of times gone past, while the distant yet constant noise of a modern capital going on about its day keeps you tightly tangled in the present. We sat down to discuss her work, where she comes from and how she fits in to a city known for it's future-thinking creatives.
Sini Mäkelä: What is your story?
Talia Radford: My name is Talia. I was born in Mallorca, where I lived till I moved to England at the age of 9. Later on my gap year, working in Lanzarote, I met an Austrian guy, fell in love and I backpacked with through South America for 6 months. In Colombia, he got his last notice for the military service and said he had to go back, but couldn't live without me, so I ended up moving to Vienna with him. Here I applied to the Angewandte to study design and it was the best decision I have ever made because I wouldn't have studied otherwise. I wouldn't have guts to study design in England. But suddenly I had guts to do everything.
When I finished studying in 2009, I did a summer job at the Vienna Design Week managing what they call Passionswege projects. There I got to meet a lot of guest designers and one of them was Michael Young, a British designer based in Hong Kong. The moment I saw his exhibition I knew I wanted to work for him and find out how this guy made the things he makes. At the opening, I asked a guy who worked for Michael how he got the job and he looked at me like I was really stupid and said that he just asked. That's the best piece of advice I have ever gotten. Couple of months later I was on the plane to Hong Kong. After I came back to Vienna in 2010, I founded a studio together with Juan Sebastian Gomez, which I eventually took over, transforming it into TaliaYStudio.
Sini: So, it is a one woman show but you work with other people?
Talia: Yes, it is my studio, my clients, it is my risk and I like to put a team together according to what the project needs. I usually work with another industrial designer because creating ideas is almost like playing ping-pong so it is good to have someone to bounce ideas off and missinterpret and reinterpret and come up with brilliant stuff.
Sini: Can you tell a bit more about your design process?
Talia: It varies according to the project but generally we like to include the client in the process, especially when we work with technology companies. At the start we meet the client who explains the technology, its limitations and possibilities. Then we host an ideation session with them. We will create around fifty ideas, visualise ten heros of those and cross pollinate. These are then presented to the client and explained what's relevant in its innovation, what is critically relevant for the design as well as niche market relevancy. Best four or three projects are chosen according to what the client is looking for and what's technologically possible, as well as design critical. Then we make concrete forms and again cross pollinate and eventually come to the conclusion together with the client about the one thing we are going to follow. Then the prototype is made and presented, usually, at a fair.
Sini: You mentioned critical design. How does that come across in your work?
Talia: When I work with a technology company, usually the technology is not ready for the market so what you are basically doing is giving them, through design, the possibility to integrate their technology into an object of interaction that a wider audience could understand. In that sense, there is a few criteria for the critical design. Has it been done before? Is this the right technology? Could we do it with something else? Is it relevant to contemporary culture? That is where the innovation lies.
Sini: How does that physically translate into the objects you’ve created?
Talia: For example our Thermobooth. It’s a very easy concept to understand because we were working with mirror OLEDs - reflecting lights or lights that look like mirrors - and people understand the concept of a selfie.
But in terms of an object, they understood the selfie with our Kisscam. It is an object where, through a gesture, you take a picture of something you love. But you don't press a button, instead you literally have to the smooch the camera and that is a gesture that people really understand. Partly because that year Instagram became really big, it was easy for the audience to understand what this technology is capable of doing.
Another reminiscence of Instagram was our Jelly Series, a holdable, which you can put in front of your lens and use as a filter. We wanted to create a little bit of character so we looked at antique glass and the properties it had to distort or create gradients or even create colors on your pictures. On Instagram people use a lot of filters to insta-glorify their lives. And so we created a piece of jewellery which you can put in front of your lens and use it to insta-beautify your life. It was the first time that we got into production, manufacturing, distribution and sales of something that came out of the studio. It's an interesting journey. I've learned design, but I didn't learn business so it's all a learning process for me. It means that I do have to sit down every few months and ask myself: what am I doing? what did I want achieve? have I achieved it? where am I going? what have I learned? Every year I take some kind of course, whether how to make a business or how to create impact or how to do marketing or how does design become relevant in the business world. It is an emotional journey for me, because unfortunately I cannot separate work from private life. But it's not like I wrote a five year business plan and I am sticking to it. Because I literally have no idea where this path will take me, it is more organic as a process.
Sini: So where you end up comes naturally to you?
Talia: When you say it comes naturally to me, it means that I am doing it well and I wouldn't say that. I definitely make a lot of mistakes that could save a lot of anxiety. But it is OK, I am happy with the work that we have done and when I make a plan I definitely do leave time for things to happen. For example, starting Jelly Series as our own brand was the point from where I was finally able to go into the luxury area working with people like Lobmayr. Luxury for me is not about creating expensive objects, but to get to work with materials and people who do manual things. It's about working with craftsmen, who are artists in what they do and what they do costs a lot of money because of time it takes to make these things and the materials that are used.
Sini: There is a common idea that a lot of designers keep producing things that are unnecessary. Do you ever feel the need to justify or rationalise your work to yourself?
Talia: No I don't. Most of the things we do are made to communicate technology in a tangible form to a wide audience. I think of it as a creative exercise. Working with luxury companies, on the other hand, is also a great creative exercise. We are working with craftsmen who have lost their audience and maybe need their craft updated and that is probably what design can do. So, that's kind of great.
Sini: Do you feel there is a certain responsibility for you to design stuff that involves these people?
Talia: I was recently having a Twitter conversation with a designer, I admire a lot, who is currently wondering if she should she carry on working for a design company, which produces furniture and lighting, to just create more things or is there more impact behind design. The market is over saturated, 33000 new pieces of furniture and lighting come out every year just in Milan and that is rediculous. For me design can do so much more but at the same time, a chair not only is iconic, but also an easy way to showcase new manufacturing technologies or new material developments so at the same time, why not? And that is a question you have to ask yourself, what are you doing it for? Are you doing it to sell 100000 pieces or are you doing it showcase, to make a statement?
Sini: So, what are you doing it for?
Talia: I think survival (laughs). Also because I am interested in the exercise. I don't make chairs, I don't make tables. The production exercise for the Jelly Series, the creative exercise for the technology companies and of course we have the other part of the studio which is the social aspect. We spend up to 40% of our time working with NGOs or startups that are there to create impact. There we give our services for free or for very little money.
Sini: Last fall, immediately after the first wave of the refugees came to Austria, you were quick to get involved. Can you tell us how it all happened?
Talia: Last year, as everyone knows, the situation escalated with the amount of people entering Austria. It was unprecedented and to help ease the situation a lot of grass root movements formed, hundreds or thousands of people wanting to help. I looked at a very desperate situation, it was horrible. You could feel what people were feeling. I felt that it was not enough just to hand out apples. That's reacting, that's not being proactive. So I wondered what does it mean to be proactive and where do you have to help?
I was in contact with the editor of Dezeen, whom I told that I don't know what I can do as a designer, what is my position. He invited me to write an opinion column. Then I got in touch with Impact Hub Vienna and together we decided on a Refugees Welcome design hackathon to figure out what design can do. Next, Vienna Design Week said they loved the article and offered their platform to spread the word. We put up the Facebook page on Wednesday and then on Monday, the hackathon was happening with 20 people from all over Austria coming to participate. Which is incredible in such a short time!
Sini: The situation is still quite difficult and there is no simple solution for it. How do you see all this impacting your personal or professional life?
Talia: My grandfather smuggled my grandmother to Spain after the WW2. She was a refugee from Greece and he was from Belgium. I find it really troubling to see how unprepared we are to deal with a crisis situations even though who are alive fascism, war and migration problems have happened in Europe not that long ago
As a designer, there is only so much you can do because there are so many other things in play like changes in the political weather, policies, economy and in the end also people getting tired of wondering what to do. But at the same time, for me it is not just about this wave of migrants, I do believe that the migration is the problem of the 21st century. Through climate change, we're going to see a lot of migration happening because climate change is going to affect how much land is available and how much food is available, there is going to be water shortage, too much heat so people are going to naturally migrate and we have to react to it in a human way. What does that mean for design?
Sini: With your personal experiences and being a immigrant yourself, the issue is tangible to you. How do you see your place in Vienna?
Talia: Vienna is very progressive in terms of having a comfortable lifestyle without a need of having a large amount of money which is great for a creative person. Housing is affordable, food is affordable, water is for free. It also has a lot more to offer culturally than it used to. A couple of years ago I still had the mindset that if there is a new exhibition I would go and see it next month. Nowadays, if you don't go, tomorrow it won't be there anymore.
Sini: It has become your city.
Talia: It definitely is and I am really grateful it did, especially now that I am pregnant. You are supported by the state to have a child. There are not a lot of places in the world where you don't have to have existential anxiety simply because you are out of order for maybe up to a year of your life. And you can even be out of order for two years of your life here and city will still support you.
Sini: So the future for you is in Vienna?
Talia: At the moment, yes.
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