August 15, 2009

Helping Make Your Blue Sky Tangible

An Interview with Experimental Design Consultant Michael Kangas

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
click on any image to enlarge it to original size

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned from working with Beat Karrer so far?
Always have an escape plan!

Research – just as design – is neither an exact nor a certain science. There are risks. Things don’t often work the way you think they should and so it’s important to have a series of contingency plans in order for you to meet the expectations of your client.

Beat is a self-taught designer, so we have the same philosophy in that we don’t feel that design school training is the only way to become a designer. He’s very experienced and practical; I’m very analytical and radical in my way of thinking. It’s a nice combination and we work very well together.

And through this interesting ‘union’ we’ve created, we focus a lot on sustainable design. For everything we look at, we focus on aspects like: How costly is it to make? What does it take to produce it in terms of safety or the environment? Is there an alternative? I mean you often find that there’s some super simple alternatives out there that you can look at. Like when I worked with Beat at the course in France: we looked at using starch as a basic building block for materials, which meant that we were ultimately making very simple bio-polymers. And then we looked at some very basic biological mixtures using sugars or salts.

One lesson that’s important to keep in mind is that people are quite simple NOT going to buy a designer chair for 10’000 dollars that dissolves in the sun and rain after six months. But the designers might learn that they can indeed make something that fits certain targets – again like dissolving away instead of needing to be thrown into a landfill – or that it can even be made cheaply on a larger scale. So then the design approach changes based on what you can achieve. That’s one great thing also about working with Beat and his team: for us, design doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘high-end’ to be good design. It just has to be good, it has to be affordable, it has to just be able to do what people want in a nice attractive way and it needs to be something that you’ll remember.

Looking back then at your processes and the example you used of looking more closely at wood: What’s the next step after seeing a picture of the microscopic pattern of a material?
Well, it’s really then up to your imagination and creativity. Again just using wood as an example, what you see is that it is very porous and perforated. So perhaps you think you could make a kind of screen or light cover with it. It’s about taking the characteristics that you don’t ‘just’ see and thinking how you can make something new. It’s about looking at it in different ways, looking deeper. It’s about looking at the chemistry and microscopic structure of wood, including even how different varieties of wood that could be mixed somehow to make a new styling point.

In my experience, I’ve learned that these kind of examinations can take you – or better said the designer – off in a completely different direction. So many designers tell me they’d just love to find new outlets for their materials and designs! That’s where I come in. I’m certainly not an expert – but I can guide them. I have a fairly good eye for different things that I think they might be looking for. Again, maybe though microscopy or basic elemental analyses, we can see something new or at least new to them together.

Plus, I look at a lot of different materials, which includes even the materials that might interact with the designed objects themselves later on. Like if you’re making a glass for wine or beer, well, I might ask why we don’t look at the chemistry of these liquids as well? Who knows, maybe this ‘research’ can then be used as an inspiration for an object – which will obviously be realised with a different material. Then, you have the potential to find a starting point to create something which is often very different, very alien to what people are used to. I mean, there’s a millions of wine glass designs out there, so how can you do it differently?

What you find then is that people in this business are very often struggling with originality, I mean, really true originality. People are very creative but to be original – and to be consistently original – is the difference between very successful designers and those that struggle to survive. It’s about being original and different and being able to hold on to success. It’s about ‘what’s next?’

What kind of clients do you like working with the most?
I like to interact with people who really want to push the boundaries; I’m not really interested in working with people who are fixed in one mindset. I want to interact with people who want to be different! But it’s not just about being different per se; I mean, you can do some crazy shit if you want to. Instead, it’s about being different AND making something that can stand on it’s own, something that has functionality as well as aesthetics. Otherwise what you end up with is just conceptual art.

I also get really turned off by design that is too ‘safe’ and predictable. So I’m looking to team up with people that want to bring something new to the market. It doesn’t have to necessarily be something completely unusual for the designers themselves, but I do want to bring a new way of looking at things, a new perspective, a new chance to be creative in a unique way. It’s about being able to look at things through this alien perspective – and also being able to do that for many, many years. This to me is the key to survival.

Is it sometimes a disadvantage for you that you do NOT having a design background?
I really feel it’s important that I’m not from a realm where I’ve been taught design. Sure when you meet a lot of new designers coming out of school, you get the feeling that design is taught in a very procedural way. But no one has shown me how to use materials or pointed out how you shape them, so I don’t have any preconceptions or ‘rules’ stuck in my mind.

So I definitely find it advantageous that I’m not constrained by this typical design dogma. And I really think it is a dogma. The fact that I’m not constrained means I have a hell of a lot of freedom and flexibility in the way I approach my work, which has been very refreshing to the people I’ve encountered and worked with so far.

Are you busy promoting your services or do you essentially wait for clients to find you?
No, I’m definitely going out there and promoting my services. What I’m doing at the moment – for example, as with Beat – is setting up signed agreements with clients. These are typically agreements where we negotiate a royalty percentage based on the sales of pieces resulting for our work together. There’s about 3 or 4 projects like that that we – Beat and I – have going already.

In addition, it’s important to know that I also go out and try to generate business for HIS studios. Part of my service is to talk to commercial companies of all sizes and try to get them interested in setting up deals. And again I negotiate a royalty fee based on sales for either group.

Are you seeing a demand for any one particular ‘service’ that you can offer?
In terms of how the business is shaping up recently, my work is leaning towards performing a great deal of materials research as well as acting as an ‘ideas generator’ for my clients. The bottom-line is that I’m working with studios to develop their business creatively and in new directions. Again, as a first step, if someone comes to me with a problem to work on, I will go away and investigate it very thoroughly. And you don’t have to be an expert but you have to be able to access the information out there, that will only be found in a completely different world than most designers typically are involved with.

So really for now, it’s the projects that I receive that dictate what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. I’m not seeking expertise in any single, well-defined area and then going out and trying to sell that know-how per se. But I am using my familiarity with one world – or one language – to help others that speak yet another language to understand each other and be able to use this information.

What is the most important aspect of your scientific education that you’ve been able to bring to the design world?
I suppose I bring creativity to the design world from a strongly trained and experienced analytical perspective. Science provides just another way of thinking. Plus, as you know if you’ve worked at all in a big company, you can understand as well how this gives you a sense of urgency and really helps you realize the importance of efficient project execution.

An important key as well is that I’ve realised very quickly that it is quite challenging to work with super creative people. Using my experiences at Boisbuchet as an example, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people who have studied and are studying at the best design schools in the world including the Royal College of Art, ECAL, and more. However, creativity is not enough to be a successful designer. It takes common sense, project management skills and awareness that once you have a design task, it needs to be executed quickly and efficiently using the available resources and materials.

I’ve already seen so many examples of great ideas which are completely unrealistic and unachievable in the amount of time that is available. But with my own strong project management background, I have the ‘advantage’ if you will that I don’t waste time day-dreaming and going off on tangents. If I have an idea, I play with it in my mind, plan how I can realise it, gather the available materials, execute, assess what went right and what went wrong. I then record my findings, clean up afterwards and put my tools away for others to use.

Are you seeing any particular design trends through your consulting work?
There is a trend I see – and I’m exploring this as well for example for other design-related web articles – where a lot of people are currently trying to aspire to do something in a more ‘scientific’ direction of design. What label you give it – if any – I really don’t know. But these days, all kinds of people are looking at molecular structures and at nature in a much deeper way. And when you are able to look at something like this – even a material that seems basic on the surface – you can actually see something pretty amazing. It’s not only looking at in a different way in terms of design but with a different technological perspective as well.

I feel that the trick is to have something so different that it is on one hand unique but at the same time people can still have a basic understanding or appreciation for it. For example, I’m personally very interested in magnetism. This is a thing people understand on a basic level – along with electricity. There are also other very ‘simple’ forces like gravity or even vibration which are subjects we’re exploring for use in design. And there’s so much out there that we could apply such concepts or new discoveries to.

I think creativity can only take you so far. It’s also about translating that into something which is tangible but also practical. There are a lot of great ideas that only stay at the concept phase.

Can you share a little bit about the projects you’ve worked on to-date? Are there any examples that we may be seeing on the streets or in the shops one day very soon?
Since I work under confidentiality agreements with my clients, the only thing I can say is that we are working on a range of projects for international clients. At the moment, these projects range from interior lighting through to architectural facades.

However, I can tell you that I will be releasing a product under the Dry Ice Design label this coming Autumn through YDM in Basel. It’s an outdoor lantern made from bio-polymers that will be ideal for use in colder months. The design will incorporate a ‘snapshot of summer’ that will remind people of the light and warmth of summer during the darkness cold of winter. When spring arrives, the lantern will dissolve and return back to nature.

Before we finish up, I am very curious to know: Why the name ‘Dry Ice Design’?
Well the official answer is that I think this name conveys the scientific edge of my approach to design. It’s a name that captures what I am all about.

The more personal answer would be, however, is that I just like dry ice. It’s blisteringly cold and hard, yet it’s just compressed carbon dioxide. It’s a simple, invisible gas transformed by man into something tangible. I just somehow like opposing elements. Hot and cold; hard and soft; sharp and blunt; positive and negative.

What are your plans for the future in terms of how you see your consultant work developing?
The work with Studio Beat Karrer is going well and I expect that this will continue moving forward. As you know, I’m also doing some journalism work for BASF for their XYMARA brand ( ). Design communications is an area that I would like to spend more time pursuing. My web-site is also being upgraded over the coming weeks and I’ve got a HOT web designer called Tom Jef from London working on this. Before I just needed a ‘starter’ web-page but because things have been happening and developing so fast over the past months, I need to upgrade. There are so many projects going on that I need a slick virtual space to profile them all! If all goes according to plan, this will be up and running by the end of this month (August ‘09)!

How about Michael Kangas himself? What’s next for this young man from North Queensland, Australia?
My partner and I have recently bought a new apartment in Basel, so we are busy designing the interior and exterior spaces. Thankfully, the project management is being handled by a
good architectural practice and we are left to run wild with the ideas! It’s nice to have the tables turned sometimes!

At the moment, we’re leaning towards having pretty ‘restrained’ interior with bamboo and polished concrete flooring, a straight forward
Le Corbusier colour palette brightened up selectively with statement textile-holographic wall coverings from Switzerland’s Jakob Schläpfer and hand-printed pieces from the late Australian socialite Florence Broadhurst. Lighting will be a mix of Flos and Foscarini. The end result should be somewhere in between a minimalist wine bar and the movie ‘Gidget Goes Hawaiian’.


Michael Kangas can be reached via his web-site or by email at . If you’re looking for a new way to use an ‘old’ material, or just feel like having a jolt of inspiration, give him a shout!

Also watch for more pending articles by Michael, for example, at as well as his new web-site. Be there! Aloha! Or is that 'G'day Mate'?


All pictures used with permission of or provided by Michael Kangas and appear either on his own web-site or
that of Beat Karrer. For more information, please contact Michael directly.

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