I met with Samira Boon earlier this year at her studio in Amsterdam, while on a trip around Europe and Asia to talk with people who are carrying the profession of architecture in new directions. I admit this is a bit of a red herring, because practice is always changing, but we are now witnessing a period where outliers are becoming a bit mainstream, even rewarded for their efforts. Which makes it absolutely the best time to talk with them.
architects are simply, bluntly, interested in working outside the old system because that’s where the real innovation and challenges are to be found.My main interest in outliers like Samira is how they got started, how they keep things going, and in the end, what the motivation was and is for the whole thing. Surely some new approaches are borne of desperation, and some as a result of access to technology, but there is a more interesting possibility that I am holding out for – that architects are simply, bluntly, interested in working outside the old system because that’s where the real innovation and challenges lie. Whatever the motivation, there is without a doubt a new kind of practice going on, in small but significant numbers of fascinating people.
That’s my stance anyway. Recently I was asked by my employer, Keio University, to help with the mildly surreal task of setting up a program that supports students who are thinking about starting a business (or an NPO, because not everything needs to be measured in dollars). The very idea of architecture students doing any such thing sounds unlikely on the face of it, so we looked for some examples. The idea is that if we can gather enough great case studies then the path forward for our students might feel a bit more inevitable, or at least not as daunting.
My impression is that she has become a kind of symbol of excellent Dutch design – in Japan at least.Meeting with Samira was part of that process, and she kindly agreed to let me share some of what we talked about. The interview below is an edited version of a discussion we had last March in Amsterdam. It has a bit of a back story. Before meeting with Samira I already knew most of the simple facts about her and her work in Tokyo, where she started her practice. I knew that she was trained as an architect at TU Delft in The Netherlands, and that she completed her master’s degree in architecture at the University of Tokyo in Japan. I also knew that Samira famously started her design and manufacturing company while still a student, and that in recent years she has turned to an interesting series of research-led design projects focusing on making 3D fabrics. Her design work is invariably mentioned by Dutch visitors to Tokyo, and the last time I went to an event at the Dutch embassy I swear pretty much everybody was making use of her very clever business-card holders. My impression is that she has become a kind of symbol of excellent Dutch design – in Japan at least. I should also disclose before going further that my office partner was a classmate and good friend of Samira and that we make use of many of her products in our office and homes.
Will Galloway: Your work speaks for itself as far as design goes, but what I am curious about is how you began? How do go from being a student in Tokyo, to starting a design business and eventually becoming completely immersed in research on structural textiles?
Samira Boon: Well, it wasn’t a very decisive moment, in terms of, “OK, I don’t want to be involved in architecture anymore.” I was focusing on a research project and meanwhile I wanted to be involved in more hands-on developments. Not specifically with my own hands, but more into products for example. They have a shorter production time to realize, and during my stay in Japan, there was a master class in the Dutch textile museum, given by a Japanese fashion designer, Yoshiki Hishinuma. And basically everybody who applied for this master course was asked to have a background in textiles, which I did not have. I was still very much attracted to it so I very quickly made some samples, with very basic knowledge, and was [accepted as] a wild card.
So you snuck into this textile design master class.
Exactly. I think the fact that I didn’t know anything [forced me] to set up a kind of small research between how yarn would influence structures on the weaving machine. And that gave a lot of insight. I wasn’t focusing on visual outcomes. It was very much the basic ingredients of the weaving machine. Then about eight years ago I started with three-dimensional textile developments. And I think within two years I was at a certain point that we could start collaborating with architects.
Is there something in your architecture training that makes that possible?
I think so. Because of my architectural background I’m very spatially oriented. Textiles are usually held flat when they are being presented. It’s two dimensional, how we see it, more like a curtain. There are not many objects, so to say. And in our latest research project, for the textile museum here in the Netherlands, we are really focusing on how to get three-dimensional structures out of the machine, out of the looms. It is also the way you talk of course; your vision towards space.
I notice you make models.
Yeah. I think it helps us to understand what we are aiming for. I think usually textiles are either being framed on a panel, or there is a second structure which holds the fabric. But really generating folding structures out of textile is a different approach.
Can you describe your current profession?
I try to figure out interesting applications for textiles, rather than the textiles only. For example, we developed a project with a textile that is heat sensitive – it changes colour when it comes into contact with different temperatures. So we used it in a research project in an elevator, where everybody is forced into each other’s comfort zones and they react by trying to stand as close to the walls as possible. Automatically they touch the wall and the pattern changes from a flat grey colour to a pattern created from their own hands. Of course it depends whether people notice, but it definitely influences the social interaction within the elevator. The place where you do this kind of intervention is important.
How do you reconcile your textiles with your other projects? Do you think of that work in the same way? For example I saw some of your plastic works on display at the Shibaura house in Tokyo, spread out over the windows.
Sometimes your profession goes out of the box, especially here in the Netherlands. It is not only one core that you should stick to.It’s quite a different project, it’s a very different material, but the research about the properties of the material at the core is the same. [For the sankaku mado project,] the way it was elaborated, how to use these material properties, was really based in a simple shape that could generate a lot of different structures or images. The triangle is simple by itself, but by combining you get so many possibilities.
But you described yourself as a textile applicator. Does that fit into the same place?
It’s a bit different. On the one hand I am focused with all the research on textiles and gained a lot of expertise in this field. At the same time, on another project, where we work with other scientists and architects and manufacturers on a dementia project, we like to generate interesting designs…well, objects, which concentrate on physical movement. That includes various skills – it can be from a bicycle size, a rowing machine, hacked to make it accessible for the users, so it doesn’t look like an exercise machine. Sometimes your profession goes out of the box, especially here in the Netherlands. It is not only one core that you should stick to.
This is a bit of a loaded question, because you have built your career by leaving architecture. Still I wonder, do you feel you would like to return?
I think it’s better to think in terms of, what is architecture? Looking here at the architects around me, at least the ones I collaborate with, there are various firms [doing things like designing] a lamp for Droog Design, to large steel bridges for example. So the word “architect” is, these days, used for people who collaborate with a lot of people.
In that way are you the same?
I like to collaborate because the project range will be very diverse. I think also the spatial context is very important.
Do you see yourself doing buildings someday then?
[Pause] No. Well, you can’t aim for everything. These days the technical developments of textiles are amazing. There is a proposal for a carbon-fibre tower for instance, which is light weight. The structure is very profound. So I would say within the future we could build architecture with textiles. But which properties of textiles do you use?
I wanted to ask something from the perspective of how you build a business. As you know in our office in Tokyo, we started a practice by accident. It wasn’t that there was nothing. We had a thought, that it would be nice to have an office, but we didn’t have anything like a five step plan that said do this, then do that. What kind of path did you take to build your current business and profession?
Well no, there were a lot of side-tracks of course. It was also more or less by accident that I started a company in Tokyo. It wasn’t that there was a specific day when I said: from today, I will have a company.
What was the accident?
It first started with the small products. I guess I was very eager to explore and just to discover how I could make things. And the outcome was a couple of products, and people around me were very enthusiastic and they said hey, this definitely should be sold. I didn’t know, but it turned out there were several stores that were very interested. And I think within a month or so it was shown on television.
These are the stories people hate to hear. It took you a month to start a successful business?
Of course it does not always go like this. Doing research on innovative textiles or whatever, it also causes troubles. Because you come up with things that people don’t immediately see an application for.
Going back a bit, the first project you did was to print animals on facemasks [for people to wear in public when they're sick]. Why did you do that? Was it because of the sad white face masks that are part of Japanese culture?
It was a hell of a job.No, I was just imagining it would be very enjoyable. I started to imagine myself what could be behind the face. What is the mask hiding? And this was the fantasy.
And after that, you did the furoshiki. And that was also something you were just trying?
I was figuring out what could be nice to do with the material. And several museum shops thought it might be a good risk to start selling them. Luckily I was helped by my fellow Japanese students to approach these stores. The first prototypes were handmade in the evening hours... and the masks I also did by hand, just with normal iron-on paper. It was a hell of a job.
So how do you go from making things by hand to actually producing them professionally?
That was quite a different story, because then you kind of realize you are starting a business. Again, helped by fellow Japanese students and with the help of people in the field, you start to find factories to produce the work. It’s always difficult to enter, to set the best price for the factory costs and to manage expenses of course. So it was a challenge. In the last four or five years we really had to shift. Because we joined Tokyo Design Week. And it took off, and I have a person in Japan helping out two days a week even now with sales. We still have quite some production in Japan, which for the Japanese market works very well. After that, depending on the project, we need to find new production places. For example, for an interior project for a major bank here in the Netherlands, we designed floor to ceiling wall coverings, and for that we needed to find a company that could produce three-meter wide textiles on the looms.
What do you see next?
Well, in our most recent project we set out some very nice parameters for folded [structural] textiles, which come straight out of the machine in different patterns. All of the folding lines are pre-programmed. The application possibilities run from architecture to fashion, and everything in between. With these textiles we are aiming at building structural properties within the folds, and now we are about to really “unfold” the possibilities. We will become a kind of collaborator with the manufacturers. Site specific applications with architects is really the focus, but it could also be a larger scale (as a product). Also interactive textiles are very interesting. Not only for their own sake but to examine how they might have meaningful functional properties.
The scale keeps getting bigger.
Well, you discover more. By gaining all the knowledge in the act of figuring out how things can be applied, the skill set becomes larger. But also smaller, or more refined. For example in this project for dementia care we are focused on tactility on a small scale. And where does it really make sense to use what we know. Tactility in the late phase of dementia is really important because it can slow down the degeneration of the brain. So gaining the knowledge makes the possibilities wider. I would rather see it as that, rather than the idea of growing along a path towards expansion.
As a final comment, when you asked if I would go back to architecture or make a building, I said very strongly "no". I would like to change the answer. Not that I am aiming for making a building, but if it came as a natural step, I could see it happening. If it felt natural.
I split my days between Keio University and frontoffice tokyo. frontoffice is a planning and architecture firm located in the heart of what is (for now) still the largest mega-city in the world, Tokyo. Taking advantage of our location we are interested in how we can build better places ...