Industrial Designer Neil Cohen
How do you transform ordinary stuff into meaningful things, even beautiful things? How you make things that don’t yet exist, something original rather than a copy? That’s the topic of this conversation between New York-based industrial designer Neil Cohen and Dale Dougherty of Make Magazine. “Some of what I do in my work is making something that starts out one way,” he says, “And then when you do something to it, it forms into something else or reveals something else.”
Neil is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and after college, he got on a motorcycle going around the country to see what products companies were making. After that tour, he working in Steuben glass factory, exploring ideas in glass-making. He has designed toys, which allowed him to play with shrink wrap and make gargoyles out of Alka Seltzer tablets. He talks about how sometimes it’s not the banana, but the banana peel that becomes the thing you make. It’s not always what you first set out to make; it’s what you discover while making it.
I’ve been making things since I was a real young child. We had a basement and a backyard and an entire neighborhood where you could do things with the things you made. And so I started making things of my own, including all the plans from Popular Science, like hang gliders and sail cars and things that had motors on them.
I think it takes a bit of play really. And I think that for successful people in any area, there’s a risk and there’s a sense of playfulness that one might acquire over time that says, I should try that, or I can do that. Or why does it do that? And I think those are some of the best questions to start out with is looking at something or maybe imagining something that you’d like to do to try to figure out how am I going to get there?
And I think that’s the fun of it is when you finally get there and tell people how you got there, they were very surprised. And you look at them and say, It seems natural to me to stand this way or turn it upside down or turn it inside out, or rip it in half and put the two ends together that weren’t touching. And now it works.
A mentor of mine, a teacher, professor at Rhode Island School of Design said to me: “Neil, every year or so we find someone who comes in with a lot. And what we try to do is unwind that one person and rewind them. They’ve got everything they need without us, but we unwind that and turn it into something that can be set loose in the world and be productive.” And I really appreciated that because I know they were talking about me at that time and what it is I might do and bring to the world and the profession
I had a trip I took right after college. I bought myself a nice two- cylinder BMW motorcycle, and I packed it with a Kodak slide reel and some clothes, and I drove it to almost 40 States in the United States, I stopped at phone booths, know what those are? I looked at yellow pages and tore the pages out for companies that do design work and that have industrial design departments.
And I’ve probably made over a hundred interviews with no intent on staying anywhere. And it confused everyone I interviewed .They said, so are you going to be in town or are you going to stay in Cincinnati? You’re going to, and I said, Nope, just interviewing and they wondered what are you doing that for it? I said, I want to see what everyone’s doing. And I want to show everyone what I’ve been doing.
I’ve been in lots of glass factories in the world where they didn’t know what I meant. They didn’t know what I really wanted. And I would say to them to their surprise, let me show you, I can do it. Let me show you what I mean. And I would do things in their factory that they didn’t do because they weren’t willing to exploit the tools.
And they had such a strong technical ethic that they weren’t willing to go outside of the technical realm that they were familiar with. And I said, it doesn’t matter right now. It’s not a product. There’s no commerce. There’s nothing. Let me just show you what I mean. And what I mean is the thing I’ve become really good at conveying to people who have to make it on the other side, but knowing what it should or couldn’t do.
And so ideas of this material over another material, as a toy, a doll that you could walk away with and play with all come from my own play in my studio. And it’s messy and it’s dirty. And there’s scraps that look like something, and you look at them and you say, actually, the scrap is more important than the thing that I made. Forget the thing I made, let me exploit the scrap. That’s what it is. The result of this, the garbage, the leftover, the banana peel, not the banana. And you have to be looking at that stuff all the time to say, I know I’m going down this path over here, but.
Don’t forget to look over there because there’s something over there.