Architect Liz Diller on her wearable luggage for Prada
Liz Diller is playing with magnets. The architect, founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), professor at Princeton University, designer of architecture made out of clouds and honeycomb concrete panels, recent opera producer, all-round MVP of the international architectural scene, and recent fashion designer for Prada, is trying to get her ‘Yoke’ to work.
The ‘Yoke’ – as she and Prada are calling one of two pieces DS+R recently prototyped for the fashion company – is a deceptively simple piece: a clutch-shaped bag (Purse? Piece of luggage? The lack of clarity is sort of the point) that can be opened up, its magnetised sections pulled apart to expand the interior space, and placed on the shoulders. It’s like a clutch backpack, or a stole with pockets, or a wallet that happens to stretch across the neck.
The piece is startlingly obvious – of course we should be using our shoulders to store our possessions – and totally unexpected: have you ever seen anyone wear a yoke? She puts it on over her fine dark sweater. The ‘Yoke’ rests against the back of Diller’s neck, slipping over her shoulders. She could put a wallet in there. Maybe a pen. Probably 17 pens. A notebook. A card carrier. Definitely an iPhone.
It’s a lot of stuff to put on your shoulders, but then again, that’s what the ‘Yoke’ aims to draw attention to. ‘I was really interested in the shoulders as a kind of unrecognised, heroic part of the body,’ Diller says. ‘The shoulders always take this abusive amount of weight,’ she adds, describing how she carries her huge laptop bag around with her all the time, and looking half-aghast at the brutality she inflicts on her own shoulders.
Diller met Miuccia Prada through a mutual friend early last year. In July, she was approached by Prada to produce two pieces for its second Invites series (previous participants include the Bouroullec brothers, Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas). ‘I was really overjoyed,’ she says, to receive the commission, even though (or maybe because) the brief was vague, the only directive being to use Prada’s famed black nylon. The time frame was short and, by all indications, purposefully so. Diller and the two other participating architects in the series’ all-female line-up, Kazuyo Sejima and Cini Boeri, were all asked around the same time. ‘I think they thought of it as a moment of inspiration,’ Diller says of the compressed schedule. ‘On Project Runway you only have 30 minutes.’
Andreas Kostopoulos, a designer at DS+R, worked closely with Diller on developing both the ‘Yoke’ and the second piece, the ‘Envelope’, a garment bag that turns into an A-line cape that turns into a coat that turns, when you cinch it at the waist, into a dress. It was inspired by the structure of Victorian clothes, and by what Diller calls a ‘flirt’ between the categories of luggage and fashion. ‘I started to think about whether to make an accessory, or a piece of luggage, or a garment,’ Diller recalls. ‘And somehow “garment” and “bag” came together and it was just a little bit of a flash: why can’t we wear a piece of luggage?’ After some sketching, the team got thinking about how hangers are basically artificial shoulders. ‘We realised the obvious thing to hang from the shoulders is a garment bag,’ Kostopoulos says. DS+R produced its own prototype, and then Prada fully executed both pieces in nylon.
That iterative process was formalised in the labelling: the ‘Yoke’ has a line reading: ‘From: Elizabeth Diller / To: Prada’. Asked why they went with this epistolary move, Kostopoulos says it was an extension of the collaborative feeling, and also a way to honour the flurry of emails that went back and forth between DS+R and Prada. ‘Mrs Prada wanted all the collaborators to write a letter to her, and asked us to design a logo,’ he says. ‘We thought this was an easy way to describe the idea of a collaboration without doing the clichéd X.’
‘Both of these [items] are functional, that’s the starting point,’ Diller says, returning to the two delicately wrapped pieces in front of her. She outlines a perfect use for the finished garment bag: someone could wear it over a dress and raincoat on the way to the airport, where she could take it off, fold it up and carry it just like a light bag. That’s where the magic is for Diller: in the transitions.
That’s also where the collaboration fits into so much of DS+R’s work. Its projects are always in motion in some way, transforming between one idea and the next. The Blur Building, the practice’s reputation-making project for Swiss Expo 2002, was all about capturing a literal transformation – water vapour over a lake in Switzerland. Other transformative projects include Los Angeles’ The Broad museum (W*191 and W*199), which boasts a veil-like façade that makes it seem like it is always on the verge of winking at you, and most recently, The Shed arts centre, which opened on 5 April as part of Manhattan’s massive Hudson Yards development and features an outer shell that telescopes to change what the outside looks like and what the inside feels like.
And so the ‘Envelope’ and the ‘Yoke’ aren’t a departure from architecture for Diller. They’re just more conversations and iterations of the kind of work she’s always done. ‘I see the product of everything I do and my studio does as architecture, but at the edge of other art forms,’ she says. ‘When I do a building or a garment, I don’t see them as different; they’re just in a different scale in relationship to the body.’ §