Architect and founding partner of experimental design studio The Principals, Drew Seskunas grew up surfing, getting arrested for skateboarding and navigating the social divide between jocks and artists. In high school, a documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright piqued his interest and set him on course to architecture school. Within a decade, he was building a large public project in Berlin while struggling to argue in German. Now, he’s creating interactive and mind-bending environments that shift perspectives. Listen:
What is your earliest memory?
It’s probably an amalgam of images and stories I have heard, but in my mind’s eye there is a cat, possibly named Bosco, under a Christmas tree in my parent’s rowhouse in the Northwood neighborhood of Baltimore.
How do you feel about democratic design?
I think in a capitalist society all design is democratic in the sense that it only survives if the public deems there’s a need or value to it. The rub is trying to figure out as a member of the public, what you actually value versus what you have been trained to value.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
Your greatest value as a creative person is your unique perspective. Don’t waste your time trying to make things for anyone else’s approval (see above, they have all been trained to want the status quo anyway), make what comes from your perspective and worry later about who wants it.
How do you record your ideas?
I have a small notebook with extremely messy, illegible notes. Mainly I make little paper models and photograph them or create rhino models of ideas. I also have a running list of interesting quotes I come across on my phone, which gets lost every time I get a new one.
What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?
Cardstock paper, an exacto blade and a hot glue gun. Translated to folded anodized aluminum (Prism Planters)
What book is on your nightstand?
“I had nowhere to go” by the Lithuanian/American filmmaker Jonas Mekas. The book is Mekas’ journal during WWII when he had to leave Lithuania after the Soviet Invasion and ended up in Forced Labor and Displaced Persons camps. Ultimately he landed in New York as a political refuge, establishing himself as an artist/filmmaker in the 1950’s and 60’s. My father is Lithuanian and was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Augsburg, Germany just after WWII ended. He also came through New York and Brooklyn’s immigrant community in the early 1950’s but his family ended up moving south to Baltimore where I grew up. My wife and I now live blocks away from where Jonas Mekas lived in Brooklyn in the 1950’s. It’s shocking how effortlessly history drifts away.
Why is authenticity in design important?
I would argue that authenticity as an ideal or goal is either impossible or irrelevant. I think it’s more important to understand your relationship to authenticity and play with that in how you create, than it is to try to achieve it. Authenticity is like the sun; you can position yourself in relation to it, but never fully inhabit it.
Favorite restaurant in your city?
My wife and I are vegetarians, but the pizza/bagel kind, so we eat a lot of pasta and nachos.
A list of places we eat nachos:
The Big Whiskey
Forget Me Not
The Yellow Kittens (My favorite nachos of all time, but on Block Island, RI)
What might we find on your desk right now?
I just bought a book surveying Olafur Eliasson’s studio from The Strand. It has interviews with his staff and collaborators and behind the scenes images. He’s always been in some ways an inspiration, in other ways a cautionary tale to me. I’m a junkie for that sort of inside take of any grand artist studio and it reminds me of my days in Europe working for Arne Quinze when his studio was a similar size and structure.
Who do you look up to and why?
My parents and my wife’s parents for sure: people who’ve lived their lives in the pursuit of knowledge, and aged with dignity while continuing to be inspired by and curious about the world around them.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?
I love them all, but one of the most recent ones was extremely rewarding. I designed a large public sculpture in collaboration with Gabriela Salazar for a park up in the Bronx. There is a bridge overpass that crosses the park that is heavily foot trafficked. Every time I was there working on installing the piece, not a day went by that someone didn’t yell down, “You’re doing a great job!” or, “Looks great!” It didn’t matter who was walking by: high school kids, middle-aged or older folks, everyone would yell down voicing their support. I’ve never had such a consistent amount of positivity and community support. It felt amazing because obviously I am excited about what this piece will be, but for the community to let you know they feel the same way reinforces the effort if took to get through all those dark hours questioning the validity of what you’re doing that led up to this moment.
What are the last five songs you listened to?
In autobiographical order and without shame:
“Four Strong Winds” -Ian and Sylvia
One of the earliest songs my father ever taught me on guitar, probably 1986 or 87, and one he asked me to play at his funeral.
“What I Got” - Sublime
Performed by Me and Chas Constantine (former partner and co-founder of The Principals) at Loch Raven High School’s 1999 talent show (I’m pictured playing guitar, Chas is singing. Spoiler alert: we did not win).
“I’ll be Surprised” - Skinnyman
From one of my favorite skate videos of all time, Neil Smith’s part in Blueprint’s “Lost and Found” 2005. Shout out to Kyle Nichols for bringing this over to watch in my apartment on Newton Street in Mount Pleasant, Washington DC.
“Maybe in the Meantime” - Spacehog
I played on a soccer team with Johnny Cragg, the drummer of Spacehog, in a tournament organized by Adidas in 2013. My wife saw me playing and a few weeks later she saw me again at Max Fish and introduced herself.
“Heart Shaped Face” - Angel Olsen
I recently collaborated with Angel on a project for NYCxDesign at Sight Unseen’s OFFSITE 2018. We made a machine that 3D prints music, then sand cast the wax prints out of aluminum. They were sold as candle holders to benefit VH1’s Save the Music Foundation. I used this song during the prototyping and development process and must have listened to it hundreds of times, but I still like it.