Seven Questions for Designer Rama Chorpash, Director of Product Design at Parsons

Rama Chorpash has designed Swatch watches, furniture, and more clever kitchen utensils than you can shake a pair of grater tongs at. When he’s not creating cool stuff with the likes of Herman Miller and the Public Art Fund, he’s an associate professor and the director of product design at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. Recently, his Spiraloop potato masher made the cut for the MoMA Design Store’s “Destination: NYC” selection of designed-in-NYC, made-in-the-USA products.

“In 1936 MoMA’s exhibition ‘Machine Art’ featured just that: carriage springs, boat propellers, and so forth,” says Chorpash. “For the Destination: NYC open call, I wanted to redraw public attention towards reconnecting people’s consciousness to where things come from, and how they express their industrialization.” Having recently returned from a residency at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (as cool as it sounds), he made time to tell us about his smashing masher, what’s next on his summer to-do list, and a memorable encounter with a Brazilian taxi driver.

What is the “Spiraloop”?
Spiraloop is a vegetable/potato masher. With so much pre-made food in New York City, I wanted to create a product (humble as it may be) that would encourage people to cook in their own kitchens.

Made of super quality 316 stainless steel, it features ergonomic spring tensile “spring-back” characteristics typically found with utensils made from multiple materials such as rigid plastics combined with soft silicon. Unlike Spiraloop, such co-injection molded materials are typically “monstrous hybrids” and cannot be separated and reclaimed. While Spiraloop will last a long time, it is also 100% recyclable.

What was it like working with manufacturer Lee Spring, founded in 1918?
They do great work, and it was a pleasure to work with them. While they are a successful global company with production and distribution across the United States as well as in Mexico, the United Kingdom, and China, my interest was in working with them locally, to shorten the supply-chain between design, production, and consumption. Spiraloop was designed in New York City, made in New York City, to be sold in New York City. I call this localized making “Manufacturing in Place.” Think of a farmers’ market, the locally produced produce (goods) are shipped the shortest distance and rely upon regional needs and constraints.

The walk down the hill from my home in St. George to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal looks across the bay to the BKLYN Army Terminal. In researching who would produce the Spiraloop, Lee’s locality was ideal. A short drive over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and I was at their headquarters. First founded in Brooklyn nearly a century ago, they really enjoyed to flex their manufacturing muscle locally.

Do you think that consumers are becoming more conscious of how and where products are produced?
Certainly consumers are beginning to question how their purchasing effects economic stability (jobs) as well as ecological and safety practices. What parent doesn’t look where their child’s toy is made or have concern over vibrant yellows or deep reds regarding potential lead oxides? Regrettably, while products with many parts often translates to small hands and long working hours, many people still look a blind eye and focus on final price as their main criteria.

Generally, the developed world has lost touch with where things come from, and don’t possess basic making knowledge to assess quality or provenance. Electronics and appliances are often hermetically sealed and are unrepairable. Corporations have taken to creating elaborate service systems which further separates users from their things. All this said, the maker movement is a disruptive force, and citizens are actively cultivating DIY knowledge. Consumers have a newly minted license that includes a array of online tools and tutorials teaching everything from how to jailbreak their products, to strategies for extending product life. Such emerging hands-on knowledge is promising. Product designers can play an important role here helping their designs to become more open-ended and participatory platforms.

What did you do during your recent residency at Haystack in Deer Isle, Maine?
I spent a portion of my time writing a white paper about “Manufacturing in Place” as well as having spirited discourse with the other internationally-renowned craftspeople and artists. The place is magical: To live, eat, and work (with studios open 24/7) in this secluded place with such remarkable making facilities is unparalleled. Haystack’s director, Stuart Kestenbaum, has done a remarkable job choosing participants as well as facilitating creative exchange.

I also traveled to the local “dump” to see firsthand how Deer Isle dealt with their waste. Created from a bulldozed clearing in an immaculate spruce wooded area, the boundary was made from 30 foot tall mounds of refuse. There were sorted tires, furniture, broken lobster traps, and so forth. A management shack centered between the rubbish dunes had an open-stud room with a “take-it-or-leave-it” sign filled with filthy odds and ends. Left in that room, by individuals who saw some value in the garbage, I found three poorly repaired and damaged mid-century Danish modern chairs. Returning to my Haystack studio, I removed inadequately repaired horizontal chair rails, stripped a hazed finish back to raw teak wood, and set out to design and recreate an entirely new chair from the intact side panels. The result was a sparingly sleek twelve-legged chair which I call the “Take-It-or-Leave-It Chair.” I made other items including an expressive fruit bowl from the chair-backs. My labor is usually spend in front of a computer, so the direct hands-on time was really special. I want more!

Any other exciting summer travels planned?
The second week of July I’ll be at the McCoy’s High Ground conversation “overlooking the Continental Divide high in the Colorado Rockies.” Tucker Viemeister and I are sharing a cabin. I traveled a lot internationally for work this past year and am now slowing down a bit to be more local—with my family. My wife and our two-year-old will taking trips to Long Island staying with friends in the North Fork and Montauk. In August I’ll be in Chicago at the Industrial Designers Society of America International Conference presenting two new white papers. IDSA typically posts them online in September. Please take a look.

What’s on your summer reading list?
Some unpublished fiction from an experimental architect friend as well as papers from IDSA’s international conference, as I’m invited to moderate some of the presentation sections. I also have a stack of new books to peruse including Albrecht‘s tome on Norman Bel Geddes; Jencks and Silver‘s Adhocism; Radjou, Prabhu, and Ahuja‘s Jugaad Innovation, Thompson‘s Prototyping and Low-Volume Production, and Jackson‘s Folding Techniques for Designers.

What do you consider your best or most memorable design encounter?
In my mid-twenties I moved from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil. A watch I’d designed while with Swatch Watch was globally ubiquitous; I saw it everywhere from surfers’ to art dealers’ wrists. The watch band was special as it was made from natural rubber, which gave it great elasticity and tactility. During a taxi ride, I noticed my driver sported a handsome vintage gold Omega with my band on it—cannibalized from the Swatch. He had neatly cut the hinge area to fit the timepiece. I inquired if it was his father’s watch, which it was. This work had become the taxi-driver’s design, and it transcended my authorship as well as branding. Tremendous satisfaction comes from seeing others take design work, and make it their own. I didn’t tell him I had designed the band, but instead complimented him on his selection and clever modification.