I was kept from Tronic’s studio more by a cold than by choice, and I wasn’t happy. Founded by two former architecture students, the firm is known for transforming ordinary places–lobbies, airport corridors–into unforgettable experiences filled with flowing shapes and 3-D films. I could only imagine what they’d do with their own space.
Vivian Rosenthal, partner in the firm with Jesse Seppi, assures me I’m not missing much. “I don't know what you’d want to see,” she says. “It’s just desks and computers...People come in and are surprised that it’s so quiet. Everyone listens to music on their headphones; it’s a very quiet, calm studio.”
Say it isn’t so. Tronic is easily one of the best firms creating installation or “built environment” advertising. Bridging the gaps between architecture, interactivity, sculpture and film, they have immersed people in branded experiences everywhere from JFK to the Shanghai World’s Fair. Their clients include a murderer’s row of big spenders like Microsoft, Target, General Electric and Hewlett-Packard.
Then again, as I talked with them, a quiet space began to make sense. Seppi and Rosenthal are soft-spoken and deeply thoughtful. Unlike many creative teams, they aren’t a yin and yang with complementary talents that add up to a whole. They are cut from the same cloth: measured, theoretically fluent and absurdly technologically savvy. Their conversations touch on everything from the latest 3-D printing machines to Vitruvius, a first-century Roman who wrote the earliest extant treatise on architecture. (The basic problems haven’t changed since his time, Seppi tells me.)
The two met on the first day of graduate school at the Columbia University School of Architecture, and it was creative love almost at first sight. “He was this aloof guy, standing by himself, and I had to go up and talk to him,” says Rosenthal.
It turned out that Seppi was an architect who had gone to Ohio State, then a leading school for computer-assisted design, and worked for renowned Santa Monica architect Thom Mayne. Rosenthal had a degree from Brown University and a less structured background that included creating collage poetry by using words clipped from other sources. If that sounds incompatible, you’re not ready for Tronic. Like Seppi, Rosenthal had long been obsessed with spaces and how to fill them, even if that included words on a page. They soon found they shared other interests too: robots, cyborgs, anime and, of course, architecture.
They knew they wanted to work together, but unlike most idealists, they were also very practical. So, they made a proposal to the owner of an old factory in Brooklyn: they would redesign and renovate the space, turning it into loft apartments. In exchange, they received five years of cheap rent and the financial freedom to do whatever it was they would do.
It turned out that this foundation was largely unnecessary. In 2001, the two also collaborated on a joint thesis that caught the eye of one of their advisors, who happened to work for digital agency R/GA. Soon after, they were hired to execute a commercial project for the firm, and Tronic Studio was born. They’ve been busy ever since.
It’s not easy to summarize the work. Rosenthal and Seppi may produce an augmented reality application for an iPhone that streams video according to a GPS location. Or they may create a 3-D film that plays on a spherical HD screen. Or they may transform a huge space into a sculptural installation. Whatever they do, it’s almost always original or as near to it as you can get.
“There are a lot of studios that create cool graphics that are trendy and make you feel good,” Rosenthal says. “It’s like McDonald’s–you know what you’re going to get, and it’s good, but you’re not going to remember it. It’s a different thing from what we do."
So how do you live in that rarefied air? You might think Seppi and Rosenthal are the ultimate in trendsetters, hanging on the edge of every new twist in the overheated digital graphics marketplace. Maintaining 6 blogs, 2,000 Facebook friends and a running commentary on the latest Zaha Hadid project. Mainlining Gizmodo and Engadget? Nothing could be less true. As they said before: quiet studio, headphones. They practice a “conceptual” approach. No copying, no listening. Simply thought.
“I think as a species human beings are more likely to mimic one another than any other,” says Seppi, “Intentionally, or not, so I’ve stayed away from inundating myself with what’s going on.”
Instead they look at technology at a basic level. They immerse themselves in experimental interfaces, architectural tools and their own ideas and conversations. They don’t begin by thinking about how something should look; they don’t even start at the idea-level of a good branding or advertising agency. It’s much more fundamental. They look at how to subvert a technology or how to combine different disciplines, like film and sculpture. What would that look like, how could it work? And, most importantly, how can we apply it to a client’s needs?
A good example is their Manifold project for technology giant Hewlett-Packard. Though the focus of the project (and much written about it) is the sculpture and video, it actually encompassed a redesign of the lobby in the company’s headquarters–a technological reimagining of interior design, including everything from paint color and chairs to the sensors embedded in the doors.
Conceptually, their idea was to create a welcoming structure for the company’s entrance: a pair of sculptural arms that would spread out across the room and react to people as they walked in the door. The most noticeable elements are the flowing, deconstructed shapes that rotate at breathless speed to display a high-definition video wall.
Though beautiful to look at, the forms required a deep understanding of the tools and technologies available today. Initially, Seppi designed them with architectural software. They were then rendered into hard form using a computer numerical control (CNC) milling machine. The form was then covered with fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP) and painted using a process common to Ferraris and other high-end cars. The end result? A lightweight but durable shell that can move quickly while still holding heavy video screens.
Tronic doesn’t only define spaces and create experiences architecturally, they also create 3-D films and work extensively using interfaces based on gestures or locations. A good example is the GE Visible You installation that debuted at the Shanghai World’s Fair.
Tronic was commissioned to find a fun way to promote GE’s body-scanning technology. The solution was an installation that allowed users to enter a space and face a screen with an android-like person on it. The android quickly resized to the user’s height. From that point on, the user could move about in any way, and the android perfectly mimicked the actions–while displaying muscular, skeletal and other body systems. It was at once surprising, fun and a big hit.
Visible You also exposes the difficulties Tronic and similar firms face to constantly produce things that are surprising and new. In 2002, gestural interfaces belonged to science fiction films like Minority Report. In the middle of 2010 came Visible You, which was a popular installation at a technologically-heavy fair. By Christmas of 2010, consumers were able to have–in the form of Xbox Kinect–a far more capable and sophisticated system in their living rooms. The timeframe between overwhelming wow-factor and been-there-done-that gets shorter every day.
Still, Tronic doesn’t worry too much about falling behind. If anything, they find their ideas occasionally need to be toned down. “It’s interesting to watch people and see what they’re ready to accept in terms of advertising and architecture,” says Seppi. “Are they ready to accept an image that’s not vertical in a wall, rather on the floor? Is that too disturbing...You have to be really aligned with certain social and political structures to understand the timing of when it’s appropriate to push forward.”
Must be nice to have that problem.
As my cold faded, Tronic was turning to a new project slated for a space in Paris, and I realized I wouldn’t have time to visit them in person. I don’t completely buy that their studio is ordinary. Then again, if you’re constantly making something new, you may not have much time for anything else. ca