Ask Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar to describe their firm’s design style and they will decline. Ask anyone else to describe it, and they’ll probably fumble over the word “futuristic.” The studio’s work spans software development, product design, and architecture, with each design not quite within the bounds of any single category. Renowned industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, once a mentor to Weisshaar, says they have created a “new form of design practice.” More than just their designs make Kram and Weisshaar’s work distinctive, however; it’s really the partners’ eternal curiosity. “We refuse to sit still,” Kram says.
The two met, in a way, through the matchmaking of Rem Koolhaas. In 2000, Koolhaas and his team at OMA tapped Kram and Weisshaar to work on the information technology and design of the Prada Epicentre stores in Los Angeles and New York. Kram, an American who had studied design at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Weisshaar, a German who had studied product design at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins, apprenticed with a metal worker, and worked for three years with Grcic, founded their practice together two years later. Today, the 35-person studio has offices in both Stockholm and Munich.
Kram and Weisshaar think about design at the pace of technology, preferring to iterate and experiment than to pose what-ifs. “A think-tank is great, but after a week of a think-tank, you have to switch to ‘do-tank,’” Weisshaar says. And that’s what they’re good at. In 2012, during the Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair, for example, they presented an unfinished chair: the R18 Ultra, which was created in partnership with Audi’s Lightweight Design Center. They crowd-sourced data from nearly 1,500 load scenarios (in laymen’s terms, people’s varying weights and shapes) to test the chair, which was laced with pressure and stress sensors that gauged how the chair felt slouching, shifting, and leaning. After crunching the data and experimenting a bit further, they were able to whittle the chair down to its minimal essential mass: a mere 77 ounces.
Most recently, at Salone del Mobile this past April, Kram/Weisshaar debuted a dining table whose paper-thin surface is embedded with induction cooking units and a digital central nervous system of heating and cooling elements to keep certain plates (or champagne bottles) at their ideal serving temperature. Kram/Weisshaar designed the table to experiment with a new material they developed called SmartSlab, which they continue to perfect alongside the three to four other ongoing projects they have at any given moment.
Kram and Weisshaar keep their project load relatively small, but in no way does that mean it’s light. Right now, the studio is collaborating closely with Audi—a partnership that has continued since 2010—on projects whose details are kept under lock and key. (We’re told it may have something to do with self-driving race cars, though.) They are also working with industrial laser manufacturer Trumpf—“a secret industrial champion,” Weisshaar calls the company—and on several other smart-lighting projects.
Fueling Kram/Weisshaar’s wildly imagined, sci-fi-esque creations isn’t what one might expect. They don’t look to precedents or utopias dreamt up in films. They’re inspired by the collage of cultures and subcultures their team brings to the table; by 17th-century porcelain work; by esoteric, “very weird” books. But, as Weisshaar makes clear, none of it necessarily has to do with design. “Design itself isn’t very inspiring,” he says. For him, design is simply what he does.