Walking a Mile in Koolhaas’ Shoes

During the last few years, trendsetters worldwide updated their list with the United Nude brand which we previously featured here. The collaboration between Rem D. Koolhaas and Galahad Clark became known for its innovative shoe design and creative collaboration with architects, fashion designers, artists, and fashion editors. By designing furniture, and even a concept car, they proved that design knows no boundaries and that only sky is the limit.

*Mobius – concept

Each pair of United Nude shoes is a reinterpretation of a certain architectural object or experimentation with various materials and colors: their first shoe, Mobius, now an icon itself, is inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona armchair. Its unique design is the result of a single piece of strap which forms the sole, the heel, and the upper part of the sandal. Charles and Ray Eames’s aluminum office chair inspired them in making Eamz shoes – pumps which have a piece of chair for a heel which makes the shoe seem like it’s defying gravity.

United Nude developed an interesting project called Lo Res (Low resolution: decreasing 3D resolution of a product to get less pixels and more space in shape of a triangle, which enables a reinterpretation and the recycling of existing products such as shoes, bottles and cars, thus getting new shapes and characteristics – creating new design) and worked with the fashion designer Iris van Herpen on limited editions.

We talked to United Nude’s creative executive Rem D. Koolhaas during the opening of their store in Zagreb.

*Rem D. Koolhaas

Preparing for this interview, I found that in the media you are mostly referred to as “the starchitect’s nephew” – as the nephew of the renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. It seems your identity is closely connected to him. That must be a pretty good starting point for starting business. What is your experience? Does it bother you? How much, or at all, has he influenced your work as a designer?

Well, I prefer that they explain it like that, rather than they confuse me with him. Reporters often confuse me with him and tell me that they expected an older man, and then I have to explain that there are two of us, existing separately. It’s difficult to speak about his influence because I come from a family of architects and designers. My father is an architect, and Rem is his cousin. I can say that I had a good childhood in which I learned most from my parents. I don’t think I learned anything from him growing up because he was always very busy and he never spent much time with us. It was during my college years that I began to understand his work and gain interest in it.

*United Nude Zagreb shop

Can you explain what United Nude is about, what is its mission statement and who are the shoes for?

United Nude started when the Mobius shoe was a concept, which I thought was very important. The brand is the result of thinking about creating the shoe – the shoe was a problem which needed a solution. United Nude is about moving boundaries in design, technology, and thinking. I believe we’ve offered a quality product which became a brand that is finding its place on the world market.

In presenting shoes you pay a lot of attention to the design of your flagship stores. It sort of gets us closer to total design. Where do you get ideas for store design?

Concerning store design concepts, we figured out that we needed to find a model that would become very effective and that could be applied anywhere. It may seem somewhat boring, but if you had to design space so that each store has a different concept, that wouldn’t be financially feasible. I think our model is very simple, and very effective. It’s about simple, dark space with shelves lighted by LEDs which change light and highlight shoes. The contrast between the dark space and the lighted wall is actually a brand, and original enough to be remembered. It’s important that it makes people react, even if it’s in a negative way. The stores need to have an identity – Prada did the same when they had the same green walls and the same black and white tiles on the floors in their first 200 stores. That’s how our business partners know what they can expect and at what price they can get it.

Do you have a foot fetish? What is your favorite pair of United Nude shoes?

I wouldn’t call myself a fetishist, but I admit to liking nice proportions. It comes from my childhood when I took trips with my family and we spent days looking at buildings and going to exhibitions. One time I was with a girl who had a wider foot, so when I designed a shoe, she couldn’t put it on. I realized that relationship didn’t have a future. It’s not like beautiful feet turn me on, but ugly ones will sure put me off.

My favorite shoe changes every several months, but Mobius is certainly the shoe that changed my life. I designed a model of it in 1999, and it was very advanced for that time. After that, I started the company. The shoe takes the form of infiniteness because it’s made from a single piece, and that was pretty challenging to do. It’s also an infinite source of ideas for me.

How important is it to work with a person who knows traditional tricks of the shoemaker trade – like your partner Galahad Clark?

That’s not as important as cooperating with quality factories where people know how to turn your idea into reality and make a comfortable product. But all of our shoes are actually completely different from the usual shape and therefore require different manufacturing technologies. It seems as if traditional shoemaking is working against us. We used to work with the wrong people who didn’t understand us, but now I realize it’s important to be a part of the manufacturing process.

*Galahad Clark *Rem D. Koolhaas

I read somewhere that it takes a year and a half to make a good shoe, just like building a house. What’s with the trend of architects (Zaha, Gehry) designing shoes?

You can do it a lot faster. We didn’t know how to manufacture Mobius so it took a long time, especially because I’ve never designed a shoe before. The most difficult part is making a one-piece mould. Developing a new model takes about a year. I don’t know where architects get the interest to design shoes, but Gehry’s shoes aren’t very architectural – they’re actually quite old-fashioned. Zaha, on the other hand, is a fetishist – she has lots of them and she adores them. That’s where she gets her interest in shoe design. She used to spend a lot of money on shoes. She loved high heels, but she doesn’t wear them anymore.

How much do you use advanced software and modern material in your work? I’m referring to the collaboration with Iris van Herpen who used 3D printers to make clothes, and I think that’s only possible with smaller objects.

We used the “rapid prototyping” technology for the first time in making Mobius shoes in 2001. At that time it was difficult to find someone in Netherlands who had a laser scanner, and we had more or less successful attempts at it. Today at the office we use rapid prototyping and have a laser scanner, and I think it’s important to try new things, new technologies. I don’t think they’re more important than manufacturing, but you need to remember that shoemaking is a lo-tech process because it involves people making shoes with their hands. I think fashion should be rather innovative, it should push boundaries, just like Iris does, but there aren’t many Irises out there. Today fashion is more about recycling than experimenting. The same goes for architecture – you still can’t print out an entire house, but I hope that will be possible one day.

I don’t get the impression that you’re inspired by fashion or trends in shoe design. I think it’s interesting how you turn the design of modernist classics into shoes, and the way you play with stealth form. That can sometimes turn into kitsch. How do you know where the line is between kitsch and good design?

We try not to be too serious in our work, we try to play. If we use something that’s classic in our design, even kitsch, we combine it with our form. For example, we combined a classic pump with a wide square heel – that’s quite a contrast. And that’s the interesting part – take things that don’t go together and combine them. It makes the modern look more modern, and the old-fashioned more old-fashioned. Sometimes we get overboard, so we turn combining down a notch. The worst feeling we get is when after weeks of designing we realize the thing we’ve been working on is boring and that it annoys us. It means the design is bad. We try to avoid that. I think we’re doing a pretty good job, especially compared to a lot of designers who do more stupid than good stuff. I think we make a lot of good things, but sometimes we turn out a bad one. As a designer, you have to love your work.

Who are your favorite designer and architect?

I think I’m my own favorite designer, because I believe in what I do. But I’m not my favorite architect. When I’d believe there are other people who can do my job better than me, that would be the reason to stop doing it. Of course, there are a lot of people who are just as good and interesting, and I could go on forever listing their names. I love lots of different things in architecture – you can’t say who’s better: Foster or Hadid. So I don’t have a favorite architect. But the classics are definitely Mies, Le Corbusier, Niemeyer…

*United Nude Zagreb shop

Click here for more on the United Nude designer/architect duo

During the last few years, trendsetters worldwide updated their list with the United Nude brand which we previously featured here. The collaboration between Rem D. Koolhaas and Galahad Clark became known for its innovative shoe design and creative collaboration with architects, fashion designers, artists, and fashion editors. By designing furniture, and even a concept car, they proved that design knows no boundaries and that only sky is the limit.