An installation at Expo 2020
Installation view of Tellart’s contribution to the UAE Pavilion at Expo 2020. Courtesy Thijs Wolzak.

Tellart Founder Matt Cottam on the Importance of Immersion in Both Life and Design

The founder of the Amsterdam-based studio leans on craft and technology to create innovative interactive experiences.

When Expo 2020 opened in Dubai last October after a year’s delay (it continues through this March), the latest rendition of the world’s fair brought with it an opportunity to imagine the future. In a time of unprecedented uncertainty, the exhibits and pavilions here give attendees (both in-person and virtually) a chance to regain a sense of optimism: that the world’s biggest challenges can be overcome.

The fact that two participating countries, the United Arab Emirates and Poland, each commissioned Amsterdam-based experience design studio Tellart to present their stories is, well, telling.

The UAE Pavilion, which Tellart created in partnership with Dutch experience architects Kossmanndejong, is located inside a new pavilion designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Entitled The Land of Dreamers Who Do, it’s an immersive journey into the country’s past, present, and future, with eight interactive spaces that tell the nation’s story upon its 50th anniversary. Outside are columns speckled with porthole-shaped windows, each offering a different video-based narrative. Inside, there is a whole room filled with actual sand dunes, telling the story of the UAE’s nomadic past by projecting video and historical information right onto the dunes. An LED-embedded floor creates light patterns from visitors’ steps.

A headshot of Matt Cottom
Tellart’s founder Matt Cottam. Courtesy Tellart.
An image of an installation in a building with curved concrete walls and projections
Installation view of Tellart’s exhibit at The Arc in Svalbard, designed by Snøhetta. Courtesy Plomp.

To be sure, it’s been a busy few years for the studio. Founded in 2000 by American designer Matt Cottam, Tellart’s work blends product design and prototyping with film, video, and physical computing. Prior to Expo 2020, Tellart has worked with corporate clients including Google, Facebook, and Toyota, to name a few. The firm is also currently producing Design Nonfiction, a series of filmed conversations with an array of artists, designers, academics, and tech-world figures, about the transformation from the dot-com crash of the late 1990s to the rise of machine intelligence.

Not to mention, Cottam’s hobbies arguably make him a suitable Wes Anderson character, but more on that later.

In 2019, Tellart partnered with renowned Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta to create an interactive exhibit that demonstrates the critical importance of conservation—both of nature and culture—for The Arc, a new mass timber visitor center to be built on the remote archipelago of Svalbard at the Global Seed Vault, a seed storage facility. At the center of the project is a dramatic multi-story space marked by a single live tree, surrounded by floorboards and walls that act as screens to communicate not only the importance of biodiversity and a window on to the Global Seed Vault, but a message about protecting our cultural heritage, with a variety of archived art and cultural content, from Vatican manuscripts to video clips of soccer star Pelé.

image of an installation at the V&A museum with a display case that says "Should the planet be a design project?"
Tellart’s installation at The Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition The Future Starts Here. Courtesy Tellart.

In 2018, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum commissioned Tellart to create an installation for The Future Starts Here, an exhibition exploring the implications of rapidly evolving technology. Tellart’s Terraform Table allowed visitors to shape landscapes and seascapes with their hands: a fun approach to thinking about the daunting climate crisis. “We trained a Machine Learning algorithm with hundreds of satellite photos, and corresponding altitudes of each pixel, of coastlines from all around the world. When the visitor shapes a scaled topography the AI generates an artificial, but super realistic, terrain onto the sand,” explains Cottam.

Originally from Newport, Rhode Island, Cottam founded Tellart only a few months after earning degrees in industrial design and fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design and subsequently serving as adjunct faculty for ten years (he now teaches at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design).

Cottam comes from a family of designers. After emigrating from the Azores to New England, his grandmother worked in a textile factory. “Her job was to translate colored pencil drawings of fashion artists into patterns that could be mass-produced,” the designer explains. “I didn’t realize this until I was probably in my thirties but essentially what she was doing was industrial design.”

An image of a design installation created by tellart and google
Chrome Web Lab: Making the Internet Physical, created by Tellart in partnership with Google. Courtesy Tellart.

Earning a master’s degree in interactive design at Sweden’s Umeå University in 2009 helped Cottam envision new directions for the firm. “For a long time, our work was all very physical and technological, but we weren’t that involved upstream with the ideas behind the content,” he says. “Over the last ten to 15 years, we’ve been brought into the research side, to find the story and bring it to life as a multi-sensory, immersive, [time-based] physical experience.”

An early project combining craft and technology was for London’s Science Museum. Chrome Web Lab: Making the Internet Physical, created in partnership with Google, allowed online users around the world to interact with museum visitors and make music and art together, including the Universal Orchestra, an eight-piece instrument array inside the museum that invited onsite and online visitors to play live music together. A robotic installation called The Sketchbot transformed digital photos submitted by physical and online visitors into sand drawings. Both concepts prefigured by nearly a decade how the pandemic would make such interactions (particularly video-based platforms like Zoom) feel essential.

Cottam knows all about immersion, and not just at work. A member of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, he’s sailed across the Atlantic Ocean numerous times. He’s also an avid downhill skier and scuba diver. Plus, he’s become passionate enough about family history to be a member of the Sons of the American Revolution and the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

an interior of an autonomous vehicle designed by Tellart and Toyota.
Tellart’s design for Concept-i autonomous vehicle for Toyota. Courtesy Tellart.

“I require an activity in order to meditate. I need to be steering through 30-foot waves for 12 hours straight,” he says. “Skiing does the same thing. Scuba diving does the same thing. You tend to be quiet when you’re concentrating, especially when you’ve practiced and developed a technique to the point where you’re able to play partners with nature instead of [trying] to overcome it. You’re diving and you maintain your depth only with your breath, not by swimming with your arms, or you ski by just letting the fall line push you into the next turn instead of wiggling your body around everywhere.”

It’s not just intense sports that give Cottam a rush of adrenaline. A licensed EMT, he’s worked as an advanced life-support paramedic on the United States’ federal disaster medical team and National Ski Patrol. “There’s something incredible,” he says, “about just becoming extremely calm when it seems like things are abnormal or out of control.”

That explanation makes sense given how Tellart can harness a variety of media, materials, and technologies to present ideas. “I do believe design is an act of discovery. I really get disappointed when some designers, whether they’re students or people we collaborate with, feel like design is an act of just prescribing our great ideas as opposed to setting up scenarios or conditions where you have an interaction with a set of tools and materials.”

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