Intense Listeners

Combining a knack for empathy with an elegance of line, Antenna Design creates products that are both beautiful and supremely functional.

From the moment the studio opened its doors, Antenna Design has made a profession of listening. In high-tech, interactive art installations and even public transit, Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa have always found a way to meet their clients’ needs. “Of course their design is excellent,” says Sandra Bloodworth, director of arts for transit and facilities design at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for which Antenna has done significant work. “But what made my mouth drop open was how well they accommodated all our user groups: riders, maintenance staff, our other designers. The things they made weren’t foreign objects. They suited our needs perfectly.”

But in early spring 2008, listening no longer seemed enough. The couple, partners in life as well as business, were tripping over details in their most ambitious project to date: Antenna Workspaces, a postpanel, postcubicle office system they’d been developing with Knoll since 2006. Paying close attention to their client’s brief, Moeslinger and Udagawa slogged through a swamp of details: power and data-supply issues, ergonomics, aesthetics, BIFMA requirements, the limitations of Knoll’s manufacturing capacity. The economic meltdown forced them to pay even closer attention to costs and shipping weight. But the harder they worked to knock down office walls, the harder they rammed into their own wall, one big enough to postpone Antenna Workspaces’ scheduled June 2008 launch at NeoCon.

“We were trying to design a system that would do so many things,” recalls the Tokyo-born Udagawa, scrolling through some computer renderings on a laptop in the sparse single-room Chelsea office the studio has occupied since it opened in 1997. “It just got too complex, with way too many parts and functions,” he says. “And as disappointed as we were, we decided along with Knoll that it was time for a pause.”

The pair met in California in the early 1990s. He’d recently graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art and was a senior designer at Apple Computer before moving on to IDEO. She was working in San Francisco with IDEO. In 1997, living together in New York, they decided to pool their savings and set up shop together. Shortly afterward, Antenna landed its first big project: designing the user interface for the MTA’s MetroCard vending machines. Udagawa had worked on the MetroCard interface while running a one-man New York satellite for IDEO. The job migrated with him when he and Moeslinger opened Antenna. The MetroCard vending machines needed to serve the five million New Yorkers who rode the subway each day. But more than half of them had never used an ATM, let alone a computer. It was quite a shift for designers used to fashioning sophisticated electronic devices for expert users—Udagawa at Yamaha, Apple, and IDEO, and Moeslinger for clients like NEC, Matsushita, and General Motors during her time with IDEO.

To streamline the user experience, Antenna color-coded the touch screens and corresponding hardware. A green prompt for money directs the user to the green-colored cash bezel. The work was so well received that the MTA invited Antenna to design the interiors and exteriors of several new subway cars. The cars feature light-colored walls and ceilings that create the illusion of greater space, and a dark-patterned floor that conceals dirt. Cantilevered seats allow for easy cleaning, and an electronic map aids passengers during transit. Windows have a “sacrificial” layer that can be easily replaced when scratched.

“Vandalism is always a possibility,” says Moeslinger, who graduated from the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. “And of course, it does upset us. It’s sort of like messing up your own living room. But it was also very exciting to ride the subway and hear people talk to each other about our cars. I think good design encourages people to take a sense of ownership and pride in the system.”

Antenna made its first mark on public transportation, but it has also been active in facilitating the flow of data between technology and user. The studio has designed PDAs for Palm, wireless devices for Fujitsu, and an internal telephone system for Microsoft. In 2002, they were invited to develop a new computer terminal and peripherals for Bloomberg. Raquel Tudela, then head of the company’s global design, had visited Antenna while working on a master’s in design at the School of Visual Arts. “I remember being completely blown away by what I saw,” says Tudela, who left Bloomberg in 2008. “They had these beautiful renderings—of the MetroCard machine, the subway cars, but also art installations and computer ergonomics. And they were so eloquent in explaining their work. When it came time to redesign the terminals we were using for hardware at Bloomberg, I immediately thought of them.”

Since Bloomberg leases equipment to subscribers over several years, the units needed to be more robust than most computer hardware, and they couldn’t quickly lose their visual appeal. But for Antenna, the greatest challenge was placating the various stakeholders. “They had to deal with me, with my boss, and with Bloomberg’s troop of engineers, all of whom have strong opinions,” Tudela recalls. “But they could talk circuits and battery life as easily as they could talk aesthetics. Masamichi and Sigi came back two months later with four great options. We didn’t know which one to choose.”

The first Bloomberg terminal debuted in 2003, two flat screens fixed onto a stainless-steel assembly, more redolent of modern furniture than computer design. (In 2007, Antenna produced a second version of the terminal featuring adjustable screens.) The unit is accompanied by a custom elongated keyboard with color-coded function keys. “Bloomberg’s product is information,” Moeslinger says. “But they wanted users to have a connection to the service after their monitors were switched off. We tried to create a status symbol, almost an object of desire, something that would stand out among the other monitors on the trading floor.”

It hasn’t been all bits and bodies for Moeslinger and Udagawa. Thirteen years in New York—and its galleries, museums, and public spaces—have inspired them to venture into interactive art installations. In Firefly, a 2001 piece at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, the pair distributed backlit Palm Pilot screens to visitors to guide them through the darkened exhibition space and create the illusion of a flock of fireflies. In Blowing Gently, a 2002 work at Manhattan’s Frederieke Taylor Gallery, visitors blew through a polished aluminum ring (reminiscent of a child’s soap-bubble toy) to project an abstract human form onto a long white slab beneath them. “It does wonders for our design to be able to work in art,” Moeslinger says. “In some circles, we’ve been typecast as equipment designers because of our subway work. And most of our design clients have specific agendas that we need to accommodate. Art allows us to try things that may be risky or even irrelevant in a commercial context.”

Ironically, it was Antenna’s “irrelevant” work that helped it land what may be its biggest job yet: Antenna Workspaces, which Knoll will (finally) present at this year’s NeoCon. “I was walking in front of Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue and saw a window installation,” recalls Benjamin Pardo, Knoll’s senior vice president for design. The installation, Antenna’s Power Flower, featured 32 five-foot-tall neon flowers that pedestrians could trigger as they passed by the storefront. “It was around 11 p.m.,” Pardo says. “I stopped to watch a little boy play in front of the display. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more about who’d created this.”

Antenna’s collaboration with Knoll aimed to create a flexible, affordable, attractive furniture system that could accommodate shifting flows of people and data in the contemporary workplace. Two years of research generated many ideas but no unifying theme or aesthetic. “We understood this was a postpanel, postcubicle world, so we started out with the data- and power-distribution scheme.” Udagawa says. “But all we ended up creating was a monster.”

After a few months of reflection, they returned with a new strategy. “We’d always worked to align our designs with our clients’ expectation,” says Udagawa, noting that unlike most of their previous work, which was fee based, he and Moeslinger have a royalty agreement with Knoll. “But we decided we first needed to make something we really liked. It wasn’t enough to just listen, to accommodate all these different voices. We needed something simple, something elegant. So we started where an office should start: with the desk.”

The bones of Antenna Workspaces are light, hyperstrong steel—a tubular skeleton that gives form and strength to the system. Broad, freestanding desktops of wood, laminate, or glass perch on one-inch-square legs, which are buttressed by a diamond-shaped steel rail running between them. The system offers several different configurations, including a series of linked desks that can be highlighted with different colors or materials. A die-cast, V-shaped aluminum cradle fastens the steel skeleton beneath the desktop to the steel legs. The whole structural scheme—slight but unexpectedly strong—was inspired by the U-shaped struts Udagawa observed atop the concrete columns that support highways.

From Florence Knoll on, most workplace design has been architecturally driven. Antenna flipped that on its head and worked from the inside out, delivering an industrial-design solution for a largely architectural problem. “This is one of the advantages of working with designers from other fields,” Pardo says. “They aren’t burdened by specific experience and can come up with new ideas. I also enjoyed the cultural mix—this American company founded by Germans and designers from Austria and Japan. The push and pull ultimately produced a novel conception of space and a product very much in line with Knoll.”

For Antenna, the Knoll project was a shift. Designing a static office system posed different challenges from channeling human and digital tides. “There are distinctions,” Moeslinger says, switching off her laptop. “But every design project involves motion—even the design of a stationary object, because that object will have to move through time.”

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