Once he gravitated to interactive design, Eddie Opara truly found his creative rhythm. He eventually went on to work at Imaginary Forces and embarked on the largest LED in North America, enveloping what was then the Morgan Stanley building in New York City. Projects for companies including Prada, the MahaNakhon Cube in Bangkok, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Harry N. Abrams, to name just a few, have since followed.
- You went to Imaginary Forces. - Yes. - And you talk about one of your most favorite projects which was the Morgan Stanley project. - Yeah, yeah. - Can you talk a little bit about what that was and why it was so special? - I think it was special to me because at the time, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I felt as though I needed a change. I'd been up there for nearly four years. And it was beautiful and quiet.
I played football three times a week. (laughs) And I had a great job, but that job wasn't really pushing me. And I wanted to move to New York. And I got a phone call incredibly late at night, at 2 a.m. in the morning, from a gentleman named Mikon van Gastel. And I met Mikon actually in New Orleans in 1997 for the AGA conference there. - Oh? - Yeah, we had won the gold medal for students in the AGA. I don't think they do that anymore.
And so we met up, and he was working at Imaginary Forces before he did the credits for Galaga at the time, and I thought, "Wow, this guy's brilliant, and he's only 24 years of age." And so, he gave me a call, and he said, "Eddie, It's Mikon." And he said, "What do you know about dynamic data?" And I'm like, "Mm, a bit." (laughs) And he's like, "Do you want to come work at Imaginary Forces?" And I was like, "Absolutely." And so he was setting up the New York office with Saffron Kenny, the producer there.
And the project basically was Morgan Stanley. He'd won this project, Morgan Stanley, he'd been working on it for a little bit, and it was the facade at 745 Fifth Avenue in Times Square. And the onus of this is that Morgan Stanley was moving there from the other side of the street over to the big headquarters designed by KPF. And it's a block-long facade that wraps around the corners.
And so, at the time, I think it was the biggest LED in the whole of North America. And one of the things that was a problem is that it's punctured with strips, three strips. And it's very hard to deal with graphics on that type of canvas. And so what we did is we came up with themes, similar to the cube project that I'd just shown.
And these themes were all based on Morgan Stanley's new identity. And at the time, it was the triangle, which they've actually now, I think, got rid of it. And this whole idea of the triangle being a device, and it sort of can create different things from the idea of bridging the gap and connecting people, networking. There was a theme called X-ray. This theme is actually quite interesting, because the whole idea of it was to show how many people were actually working in this particular space.
And one of the interesting things was if you walk down the road, everything's showing advertising. Here, it was showing, it was really more about the heart, rather than the idea of a commercial product. It was really trying to show more things about who we are as people. And that's what was really, really different. And so we had life-size sort of poser people walking up and down. And these were developed by a very talented animator, Fabian Tejada, who also worked on the Mad Men intros.
And you may see Don Draper, yeah, he basically, it was the guy falling down, it's a poser person, he developed that. So it's always nice to connect all these things. But, yeah. It was a beautiful project. Unfortunately, because of 9/11, it was basically opening, I think, the same week or month, Morgan Stanley didn't move into the building.
Then Lehman Brothers did. - So what happened to it? - And Lehman Brothers actually now are gone. (laughs) And now it's Barclays. (laughs) - Did it have any time up? - It did, it had about, I don't know, a few months up. And I rang my mom and said, "You got to come and see this, mom!" (laughs) And I think she got the tail end of it, which was nice. (laughs) But, yeah, for me, it's one of the best projects I've ever...
- How long did it take in the making? - Well, overall, seeing that Mikon was working on it before I got to it, I think in total it was like two and a half years. Yeah, yeah. It's a long time. Takes a long time. - That's a long time. - Yeah. Yeah. - And you then went on to Two By Four. - Yes, I did. - And one of your projects was to develop wallpaper for the Prada men's show? - (laughs) Yes, yes. I was asked, Michael came over to my desk one day, and said Prada wants some wallpaper for their men's show, and we've got, I think, 12 hours.
And, you know, it's fashion, right? - (laughs) No pressure. - No pressure. And the thing is, I was actually, I think, leaving for London for the holidays I think, one to two days afterwards. And so, I was wracking my brain, I was thinking typography, typography, typography, it's going to be type, type, and I just couldn't come up with the message. What was the message? So I said, bollocks. Forget it! I'm going to do me. I'm going to do me.
And so I generated a poster that was, at the time, of a naked man, black man, and also a white man but in pink. And so brown and pink, sort of colors that they were utilizing. And they were my height, six foot two. And I printed them out, and they were sent. And then I left. I actually left to London, didn't know what happened.
And then I came back. And Prada had used, had actually blown me up. Blew up my body, (laughs) naked, a model of my body, naked, wrapping around this whole space. And I was blown away. - Did you like it? - I loved it. Thank you, Miuccia Prada (laughs) for that opportunity. And then she liked that concept so much, we generated a new idea for the Prada store, the epicenter, in Soho, around this sort of new model world, a Garden of Eden, but with these these sort of 3D modeled people.
And she really liked that, too. And then she utilized that in other stores as well. So it was nice. (laughs) - So a lot of people feel that adding constraints to design briefs drive creativity. - Yes. - And Sagmeister and Walsh are famous for doing that. - Yeah. - Do you feel that that's the case? - I think so, too. I mean, I sit right next to Paula Scher, so yes. (laughs) You know, often enough, we have conversations about this.
And there's this sense of turning pages of books that we see in Europe and saying, "Why aren't we doing this here? Look at this! What's going on in America? Come on! Let's do this! Let's strip off, let's get ourselves out. Where's the energy?" Absolutely. I think it's totally needed. - Why do you think Europe has more energy in their work than we do? - I really don't know, because I've always believed that Americans have way too much energy.
(laughs) In personality, right? And so you'd think it should come out in design. I really don't know. It's a puzzling thing. Something that I don't normally dwell on too much. I just say, ah, let's just do my thing. But I think it could be, I think it could be the fact that we've never, "we" as in America, has never taken on this sense of, um, have never conformed in regards to saying that this aspect of being dynamic and open and risk-taking in design is the solution for future design.
I think they've rightly so, you have to sort of have different pockets of things, eclectic pockets of design. And I think that it's because America's an enormous place. Large populations. If you look at Great Britain, it's basically the size of New York State and Vermont. You know, with 40 to 60 million people in it. Holland's even smaller, so these sort of contained-- Switzerland, even smaller, so these contained spaces, it's easier to have a conformity and create a sense of willingness to be more adventurous.
So if the mandate is to be adventurous and be open, a lot more people are going to connect with that in the likes of Switzerlands or Britains or the Hollands of the world, rather than America, because it's large, it's largely open. And also, Americans don't like to take orders. (laughs) From anybody. (laughs) At all. (laughs) - It's true. That's why we left. (laughs) - (laughs) That's quite right.
- So you left Two By Four, which was a fantastic job, as I understand. - It was, yeah. - And you decided to start the Map Office. - Yeah. (laughs) - Why? What was going on at that time? - A lot. While I was in Argentina with one of my best friends, George Plesko, who used to be my roommate at Yale, and George, I used to work with him at Art Technology Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well, and we were tired.
And he had his reasons, and I had my reasons for starting this new venture. And basically what happened was, we were on a bus going to a wedding in Buenos Aires and we came up with the name. We thought it was fantastic. We got back to America and we started the process of setting up this company. Unfortunately, one of us got a little bit of cold feet.
And it was fine. The sense of having family and dealing with health insurance, trust me, (laughs) those types of things get in the way for a good reason. So I said, no problem, I'll just start off and wait. And so I started looking for work. And I wanted to do something slightly different from what I was doing with Two By Four. And I didn't want to go into the same... Well, the sense of being competitive was not an issue, not really supposed to be competitive with Two By Four, because of, you know, they used to be your bosses.
Don't go in that particular direction at this moment in time, go somewhere else, do something else. And so that's what I did. I started looking at different types of areas, like real estate and education. And they started becoming quite rewarding. And I started growing the company, small enough to be doing from my bedroom, to my living room, eating bacon in my bathrobe (laughs), with one of my designers, Salvador Orara, and just chilling out, to a little, tiny studio in Chinatown, to a medium-size studio in Chinatown with seven to eight designers.
And I was like, wow, what's going on here? And, yeah. It was fun, it was a good time to be had for those five years. It was, in a sense, kind of like a five-year plan anyway. And then up pops Pentagram. - And the plan, or, from what I understand, it was at Map, everybody did everything. - Everybody did everything. - There were no specialists. - Well, we had one coder, but then we had designers that could code.
We all did everything, all of us. Yes, you could say that, yeah. - So did everybody show up with a full skill set... - Not necessarily. - ...or were you madly coming up to speed in areas you were deficient? - Coming up to speed. Some people didn't want to do certain things. OK. Let somebody else do it. I wasn't upset. I just wanted to see how things moved along. And I was greatly surprised. We came up with some really, really fun and interesting things, you know? And, yeah.
I thought that, for a time, George would come back, and then we'd make it bigger. And at that particular time, I thought size was important. It's not. And then we sort of moved over into Pentagram, we were into the Pentagram family, which was very exciting. - One of your most well-known pieces from that time was "Stealth." - Yes. (laughs) - And that is a personal project? - It is a personal project, yeah.
- And it's a beautiful, important project that appears to blur the lines between design and art a little bit. - Yeah. - And can you talk a little bit about what it is, this paper construction installation? And a quote I'll read, by Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," which is, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. - Refuse to see me.
That's correct, yes. It is a personal project. And it actually goes back to Lebbeus Woods and his ideas and concepts about parasites and scars and scabs. And, you know, he never built anything. He was a sort of paper architect, as they call them. But his concepts were absolutely, truly amazing, and his drawings were an absolute delight.
And I picked him up when I was about, I think, 18 years of age. At the age of 15, I joined the AA, Architects Association, as a member. And I thought that was exciting. You're 15 years of age and you can go into these exhibits and the bookstore and the library and study up on these architects for, you know, for school.
And I thought, this is amazing. And at the time, further down the road, I found Lebbeus Woods' work. And one of the things about his work is that he used, and it's very similar to my mother's head wraps, and the way she wraps, the way his sort of scars and scabs actually drape over buildings and protrude out of buildings. That's what you see when you see Nigerian headscarves and wraps.
And I thought, you know, this is something that's really interesting to me. Why are posters always flat for graphic designers? How come we can never actually have a poster that can actually protrude out from a wall? And why is it always at a certain size? Why can't it be tessellated and be produced to create a larger whole? And for me, that was important. So I went all the way back to being a teenager and pulled that concept...
Remember, keep all your notes. (laughs) And pulled it into this particular project. I wanted to use it for, the Studio Museum in Harlem was a client of mine, and I wanted to produce it for them. I don't know why, it just was a heartfelt thing. At the time, I was reading "Invisible Man." And a sense of identity was important. Sometimes I almost feel like you're the Wizard of Oz.
You're the person behind the scenes that's never seen. And because you're a minority as well, it makes it even harder. And you want to be seen. That aspect was very important. And so there's a lot of complexity and contradiction in the work, where it's folded and it looks like a stealth bomber. And the thing about the stealth is that it is not aestheticized but the aesthetics are amazing.
It's all about function, the form is function. But, if you look at it, it's beautiful. It's this insane object, alien object that the U.S. government has created. (laughs) It's one of the most beautiful things ever. But it also is incredibly dangerous and also undetectable, invisible. And so, combining all these items and this piece of text, and also utilizing and manipulating the text so you can only see it from a distance, the message, and within the folds, it started to create all these layers, started reinforcing the aspect of what I was trying to say.
- You seem to do a lot of things that end up on the wall. - (laughs) Yes, I like... - With Carta, and Prada, and "Stealth," and Morgan Stanley, and what's the project you're working on now? - Yeah, the MahaNakhon project. - It's interesting because it's sort of, maybe this is where that architecture's coming back. - I think so. It's sort of like this subconscious thing. (laughs) It's definitely coming back in, and I don't know why.
I mean, I do do a lot of identity work and also books. But this is, this is really close to my heart. I think also understanding the... Designers like, design collectives like Archigram really helped me understand the aspects of what people call experience design. I don't really call it that.
I just think it's fun to sort of elaborate into these interesting situations. So, yeah. - Can you talk a little bit about the role that non-client passion work plays in your life professionally and personally? - That's an interesting question. I think, I think it's more in regards to that you can't keep going on with client work and, maybe some people can, and feel like, "I'm infused, I'm infused every day! Keep...
Give me more!" To me, sometimes it's like I'm being whipped. (laughs) It's like, "No, do not give me more! (laughs) I'm sorry, I can't take this, it's just too much." And you go home, sometimes I get home, I just sit in the TV and I try to veg out. And then I get up and say, "I'm going to do a personal project that's going to take me out of this particular world." That I am the client. That's what I've always wanted to try and do so that clients will see what I stand for, truly, and then utilize me for work.
So, in a sense, it makes it, I would say it makes it a lot easier to actually produce the work. Not saying, "Do you do such-and-such in your work?" And "Do you do this and that?" And it's like, come on. I can. Doesn't mean I've done it before, but I can. And so, I could be very selective. That's what I would like it to be. And I would say a lot of designers would like to do that. And so, that's why I've come up the Carta project and other little things that are in my back pocket.
But for me, even though I'm a partner even though I'm a partner in a large design firm, the idea of really being an entrepreneur is, is very difficult. The idea of selling a product rather than selling a service is insanely difficult. (laughs) And being a graphic designer is that. But I'd like to tinker around and see if I can get better, get stronger, but be a better businessman.
I've still got time to come up with something. - That's a really hard part of the equation, though. It's a whole nother side of the brain, and there's so many designers who come up with amazing ideas. - Yeah. - But really understanding how to be an entrepreneur, a design entrepreneur, and to know how to bring a product to market and get it out there and promote it, that's a whole different skill set. - That is a whole different thing. I can learn a lot from a whole lot of younger designers. How do you do this on Kickstarter? It's amazing.
They have no fear. They're going for it, and I think that everybody else should do it. And it doesn't have to be through Kickstarter. It could be through other channels, just go out and do it. What impressed me with Airbnb is that they're from an art, they're from RISD. And others are like that. John Maeda recently was talking about this in a large lecture he was giving, the factors of design not just being the servicemakers, but being the actual entrepreneurs producing very successful companies that aren't supposedly really dealing with design but have design at the heart of their business.
And that to me is like, wow! Wow, wow! That's great! It's super exciting. Can I do that? (laughs) I'll try.