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Designer Tobias Wong Tweaks the Rules


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Consider the value of a diamond studded wedding band, but with the diamonds on the inside the band, or a fancy named brand dress repurposed to cover your computer screen. These are some of the works from industrial designer Tobias Wong. he is challenging us to think about we value, and why? Marianne McCune, of member station WNYC, has more on the man some people are calling, the bad boy of design.

MARIANNE MCCUNE reporting: One of the objects that first got people talking about Tobias Wong, was a gun - not a real gun. It was soon after the September 11th attacks of 2001, and Wong says the devastation in New York left him feeling shocked and powerless. So, he decided to republish the book of an another designer. It was ambitious manifesto, called, I Want to Change the World. Wong, cut it into the shape of a gun.

Mr. TOBIAS WONG (Designer): And the only object that I saw that was fit to change the world at the present moment, was a gun.

MCCUNE: The book was by designer Karim Rashid, but Wong made it his own, and got critical acclaim at design exhibitions. He says he wasn't dissing Karim Rashid's work, though some people thought so. He was using existing objects to create a public dialogue, inspired by conceptual artist of the '60s and '70s.

Mr. WONG: My biggest frustration when I started working in the design world, was that everyone was seeking out original new work - and I just didn't believe in that. We couldn't even begin to create that, if we couldn't step back and realize that everything was a take on something else.

Ms. PAOLA ANTONELLI (Acting Chief Curator of Design and Architecture): It was just so hilarious, you know, the whole thing, because was Karim was saying it seriously - I want to change the world - well do you really want to change the world? Here is how you do it.

MCCUNE: Paola Antonelli is the Acting Chief Curator of Design and Architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Though Wong has been called a rascal, and an enfant terrible for bastardizing the work of other designers and calling it his own. Antonelli says they should take it as a badge of honor, when Wong redesigns their pieces.

Ms. ANTONELLI: Toby is so not a bad boy, I mean - he's sampling. Whenever he borrows other peoples designs and works on them, it's sampling, its what musicians have been doing for the past 25 years, in one way or the other.

MCCUNE: Karim Rashid calls Wong's gun shaped version of his book an astute critic of the power of design, the loaded agenda of changing the world. And Wong stole the clothing brand Burberry's signature plaid, and put it in buttons that New York's art crowd pinned to their clothes, Burberry one-upped him. The following year, the models pictured in Burberry's own ads wore Wong's knockoff buttons. Wong says he called up Burberry's creative director.

Mr. WONG: I introduced myself, and the first thing he said was, that he was hoping that it was okay - that it was okay that he copied it. I'm like yes, sure, that's fine.

MCCUNE: Wong is barely into his '30s now, he wears t-shirts and jeans, lives in one of Brooklyn's tougher neighborhoods, and doesn't even have his own studio. Yet, he says he's already considered retiring from the design world. Just a few years into his success, he says he became afraid he'd said all he had to say.

Mr. WONG: I wanted to drive like 18-wheelers across the country.

MCCUNE: He even took a couple truck driving lessons. But far from retired, Wong keeps making work, but often pokes fun at the very consumers it's made for. A mitten with a hole punched in the middle, so you can still smoke your cigarette outside in the bitter cold.

A beautiful black duvet made of Kevlar, a bulletproof fabric, to suggest how ridiculously far we can go to protect ourselves in this post 911 era. Wong also makes valuable pearl earrings, but the pearls are coated in black rubber. Design writer Aric Chen, says he's forcing consumers to ask himself why they want what they want.

Mr. ARIC CHEN (Design writer): His work is somewhat political, but not in that kind of self-righteous way. It's more in a reflective way, it make you reflect upon what you're doing, and in some ways, you sort of laugh at yourself for the absurdity of doing it.

MCCUNE: Chen himself bought a remote control light switch designed by Wong, the white switch with its classic sliver plate is enclosed in a clear acrylic box, as if a jewel on display.

Mr. CHEN: You take something as silly as a light switch for granted. But here it becomes this kind of control box, in a way.

(Soundbite of light switch)

MCCUNE: Wong says he means to laugh with consumers, not at them.

Mr. WONG: Nah, well yes, at times I am poking fun at them, but in a way where I do expect them to kind of, laugh with me.

MCCUNE: Laugh they may, but few get the chance to buy. Wong's work is rarely massed produced, he tends toward one of a kind museum pieces, and limited editions. Once he created wrapping paper made of actual Andy Warhol prints. It was to be sold by the SoHo Cite, and Owner P.J. Casey says they took out an ad in the New York Times, thousands of dollars for a gift-wrap.

Ms. P.J. CASEY (Owner of art gallery, Cite): (Laughing) No one bought it. It's out there. It was a fabulous idea, but the ad cost more than we ever made on that particular product.

McCUNE: This fall, you can look for Toby Wong's work at the Cooper-Hewitt's National Design Triennial. He's collaborating with Designer Neil Benson, on a sofa, a partial knock-off of the square, enclosed couch, that designer Alexander Gerard(ph) called, the conversation pit. This one will be in the shape of a pentagon. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marianne McCune
Marianne McCune is a reporter and producer for Embedded: Buffalo Extreme who has more than two decades of experience making award-winning audio stories. She has produced narrative podcast series for New York Magazine (Cover Story), helped start, produce and edit long-form narrative shows for NPR and public radio affiliates (Rough Translation; United States of Anxiety, Season Four), reported locally and internationally (NPR News, NPR's Planet Money and WNYC News) and produced groundbreaking narrative audio tours (SF MOMA, Detour). She is also the founder of Radio Rookies, a narrative youth radio series, that is still thriving at WNYC.