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How A Small Studio Went From Designing Vases To Designing Islands

Dror Benshetrit of Dror explains how his 12-person studio manages to keep innovating while staying small.

Founded in 2003 by Israeli-born designer Dror Benshetrit, Dror is a relatively small studio. With only a dozen employees alongside its founder, it operates out of an eighth-floor WeWork space.

Despite its streamlined size, Dror's portfolio is incredibly diverse. Over the last 13 years, Benshetrit has expanded his practice from furniture to retail to architecture, designing everything from vases and chairs to island retreats and cruise-ship terminals. Perhaps best known for his ruffled Peacock Chair, which Rihanna used as a throne in her video for S&M, Dror's work has been acquired by museums around the world, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and clients range from Louis Vuitton to Target.

At a visit to his lower Manhattan studio yesterday as part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival, the Israeli-born designer told attendees the four biggest lessons that have guided his practice over the past decade, and allowed him to find bigger ideas and take on bigger projects than would be traditional for a studio his size.

Learn To Flip Your Fears

Design is an exercise in positively impacting the world around you. But fear drives many of our actions in life, both personally and professionally. It can also prevent us from trying new things. How do you turn fear into a motivator for design? Benshetrit says by embracing it and turning the fear into something more beautiful.

This approach has been key to Dror's success, harkening back to the studio's first product, the Vase of Phases. Created in 2003 for the acclaimed German porcelain company Rosenthal AG, the Vase of Phases looks for all intents and purposes like a vase free-framed in the middle of exploding, embracing the very fragility that is most people's worst fears about what could happen to something they love made out of porcelain, and turning it into something beautiful.

The Vase of Phases quickly became a company best seller. Because it was inspired by a universal fear of the fragility of beautiful things, Dror says everyone related to it. "Children loved it because it was funny, while adults liked it because it was subversive," he says. Rosenthal loved it too: after 150 years, they were finally owning their product's ultimate vulnerability.

Fears, in design, aren't necessarily something to be avoided, says Dror. They're something to be flipped and turned into assets.

Think Holistically To Find Bigger Ideas

"The most important thing we as designers can do is create connections between people and their environments," says Benshetrit. Creating these connections, though, requires thinking holistically, and finding the bigger idea that is sometimes hiding behind the smaller one.

One example of Dror's approach is the Pick Chair. When approached to design a folding chair, Benshetrit started by identifying why we have them in the first place: to accommodate more guests in our homes or offices. And when they're not in use, we hide them away. "It's crazy," says Benshetrit. "We clean our apartment for guests, make sure it's beautiful, and then bring out the ugliest chairs imaginable, things we don't want anyone to see."

Thinking about this contradiction lead Dror to realize that the key to designing the ultimate folding chair wasn't necessarily to make it as small in its collapsed form as possible. It's to make it as beautiful when it's not in use as it is functional when it is. His solution was to design a folded chair that, when not in use, could be hung on the wall as a quadriptych.

A great example of how thinking holistically turns a small idea—designing a better folding chair—into a bigger idea that is more powerful: the folding chair as a piece of art.

Bring Fresh Eyes To Big Design Challenges

When Dror was approached to help design Nurai Island, a 1.3-million-square-foot tropical isle off of Abu Dhabi, Benshetrit says his first response was incredulity. The client wanted Dror to design a luxury vacation island for the sort of customers who might own five or six homes around the world. "When I got the call, I laughed," Benshetrit remembers. "I told them flat out: I don't know how to build this!"

But Dror didn't need to be an architecture firm to come up with the idea that would end up driving nearly every aspect of the $500 million project. "I asked myself, if money is no issue, why would a rich person buy a house in an island development? Why not just buy your own island? It's because people want to be part of a community, just as much as they want privacy."

To give Nurai Island dwellers the best of both worlds, Dror imagined the roofs of the complex to be entirely covered with a green vegetative carpet. From their balconies, residents appear to be alone on the island, seeing nothing but beautiful ocean views and lush canopy; on ground level, though, they can take part in the Island community.

The Nurai Island project resulted in nearly $1 billion worth of real estate sales, and opened a door of possibilities into architecture for Dror. The lesson, says Benshetrit? There's a strong temptation to any designer at a given point in his or her career to specialize: to only take on one sort of job, or one type of client. That's an instinct that Benshetrit says should be resisted if you want your designs to remain innovative and fresh. Great design is more often than not an alchemy that only happens under fresh eyes.

Collaborate Effectively To Achieve Big Things

At the end of his Fast Company Innovation Festival session, Benshetrit shared for the first time Dror's next project: a 4,000-foot boardwalk in Istanbul, which combines the functions of a terminal for the thousands of people who board and unboard Bosphorous cruise ships with a friendly tourist space filled with retail stores and restaurants.

Designing a terminal for cruise ships is like designing an airport, says Benshetrit, only harder. This port in particular needed to be able to load or unload as many as five or six ships at once, each of which could have thousands of passengers. In addition to the simple problem of loading and unloading passengers, you need to find space for immigration, customs, and all the facilities cruise ships need, like offloading garbage or bringing supplies on board.

Dror had an idea: what if they created the world's first underwater cruise ship terminal? The boardwalk's port functions would be tucked underground when not used. When a ship came in, sections on the board walk would be hydraulically raised, to allow passengers to embark and disembark underground without disturbing the boardwalk's day-to-day tourist trade . . . let alone be a visual blight upon it by obscuring the sea front.

After pitching the idea, Benshetrit says he returned to New York in despair: the client had flat out told him not to think about it because his practice was too small. But Dror ultimately won the contract by teaming up with Gensler, the design and architecture firm, whose size and know-how brought the commission within reach.

The lesson? If an idea is big enough, it doesn't matter how small your studio, as long as you find friends who believe in it as much as you do.

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