Family and PlayLab

Family and PlayLab

Family and PlayLab, two young Brooklyn-based design firms, share work as well as a design ethos. Their current collaboration, Plus Pool, is a floating x-shaped swimming pool designed to filter river water and create a safe, clean swimming arena on the Hudson. Worms, another joint project, was the winning entry in a competition for a street tent design to be used in New York’s Festival of Ideas last May. Both projects epitomize the individual firms’ shared desire to make publicly engaged design. “Our audience is the world,” said Archie Lee Coates, a partner at PlayLab.

Coates, Jeffrey Scott Franklin, and Dong-Ping Wong have known each other since 2007. Franklin and Wong cut their teeth at REX architects in New York, Wong freshly graduated from Columbia and Franklin from Virginia Tech, where both he and Coates studied. In 2008, at the peak of the economic downturn, Wong left REX, establishing Family to pursue his own architectural work with an ecological agenda. Meanwhile Coates had established PlayLab, initially as a platform for simply designing things he liked, such as record sleeves and art installations, and in 2009 Franklin left REX to join him.


Currently, PlayLab is designing a 350-square-foot summerhouse for a friend and an art gallery installation in Stockholm, and Family has been entering architecture competitions for cultural institutions and residential schemes. And though they traverse different trajectories —PlayLab is interested in the strategy side of design projects as well as producing installations, while Family is more traditional in its approach to architecture—this makes the two studios natural collaborators.

Their joint work to date is defined by engagement and interaction not just in terms of end-use but also process. In the case of Worms, PlayLab went to Family with multiple ideas for re-envisioning the outdoor tent, and Wong picked the one he liked. For Plus Pool, Family approached PlayLab to act as broadcaster of the idea, producing a book, poster, and graphic identity to communicate the project to the public, while Family focused on spec ific architectural challenges.

It’s a complementary coupling: Wong’s more formalized approach to design starts from an over-arching concept and then scales down to the details— “I’m much more comfortable with large-scale,” he said—while Franklin and Coates’ broad scope encompasses graphic design, branding, and bringing far-out ideas to life. “Our direction is every direction, we don’t want to be pigeon holed,” said Franklin. Keen to move on to larger scale work and energized by bouncing ideas of one another, Family and PlayLab are committed to realizing Plus Pool and maintaining an ongoing collaboration.


East River, Brooklyn

Plans for the project, originally initiated by Family, shot ahead last year due to an unexpectedly enthusiastic public reception. The positive reaction to the floating “giant strainer” has led to talks with the City about implementing the design—a neat fit with the 2030 riverfront development plan. “I wanted to see how far you could take a project just out of thin air,” said Wong, “which wasn’t very far, up until the Pool.” A three-layer filtration wall system, developed with project engineers Arup is the next step in the project. The pool is currently presented as tethered near the Brooklyn Bridge, but ultimately the plan is for it to move along the waterfront.


Bowery, New York City

PlayLab approached Family with multiple ideas for the New Museum and Storefront for Architecture’s competition to re-envision the outdoor tent. True to their ad-hoc spirit, Family and PlayLab’s entry was put together in a hurried 12 hours. Their winning design, 10 by 20 foot tents made from fabric nylon traditionally used for parachutes and steel tube framework—played on the agility of a tent to create a variety of spaces for different uses, from engaging in storefronts to wrapping around trees. Parts of the construction took place in Family’s office and the team installed much of Worms themselves on site.


Dallas, Texas

The result of a 2009 competition to build a 600-person, high-density, zero-energy residential block in downtown Dallas, the Peaks became the clearest definition of Family’s driving principle: ecological architecture. The stepped triangular towers dotted with small, low-noise emitting wind turbines were arranged to increase the surface area and capture funneled wind as well as solar power. Working with an energy consultant specializing in wind turbines, Family’s towers went beyond the brief to generate surplus energy, which could then be sold back to the city grid for a profit and fund the building’s maintenance.



Greensboro, Alabama

This project was an exercise in “designing a way to get people to interact,” according to Franklin. Based in a house donated to a non-profit in Greensboro and rented out at $1 per year, the Pie Lab became an incubator for dispelling racial tensions in the surrounding areas. Resisting the classic shop culture and discouraging take-out, PlayLab would knock on people’s doors and invite them over for pie and a conversation. To encourage social interaction, they designed a square table and brand and signage that invited curiosity. The project won a series of grants and Pie Lab bought a building on downtown’s main street, which is run by locals and acts as a small business incubator.



Mantta, Finland

In March this year Family submitted designs for a competition to triple the area of the Serlachius, a contemporary art museum in Mantta, Finland. With the only constraint being to incorporate an enclosed connection to the existing collection, Family’s design for a low profile, one-story ring worked with the surrounding topography to provide views of the water and islands beyond from a string of framed gallery spaces. Keeping public access open beneath the ring, the design was intended to integrate the new spaces into the historic grounds to create a new village, or center, eschewing the idea of the stand-alone iconic gallery.