The 2016 AIGA Gala is Friday, April 15, 2016 at Pier Sixty, NYC. A limited number of tickets and tables are still available. Make your reservation now.

In the Venn diagram of design, The Principals exist most comfortably in that overlapping area in the middle. Not quite an architecture studio, not quite an industrial design shop, and not quite a fabrication set-up, the Brooklyn-based studio deals more in experiences than anything else. The Principals began in 2012 after its three founders realized they could do more together than apart. Each had his own focus—Drew Seskunas was the architect; Charles Constantine, the industrial designer, and Christopher Williams, the master fabricator of the crew—but they weren’t content to live in their siloed disciplines. “We kind of had to come together out of mutual need,” Seskunas says.

Drew Seskunas and Charles Constantine, photograph by Dan McMahon
Drew Seskunas and Charles Constantine, photograph by Dan McMahon

The guys were interested in bridging the worlds of architecture and industrial design to create a new type of environment, one that lives somewhere in between a large-scale sculpture and a full-fledged architectural space. Despite having made domino sets, tables, and various other furnishings, The Principals are probably best known for the sort of thing that wouldn’t fit inside your home. Their work, which has been installed at the likes of MoMA PS1, Bonnaroo, and soon the AIGA Gala, is perhaps best described as spatial experiences. Seskunas himself explains it as the difference between a Richard Serra sculpture and a Frank Gehry building. “The Frank Gehry building has toilets in it, and the Richard Serra doesn’t,” he says. “But they both have similar formal qualities.” The Principals aren’t so much interested in integrating the practicalities of architecture as they are exploring the fundamental aspects of it.

If you look at many of The Principals’ projects, you’ll see they consistently toe the line between traditional architecture and experiments in shape and material. Most of the installations begin with the designers thinking about how to take architectural forms—arches, barrel vaults, basic four-post shelters—and re-imagine them completely. Glance around their Greenpoint, Brooklyn studio and you’ll see an archway of parallelograms or a tessellation of triangles that form a wall. The designers draw inspiration from basic geometries that, like crystals, can be repeated to create a new shape. Many of the installations incorporate simple technologies (sensors, lighting, or mechanical systems) that allows visitors to interact with the architecture forms.

Case in point: when creating their most recent project, an installation for the AIGA Gala, the designers became smitten with pyrite. The glimmering rock is best known as fool’s gold, but on its own it has a beautiful, cubical form. The Principals wanted to draw on that shape to create an interactive installation that changes based on human biometrics. A cluster of golden mylar cubes expand and contract based on the electricity transmitted through human touch. As passersbys caress a waterfall of thin, dangling aluminum rods, capacitive sensors embedded in the installation read the electricity and transfer it to an Arduino that controls a computer fan inside each cube.

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“We were like, what if we create a clusters of gold that people could brush against, and as they touch they start to crumble and alter their geometry in radical ways?” Seskunas says. It’s a simple, yet transfixing use of technology that makes you think about how the supposedly inanimate spaces around us might someday be as reactive as a living organism.

Still, the value of The Principals’ installations isn’t always immediately obvious. Seskunas points to influences like Buckminster Fuller, whose heady architecture was arguably more valuable in theory than in application. Similarly, The Principals’ work aims to fundamentally change the way people think about (and experience) the built environment—a goal, Seskunas admits, that isn’t exactly simple. “The end game for our projects is finding ways to tap into those moments of deep, meaningful experience that expand our viewpoint of the world,” he says. “Or at least be one small part of that.”