August 10, 2016
Founder and Creative Director of SKAGGS
Bradley Skaggs, founder and creative director of SKAGGS, is…well, wonderful. Honestly, that’s the first adjective that comes to mind. He’s kind; he has a great sense of humor, and he’s humble. You don’t realize how intelligent and talented he is until you’ve hung out with him for a while, and then one day you realize how much serious brain is behind the glasses. He began his career as an architect, which is, he says, “one of the best design backgrounds you can have. You’re forced to think about scale, from the urban scale down to the detail of a doorknob. Strategy is the bigger picture, and design is about the small details.” For about the bigger picture and the small details, read on!
Normally the way I start is by asking people what they do. I already know what you do, so maybe you could talk a little bit about how it’s changed over the years.
When we started, as you know, it was just Jonina (co-founder and art director) and I. She was freelancing her ass off, and I was getting into more 3-D and virtual reality work at my job at STUDIOS Architecture. That led to us getting involved with a project through a friend whose friends— both scientist—had written a grant to do this project for NASA. It was a huge virtual reality tour of all ten NASA facilities in the U.S.
Let’s pause there. What was that like?
Let me back up a little bit. When we started, we were working out of our studio apartment. I had been consulting for this company out of Hungary, Graphisoft, which develops a program called ARCHICAD. It was the first CAD program to have integrated 3D tools. There was a magazine back then called Architectural Record. They published a review every year of editor’s top buildings. Before publishing, they would go out and photograph them and release a multi-media experience as a CD-ROM. I was hired to turn it into a Web experience, so we built this immersive virtual tour of the six homes. You could go to the website and click little nodes on a plan and virtually stand in the space and pan around and then jump from room to room. That’s what led to us working on the NASA project. My friend was engaged with ARCHICAD like I was. After we had got the grant, we spent a summer running around NASA sites and photographing rockets, labs, simulators; you name it. Then 9/11 happened, and it never saw the light of day. But the process of doing it inspired Jonina and I to join forces and start the company.
You’re both founders. How do you split responsibilities?
It’s art direction vs. creative direction. Jonina really has an eye, she knows typography like no one, and she drives the design. My job is taking the client’s vision and putting it into something that we can execute on. There are two types of clients: Those who know what they need but don’t know what they want, and those who know what they want but don’t know what they need. The first half of the job is figuring that out, and the second half of the job is actually doing it.
And you have to deliver something that they can say no to.
Yeah. That’s easy. It’s delivering something that they yes to that’s more challenging. I think 99% of the time clients tell you what they want. And you have to give them that. Then I think you give them what you know is right. 99% of the time, they’ll see it, and they’ll do it. They’ve hired you for your expertise, after all.
What do you feel like you’re an expert in? And has that changed?
That’s a big question. I think expertise is something you try to attain all the time. I don’t know if you ever get there. It’s that constant fight with yourself and everything else to be better and do better and produce better results. I’d say that as a company, if we’re experts at anything, it’s producing strong creative, being there for our clients and taking care of them.
You’re providing creative therapy.
(laughs) Sometimes I do feel like I should offer therapy sessions as a service. I think I just work the hardest at trying to give them the best we can do. We strive to come up with different ideas and different solutions to the business challenges they’re facing. We try to make something different and unique that’s really about them. I don’t know if that’s being an expert, but that’s the goal, for me personally and for the team as a whole. If you look at our work, you see that there’s not a defining style to it. There are elements that are consistent, but generally, I think the work is genuinely a reflection of the brand we’re working for.
As someone who manages people and clients, as well as coming up with ideas, how do you let go a little bit, to let people do their thing?
I’m lucky that I have a great team and an awesome partner. I know when I have to let stuff go, and I know it’ll be taken care of. So I’m comfortable handing it off. The other thing that solves the problem of letting go is that you just don’t have the time to do it all. Overthinking is the worst thing that can possibly happen. It’s that old question, “How do you know when to stop?” Time tells you when to stop. Because sometimes you just don’t have it, and you have to move on.
Writers sometimes have writers’ block, and it really sucks. Do you have strategy blocks? And what do you do?
It happens all the time. Sometimes you just need a little distance. You go out and take pictures. You can’t always go on a trip to get away, but travel is a very important part of the equation. You have to go to other places in the world and see things and understand how other people live. It makes you realize that there is always another option.
What’s the travel experience that has affected you the most and really changed the way you see?
Our trip to Iran in 2014. My sister-in-law is Persian. She’s from Tehran, but she’s lived here forever. Her mother and brother still live there, and we were there for a week. It was amazing. As an architect, it’s spectacular. You’re looking at these mosques from the 10th century that almost have a perfect dome built of brick, and you’re just wondering how they did it. You’re also wondering how the buildings are still standing. The tile work is just crazy. And then, of course, there’s the food, which is mind-blowing. I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s a beautiful, beautiful country with some of the most generous people I’ve ever met.
What about your trip to Japan? I think you were there last year, right?
Japan is nuts. For the first time in my life, I felt like New York was a small city. Tokyo is massive. It’s 13 and a half million people. When you go up in a building that’s 60, 70 stories high, you still can’t see the end of the city. It just goes and goes. There’s no grid. It looks like total and utter chaos which I found interesting given Japanese perfection. It’s a total juxtaposition. Some of the towers are entire cities in and of themselves. The first 30 floors are retail and offices, and movie theaters and all this stuff, and then you have a break of 20 floors of people living, and above that is 20 floors of a hotel, and then more living above that.
As someone who started off as an architect, what are three buildings that are important to you and why?