About the Design Leaders series:
In Design Leaders, Pivot reaches out to individuals and companies who live and breathe design. This series explores the genesis of design and its practical applications in business. We hope that it inspires you to think expansively and create meaningfully, both at work and at play.
molo, based in Vancouver, Canada, is a collaborative design and production studio led by Stephanie Forsythe (B.EDS, M.ARCH) and Todd MacAllen (B.FA, B.EDS, M.ARCH). The molo studio is dedicated to the research of materials and the exploration of space making.
Interviewees: Kathy Hamagami, Account Manager; Christopher Allen, Press & Studio Coordinator; Todd MacAllen, Co-Founder & Co-Designer
Pivot Design Group: We’re excited to talk to the studio behind the molo softwall that we purchased and use to divide our main conference and meeting area from other space in our open-concept offices in Toronto. It’s been a fantastic addition to our space, not just practically but it’s also a conversation piece that clients and other visitors get really engaged with.
Christoper Allen: It’s great to hear that the wall has integrated into your office as a flexible space divider!
PDG: What is the significance of the name, “molo”?
Chris: When Todd and Stephanie founded molo they had an architectural practice and wanted to work on projects that they could fund themselves without the need of a client, and that naturally led to smaller work. The name molo comes from “middle ones little ones”. All molo products come out of Todd and Stephanie’s personal experience. They take their experiences in daily life and turn those ideas into forms that can be more universally applied.
PDG: molo has a number of products now but we wanted to focus this conversation on the softwall. Can you describe the softwall for our readers?
Chris: It’s a partitioning system that is designed to define and divide space. It is flexible and durable – it can be formed and reformed, folded up and stored, hung on the wall, and so on. The soft, textured nature of the materials it’s made from – including a textile materials and kraft paper – can create smaller, more comfortable spaces within large spaces.
PDG: How and where did the idea for the softwall begin?
Kathy: Todd and Stephanie were both living and working in a loft space in Vancouver. They found that they needed to section off their work and sleeping areas for more privacy and they started to play with different ideas for moveable walls. The original idea started as an experiment with those decorative paper ornaments with the honeycomb design.
PDG: How did that initial idea evolve over time?
Kathy: The first softwalls were made of tissue paper with felt end panels. The walls today are made from more durable materials and their end panels are magnetic so that they can be combined in a modular way. Over time, the design has become more durable. The idea itself has developed into a system that you can do many things with.
The original idea has also led to different products. For example, the softblock system lets you build walls using smaller square components. softseating lets you build and rebuild seating in stools and benches. And there are also softlights constructed in a similar way.
Chris: The evolution of softwall really illustrates how the molo studio works. Ideas and products are developed in series and you can see that in softwall — how the core idea has been developed with different materials, shapes, sizes, scale, and so on. It is a process of continuous refinement. As softwall is used at tradeshows and other installations, the studio gains experiential knowledge and that experience expands the product. softseating and softlight came about through experiences and through thinking about different ways the product can be employed.
PDG: What are some of the processes used at the studio to generate new ideas? Where do new ideas come from?
Chris: There is a constant dialogue between team members here. It’s a very open studio. We meet every morning for 15-60 minutes to discuss ideas and goings on at the studio. Our team members work in various facets of media, sales, logistics, production, etc., and those meetings become a melting pot for ideas. Todd and Stephanie take those ideas, refine them, and give them back to the team. Face-to-face communications is a focus here at the studio. We can generate ideas more quickly and use them in a catalytic way.
PDG: How do you evaluate whether an idea for a product or service is worthy of exploration and investment?
Todd: Stephanie and I are always thinking and sketching, and we come up with many ideas. The ideas that are still interesting after a long period — the ones we’re still working on and developing — tend to be the ideas we eventually move ahead with. It’s a very natural process.
PDG: It is so exciting to hear about this process. As designers we tend to think in this expansive, generative way that you are describing and we are always looking for ways to bring that same experience to our clients’ businesses in a meaningful way. Did softwall generate innovations of a completely different kind?
Chris: Yes, definitely. For example, the hook that lets softwall be collapsed and hung on the wall for storage.
Kathy: One of the more popular uses of softwall lately has been for tradeshow booths or temporary exhibitions, and people using it in that situation want to be able to easily ship it, set it up, then repackage it and ship it to the next location. So the studio is working on durable, reusable packaging with no small parts that can be lost, is easy to undo and reassemble, and durable enough to withstand all that use.
Chris: These sorts of innovations are constantly going on here. In our physical space, the design studio and the workshop are adjacent to one another. The workshop is constantly working these kinds of things, developing and refining packaging and accessories.
The accessories for softwall really speak to how the product line has developed. Today there are tunnels through the interior of the wall that weren’t there originally. The tunnels have expanded what you can do with softwall – you can use the tunnels to hang it, to run lighting through it, and the tunnels also enable the tubing system that Kathy mentioned earlier. Now we can make corners, ceilings, windows and doorways with softwall.
PDG: What keeps you inspired to continue to innovate, to constantly improve upon ideas?
Todd: Stephanie and I are inspired by learning and by the world around us. Our natural curiosity motivates us to constantly search and improve.
PDG: What practical things do you do to foster innovation in your organization?
Todd: We see our studio as an extension of our schooling — it is an opportunity for us to continuously explore ideas in the same way we did at school. It’s like writing a thesis based on our experience. We try out ideas, research and learn new things. We give this challenge to ourselves and to all staff members at molo. So we are all constantly in development, reading, experiencing, participating. It almost feels like post-graduate work, and it can be a very challenging environment.
PDG: What is one thing that you did with the softwall idea that you think can be applicable to any business?
Todd: We use it ourselves. We create our own environments and then show these at exhibits and tradeshows.
PDG: Do you have any new ideas that you’re exploring now and willing to share with our readers?
Todd: We’re working on a retreat pavilion to explore the simplicity of shelter and construction, the elevation of simple everyday rituals, and the study of systems (ranging from power to waste recycling) that are fully self-sustaining.
PDG: Thank you for sharing your insights into the design process and how design works as – and for – business!
In the next article in the DesignMeets… DesignLeaders series, we interview Dr. Joseph Cafazzo on the use of technology to facilitate patient self-care.