Small Screen, Big Future
The latest star turn for Goil Amornvivat and Thomas Morbitzer is a set for Whoopi Goldberg
Monica Khemsurov -- Interior Design, 11/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The Head Games set, with its acrylic contestant stand. Courtesy of Tug Studio.
One might assume that having a master's in architecture from Yale University offers a competitive advantage when establishing your own firm. Not to mention having six years at Robert A.M. Stern Architects under your belt. The résumés of Thai citizen Goil Amornvivat and Ohio native Thomas Morbitzer listed both accomplishments when the pair—personal and professional partners—were preparing to found Tug Studio in Brooklyn, New York, in 2007. Then, just when the future looked like it couldn't get any more promising, Amornvivat landed on the reality TV shows Top Design and Trading Spaces, helping to advertise the duo's knack for inventive, intuitive design. Which is precisely what brought Whoopi Goldberg to their doorstep when she needed a brainy set for her Science Channel quiz show, Head Games.
What made you study architecture?
GA: I was deciding between sculpture and architecture, and I chose architecture, because I believe it can change people's lives—it's my way of contributing. I'm a Buddhist, so the idea of good karma is imprinted in my DNA.
TM: Believing that design is a way to make things better is something that Goil and I have in common, despite our different backgrounds. For me, architecture was also an umbrella for studying art, history, and science, much more than just building houses. That's what surprised me when I started and what keeps me going now.
The top writer for Head Games looking at the show's promotional image, a collaboration with Tug. Courtesy of The Science Channel.
Tell us about your advanced design studio with Frank Gehry at Yale.
GA: Frank put his heart on the line with every project. He taught us that emotion can manifest itself in physical form. I hold the same belief. The big picture is finding authenticity in your work. I put my heart into everything I do, so you're not getting just my project—you're getting my heart.
How did you end up on Top Design?
GA: The casting-call e-mail went around at Parsons, where I was teaching, and I saw an opportunity where others didn't. After the years I'd spent working for Bob Stern, I felt the need to experience more. It was my rebellious-youth period. If I were Madonna, leaving the firm would've been my "Like a Virgin" tour. I'd been watching Project Runway, and I thought it did a good job educating people about the fashion world. I figured Top Design could do the same kind of thing. Plus, since I'd been doing a lot of competition work, I knew I was good under pressure.
Describe transitioning from architecture to interiors.
GA: The best architects can design from the inside out, so I don't see a line between the two. I believe that a concept should drive a design from the small scale to the large and vice versa. That said, I learned a lot on Top Design. It was like going through grad school for interiors—but doing it in front of millions, under time and money constraints, with everyone talking behind your back.
A storyboard that helped win Tug the Head Games commission. Courtesy of Tug Studio.
Have the TV gigs affected the type of clients who approach you now?
TM: Being visible in mainstream TV markets like Bravo, TLC, and the Science Channel means that our clients are more diverse, whereas a lot of firms get the same type of people over and over because of word of mouth. One residential client, who'd seen Goil on Top Design, had a huge collection of Indian and Pakistani art, which we hadn't worked with before. Incorporating it in the project taught us a lot.
Would you do more TV?
GA: Yes. I regard TV as a public space, like architecture, and the public aspect of the work—its impact on people—is the reason we do this.
How did the Whoopi Goldberg set come about?
GA: Tom and I met her at DIFFA's Dining by Design benefit. She remembered me from Top Design and said she had a TV project we'd be good for. We ended up having 48 hours to turn our concept around, and we were competing with 15 established set designers, but somehow we got picked. I think it was the fact that, as outsiders, we looked at the situation in a fresh way.
The living area of a New York apartment. Photo by Udom Surangsophon.
Could you describe how?
GA: We considered issues relating to the conversion of the old, narrow TV format to wide-screen HD. In the specific case of Head Games, video clips appear on a screen that both the contestants and the audience need to be able to see at all times, regardless of the camera angle. Our set, which is based on old-fashioned operating theaters, ensures that neither format misses out. We even surprised the director when we arrived at the studio with a full-size mock-up, so he could frame his shots.
TM: Building the set became an architecture project, because the main piece needed to look opaque while allowing an image to be back-projected through its surface. It looks simple, but there's a lot of magic there.
What's in the pipeline for Tug now?
TM: We're renovating a New York triplex apartment that used to be a parish house, revealing all the beautiful church architecture that was covered up and combining it with modern elements.
GA: And we're excited about renovating the facade of the official New York residence of the Thai ambassador to the U.N. The fifth king of Thailand bought the town house 100 years ago, and it's in a landmark district. It makes me feel very patriotic.
Goil Amornvivat's first room design on Trading Spaces. Photo by Goil Amornvivat.