Photos by Naho Kubota, David B. Smith, Leong Leong
Text by Alec Coiro
I met Dominic and Chris Leong, directors of the New York-based design office Leong Leong, outside of the SVA building where they had just finished designing the floor for SVA’s newly inaugurated MA program in curatorial practice. Steven Madoff, the department chair, created this innovative program at SVA, and Leong Leong, in collaboration with Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio+ Renfro, designed the floor that will house the program. The design features a modular gallery space and movable walls that enable a wide range of curatorial flexibility. With their latest creation as the backdrop, we discussed the origins of their practice.
Dominic and Chris are from a small town in Northern California where their father—also an architect—designs residential projects in Napa Valley. In 2009, they found themselves in New York City and started the office. Setting out, their intention was to eschew the traditional route most young practices embark upon—submitting speculative projects to competitions—in favor of creating tangible work, albeit on an initially small scale. As Dominic puts it, “we decided not to do competitions, but to focus more on installations where we could test and build ideas. Even if the projects were taking place on a smaller scale, we were prototyping ideas for a larger scale.” An extreme example of their smallscale design beginnings was Turning Pink, an installation in an 8′ x 10′ gallery space in Chinatown that they created with a $5,000 budget and pink foam. Chris recalls that “the concept was to transform the closet-like space into something more expansive. A lot of the early projects were motivated by the constraints of space and of materiality and by seeing how far you could push those things.”
Starting with these small-scale projects allowed Chris and Dominic’s process to grow organically, as one project led to another. The pink foam grotto of Turning Pink, for example, was in many ways the conceptual foundation for their next project, the foam cave that they created for menswear designer Siki Im.
In the case of the Siki Im store, Leong Leong conceived of the design challenge more as crafting an experience than building a store. What they came up with was essentially a box with a skateboard ramp-shaped structure built inside of it. The exterior rigidity of the box was contrasted with the soft landscape of the ramp, which in turn had the store’s merchandise buried beneath it. Chris recalls, “a lot of those smaller projects were about trying to transform the perception of these small interior spaces. In the first instance, the closet is transformed into something cavernous; with the store, a box shape is transformed into something contoured.” In retrospect, Dominic suspects that one of the motivations for these designs was rooted in being trained to create expansive, ground-up structures, but having a practice that worked with small interior spaces. The response was to push beyond the limits of the small spaces and “turn interiors into landscapes.”
This process of thinking through and creating smaller interior projects from the inside out is now informing their thinking about larger-scale projects. They have gone on to create stores for Phillip Lim in Seoul and PYE in Hong Kong. They have also designed the U.S. Pavillion at the Venice Biennale and the interior of the Opening Ceremony store in the Ace Hotel. They were commissioned to design a facade in the Miami Design District. For the Miami project, they have designed a new skin for a parking structure on a block that will also include a completely separate installation designed by John Baldessari, giving the block a provocative “exquisite corpse” feel.