Antenna Design: Bridging Art and Commerce

This year's National Design Award product design winners have found a solution-seeking work ethic to be the best approach

"Good design isn't always visible," says Masamichi Udagawa pensively, light streaming behind him into an airy Manhattan studio. Nodding, his partner Sigi Moeslinger adds: "The essence is to lead people; design is the embodiment of the right information at the right time."

The unassuming, soft spoken pair, winners of this year's National Design Award for product design, are trying to pinpoint common themes in a broad body of work that stretches from products for companies such as Bloomberg, IBM (IBM), and Microsoft (MSFT) to interactive art displays in galleries such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The Japanese-born Udagawa and Austrian Moeslinger form the core of the five-person, New York City-based Antenna Design, a firm that since 1997 has bridged the divide between art and commerce, public and private, information and objects.

The firm works on just 8 to 10 projects a year, but Antenna's rise tracks closely with the design boom of the past decade that has seen business executives refocus on the discipline as a strategy for growth. High technology acolytes, Antenna has specialized in creating information-infused objects that place equal emphasis on form and function. Millions of daily commuters, for instance, use the MetroCard Vending Machines designed by the firm for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority more than a decade ago. The aging boxes dole out subway passes via a simple, elegant touch interface—devised years before Apple's (AAPL) vaunted iPhone revolution. Originally commissioned simply to dress up the outside of the existing, dull gray vending machines, Antenna fought to work on the interface design, too. This combination, say Udagawa and Moeslinger, has contributed to the design's longevity.

"I Learned the Hard Way"

Before forming Antenna, Udagawa and Moeslinger both worked for high profile design consultancies and corporations. But learning to work with businesspeople did not come naturally. Udagawa describes heated clashes with product managers at Apple when he designed PowerBooks for the computer maker in the mid-1990s. Managers saw design decisions that Udagawa considered essential as unnecessary and expensive. Udagawa thought they didn't get it—and told them so. But then he began taking business classes in the evenings to better understand his colleagues' perspective and to learn to communicate with them. "'How do we make money?' is the obvious common language between business and design," says Udagawa. Laughing, he adds: "It took me quite a while to understand; I learned the hard way."

These lessons, according to design directors that have worked with the pair, have filtered into a pragmatic, solution-seeking work ethic. "I almost never had to give them direction," says Melody Roberts, McDonald's (MCD) director of Customer Experience Design, who has been working with Antenna since 2006 on a series of undisclosed projects. "They narrow the solutions for us and can translate between business and design, articulating benefits."

Instead of simply stamping products with a cookie-cutter imprimatur, like some star designers, Antenna produces work of broad aesthetic scope. "At this point, their egos could be through the roof," says Raquel Tudela, Bloomberg's design director who worked with Antenna on redesigns of the company's dual-screen, flat-panel displays and keyboards, which won a silver IDEA award this year. (For more on this project, watch this BusinessWeek slide show, narrated by Udagawa. "But they wanted to understand who we are and work according to that," adds Tudela. Given a brief to redesign the iconic Bloomberg terminal, Antenna conducted intense research to test its concepts. When users initially rejected an entirely flat keyboard, the designers came up with an effective compromise—a flat-looking keyboard with tactile feedback. Tudela says the design was a reassuring step forward. "It allowed Bloomberg to evolve without abandoning what made us successful."

Antenna's interactive art installations also set it apart from its commercial rivals. These have included a famous 2002 interactive window display for Bloomingdale's flagship department store in New York, funded by a grant from the Haagen-Dazs Cultural Initiative. Dubbed "Power Flower," neon flowers triggered by motion sensors would "bloom" or illuminate when observers passed by. Over the years, similarly innovative projects have appeared in galleries and museums from Cologne to Tokyo. Udagawa and Moeslinger view these installations as opportunities to experiment and think outside the box. Such constraint-free musings help them keep coming up with fresh ideas for clients, too.

"Their intellectual work informs the commercial," says Benjamin Pardo, a senior vice-president of design with Knoll (KNL). Pardo is working with Antenna on a line of inter-generational workspaces that should roll out in 2010. He says the Power Flower installation is emblematic of the firm's best qualities: "They aren't afraid of the tenuous line between art and design." It's precisely this fearlessness that has carried the little firm into big business.