In the 16th of the series of Sofa Chats, co-Directors of Zaha Hadid Design Woody Yao and Maha Kutay in conversation with Anke Summerhill about their career path, their work with Zaha Hadid and sustainability in design.
As trained architects, Woody Yao and Maha Kutay joined Hadid’s practice in 1993 and 1995 respectively; Yao joined directly after graduation from the Architectural Association (AA) – School of Architecture, and Kutay from an MA in Architecture from Columbia University.
Throughout their career’s they have worked closely with Hadid on a number of key architectural projects of which the ROCA Gallery London is among them. As project architects, they led their team in design execution and delivery. In 2006 Hadid founded the studio Zaha Hadid Design (ZHD), which includes a portfolio of pioneering designs for lighting, furniture and finishes, and commissions from a wide range of design disciplines such as fashion, jewellery, interiors, exhibition, and set-design. In 2013, Hadid appointed Yao and Kutay as co-Directors of ZHD.
Hit the play button below to watch the full conversation, or read the full transcript below:
Anke Summerhill: Hi. I’m Anke Summerhill from Minotti, London. And today, I’m very pleased to have the aristocracy of architecture and design, Woody Yao, and Maha Kutay, from Zaha Hadid. Welcome. And thank you for coming to talk to us.
Woody Yao: Thank you.
Maha Kutay: Thank you.
Anke: Can I ask you to introduce yourself, and can I start with you, Maha?
Maha: Maha Kutay, director of Zaha Hadid Design, joined the practice in ’95 as an architect, and now working as a designer for the business.
Anke: Design. Yeah. And how about you, Woody?
Woody: Oh, wow. It’s a long, long time ago.
Anke: Just describe for me, who you are, what you do.
Woody: Yeah, I joined in ’93. The office, I remember walking in, it’s five people in the office and the office just completed the first building at that time, the Vitra Fire Station.
Anke: So you both joined Zaha Hadid, more or less, straight away after graduating, is that right?
Woody: I was looking for a practice to work for. Actually, I have first on my list at that time, because I know someone who is actually working at the Hong Kong Airport at that time.
And one day, I got a call from the AA who asked me, “Okay, we are organising a show for Zaha Hadid, will you be interested in working on it?” But I have no clue what I’m supposed to do. I thought I may just put my overalls on, and put a few paintings up for the show.
Anke: Set up.
Woody: But then the next day says, “Sorry, you need to go to the Zaha office.” And then basically, I just end up there for almost 30 years. But of course, I have an interview after…
Anke: How about you, Maha, how did it happen? Was it luck or determination?
Maha Kutay: Actually, the first book of architecture that I bought was the GA book on Zaha. And I was amazed by the drawings and the paintings that she had in that book.
And from then on, it was my inspiration, you would say. And lucky enough I was at Columbia, met Zaha there, and somehow it ended up with an interview in London.
Anke: Amazing. Did you feel very lucky?
Maha: Yes. Looking at it now I’ve got children, and I see how they’re suffering getting jobs, and going through interview processes, and yeah…
Anke: So Zaha was obviously an all around designer, not just an architect. So how did it come about with the Zaha Hadid Design studio? Why suddenly a separate company?
Woody: It’s an interesting one. Because, if you look back to the history of Zaha… I call it Zaha Hadid, instead of Zaha Hadid Architect, or Zaha Hadid Design. At the beginning, just Zaha Hadid, nothing else. If you look at her, even her first project, you see actually the interior is always there. It’s always about the overall.
There’s not a separation between the Zaha Hadid Design interior or product, but what her mindset is, inside, outside is one complete language. So, it’s always within the beliefs she has right from day one. And of course, if you look at Vitra, you can’t distinguish its interior or the exterior.
Anke: They come together. Okay. So do you feel, obviously Zaha’s no longer with us, do you feel she gave you a really good base to carry on her legacy?
Maha: I would hope so. We’ve spent years together, watching her, seeing her creatively and being involved in her creative process. So, yeah.
Anke: So, when did you guys know that you liked design? From a young age, did you always like beautiful things or good design, or is it going to university and figuring out what it is you wanted to do? When did you know you wanted to become architects?
Woody: I didn’t know. I was, “Yeah, I’m going to be an architect,” but I didn’t know I loved drawing, looking at fashion, beautiful things, I call it that way. And my father was a civil engineer, and of course, he have a fixation about, “This son should be a lawyer. This one should be a doctor and I should be-
Anke: An architect.
Woody: … an engineer.” We don’t even know about architecture.
Anke: It’s not a proper job.
Woody: Yeah. But then, when I went to boarding school, and then I started doing at a level, and the time has come, right? I have to make a decision. So actually, my brother told me, and other friends, ” So you like arts? Why don’t you look into architecture?”
So then I searched, and then people talk about the AA and the Bristol University, you have to get three A in order to go to the best university to study architecture.
Anke: Luckily they let you in.
Woody: And also, I thought if I become an architect, I can do anything I want. And I think that’s exactly what happens now.
Anke: What about you, Maha?
Woody: So, that’s my story.
Maha: For me, it was more the challenge. I grew up with an older brother who actually sketched a lot. He could draw things and I always felt that I couldn’t do that. And I was too much of a perfectionist.
So things had to be a proper copy of what I was looking at. It wasn’t as creative. And, it was more the challenge that how can I push myself to actually become that person?
Anke: So, do you find design is a bit more challenging these days with having to take sustainability into account?
Maha: Definitely. I think we’re trying to move towards that direction. We are at the moment, working on some prototypes, recycling coffee beans into materials that are rigid furniture materials.
We’re investigating with quite a few materials, recycled Apple glass material. You recycle material used from Apple phones. And, it’s interesting.
For us, it’s not a new thing, it’s been around for more than ten years, so you have those companies that have actually developed things, but it’s great working with them, and trying to bring it into the design world, basically.
Anke Summerhill: Yes. Do you feel you play an important part in making the world a more beautiful place?
Maha: Better place.
Woody: Absolutely. It’s an interesting question. When I first started in the practice, I didn’t think we are going to build that much, not just about architecture, and all the product design and stuff, but I realised whatever we touch, actually people are watching.
I think we are lucky that we are with Zaha, because people are always watching the space, and knowing what is next, or whether they want us to fail or they want something. It’s exciting for the world to have a…
Maha: You feel responsible though-
Anke: Yeah. A bit of pressure.
Maha: … at the same time. Exactly. Because people are expecting something from you. People are looking.
Woody: Yes, a lot of pressure.
Maha: You do feel that pressure of what’s coming next, and how is it going to affect the world around you, and people, and thoughts, and how you’re going to be perceived. But, that shouldn’t stop you from actually doing what you believe is the right thing.
Anke: So Maha, is there a favourite design that you’ve either bought in the past or that you would like to buy in the future?
Maha: I would say just by impulse, the first piece of furniture that I bought myself, in my apartment in New York, was an LC4 of Le Corbusier, chaise-longue.
Anke: Oh, it’s beautiful.
Maha: And for me, literally, the whole apartment had that chair and a mattress.
Anke: That’s all you had.
Maha: Exactly. Yeah.
Anke: You had to sleep on it, eat on it.
Anke: And you still have it?
Maha: I don’t, unfortunately. When I moved back here, it stays behind.
Anke: You could not bring it with you.
Anke: Okay. Have you found a new favourite piece in your home?
Maha: I’m working on that at the moment. In the process.
Anke: I’m really excited because we’re going to have some of Zaha Hadid accessories in our showroom. Okay, tell me at least what you think would fit in really good here, what you really love about that collection, that would go well with our look, or maybe not go with our look and make it look different.
Maha: I was thinking of this today coming into the showroom, walking through it, and your pieces, they’re strong, and they’re imposing, and quite volumetric. And I think we would need to look at the larger items within the collection, whether it’s the chess set or our node vases that are made out of acrylic, or we’ve got a few crystal pieces.
Anke: Glass? Yes.
Maha: Again. Yeah. It’s more… But then again, you can also, the reflective materials, I can see there are a lot of reflective materials. And some of our pieces would look really nice here.
Anke: Yeah. I’m sure they would look really nice. I’m super excited about it. I was really super excited about having you guys here as well.
Maha: Thank you.
Anke: And I’d like to thank you very much-
Woody: No, thank you.
Anke: … for coming. It’s such a pleasure talking to you.
Maha: Thank you.
Anke: And thank you for your time.
Woody: No, thank you very much.
Maha: Thank you.
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