New Affiliates, a design duo based in New York, finds refuge from workaday architecture concerns in art projects

Culture Vultures

After cutting their teeth at cerebral New York firms like DS+R and MOS, Jaffer Kolb and Ivi Diamantopoulou set out on their own, forming New Affiliates in 2016. The pair has since designed art studios, country homes, and temporary installations, such as a recent project for the Architectural League’s Beaux Arts Ball that saw massive faux-Hausmann doors, recycled from a Times Square pop-up, suspended in melting ice sculptures. Recyclability has emerged as a pressing concern. “As architects,” Kolb said, “it’s a very difficult profession to wrap our heads around ethically because we’re dealing with the vast amount of construction demolition waste that goes into the industry.”

But as wide-ranging as their practice is, Kolb and Diamantopoulou feel most at home in the art world. Already this year, New Affiliates has designed displays for three exhibitions at major New York venues. The projects present different modes of perspective to disrupt the typical gallery setup.

At the Shed, New Affiliates designed an exhibition environment for Tomás Saraceno: Particular Matter(s), which closed in April. (Nicholas Knight)

The exhibit schema that the architects developed for Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, now open at the Jewish Museum, shatters the late filmmaker’s corpus across a dozen discrete screens and allows visitors to pass in between. For Tomás Saraceno’s Particular Matter(s), a recent exhibition at the Shed that simulated the life of spiders, Kolb and Diamantopoulou devised a series of dark, disorienting rooms that prepared visitors for the central immersive experience within. (It involved a scaled-up “spider’s web,” held in tension, that enmeshed children and adults nearly 100 feet in the air.)

“I really like the way that they allow us to ask different questions,” said Kolb, referring to the studio’s cultural commissions. “They’re different questions of how architecture, design, and space can be conceived.”

For the 2022 Beaux Arts Ball, New Affiliates designed a time-based installation that made use of melting ice blocks. (Michael Vahrenwald/Courtesy Esto)

The pair describe their practice as being “dialogic” or conversation-based, and this discursive way of working translates well to the exhibition projects. “Curators very often will reach out to us because we’re good with living artists,” said Diamantopoulou. “There is a back-and-forth. It’s very productive and offers a kind of insight into the work.”

She said she enjoys the loosening of certain strictures that such projects enable. “We have more bandwidth to kind of be intellectually curious and put things on the table that wouldn’t come up otherwise—a reading, a book, an idea, a form.”

There are practical consequences to this approach. Because the timescale of a museum project is very different from that of an architectural project—even factoring in planning, gallery displays have a short life span—“a lot less is put into really high-end detailing, and we can be more playful with materials,” Kolb said. “The way we work on exhibitions has a lot more to do with conceiving how people work through space, the encounter—and it feels like a very time-based design medium.”

The studio also designed the exhibition, Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, open at the Jewish Museum. (Dario Lasagni)

For Rashaad Newsome: Assembly at the Park Avenue Armory, New Affiliates pursued a slightly different course. Recognizing the sweeping scale of the kunsthalle, Kolb and Diamantopoulou set themselves spatial parameters to guide their work, which resulted in an intentionally delimited environment. “We were very careful to kind of never really touch the Armory and to generate a sense of autonomy between what we inserted and what was already there, being very strategic to keep it legible,” Diamantopoulou said. The walls she and Kolb did add were placed about a foot from the Armory’s own; monumental screens on which Newsome projected a “hologram” topped out at 40 feet—well below the buildable-height cutoff.

In the end, New Affiliates isn’t just working with the material and vision of an artist or a curator. For every project, the studio also works with a preexisting set of forms—and its founders like things that way. “I don’t think we’re ever excited if someone, like, gives us carte blanche,” said Kolb. “We love and thrive off the kind of friction that arises from a prompt or a person, a set of ideas or an inherited set of conditions.”