PreFab Features - Original Interviews and Content
Q & A with Charlie Lazor of FlatPak
May 28th, 2008
by Gary Zupfer
Charlie Lazor, a practical and determined young designer, is the creator and principal archtiect of FlatPak, a modern prefab home design and manufacture firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His vision for prefab housing is heavily influenced by his design and manufacture experience as a co-founder of Blu Dot Furniture. I interviewed Mr. Lazor at his current home, the original FlatPak house, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Company: FlatPak, Minneapolis, MN
Education: B.A., Williams College; Master of Architecture, Yale University
Prefabs: Your Professional Background?
Charlie Lazor: I finished architecture school in 1993 and started practice. I was just getting my feet wet in architecture and learning about not only designing buildings, but how to communicate with builders, and how to get things done. This was a pretty big shift from architecture school and making drawings, where nuts and bolts are not part of the experience.
Prefabs: And how did you get involved with Blu Dot Furniture?
Charlie Lazor: My friend, my college roommate, John Cristakos, had an idea of starting a design and furniture manufacture company. The idea was that we would design it, manufacture it and act as the seller of the furniture to retailers. I moved to Minneapolis and we started 11 years ago this weekend -- the anniversary of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. We took our first prototypes to New York, and set up a booth, put out our wares and waited for people to come. It was kind of fun. At the end of the weekend we instantly had this business and a stack of orders -- but no product, no packaging, no forms, no warehouse, no forklift, no pallet racking… [Laughing]
It was a lot of fun. It just kind of took off and it seemed like we hit a chord with this idea of accessible furniture design. It was accessible in that there's a reason for why it looked like it did; it was functional, it was straight-forward, it was simple, and it was pretty reasonably priced and available at retail shops. It’s kind of amazing to think that when we started there was not a Design Within Reach, no Conran Shop -- it was still very much a place of expensive, contract kind of furniture world. The designers and architects had access to the showrooms, but the general public did not. We were interested in the general public. The general public could buy our stuff, take it home, and put it together.
Prefabs: Interesting that many great architects were also furniture designers.
Charlie Lazor: Yeah. I think we are very much in the area of the form making business -- the result of observation, sometimes research and often times just iteration of getting a form right, so that it works and that it makes sense. And that it's legible. Not only legible in what it is, but in how it’s put together. It's very much a built to made thing. There has been a long history of that.
The irony is that when I was in school in the late 80's and early 90's, I don't think that was of much interest at all. That was a period of designers like Eames, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Buckminster Fuller, The Case Study Program, it was really... it was history. It wasn't still alive and wasn't a touch point for most people in architecture school. When I was in school, it was a lot more about narratives and fictions and it was very much about the kind of things that would cut against the pragmatic, humanist approach to design.
Prefabs: At some point you left Blu Dot, was that because of your interest in prefab?
Charlie Lazor: It was primarily because of my interest in architecture. I had always intended that I would give three to five years to building Blu Dot and then get back into architecture.
But the move back into architecture took this specific approach of looking at Prefabrication as a way to make houses and deliver houses and also design houses -- that was very much an extension of what we were doing at Blu Dot, scaled up in the size of the project.
Furniture doesn't have plumbing or electrical, heating or air conditioning in it -- and it stays inside -- it doesn't need to keep the water out. So, it’s a comparatively complex problem but it's basically a similar kind of thinking process -- it just works on a different scale.
Prefabs: And you to started FlatPak about this time?
Charlie Lazor: Yes. It’s kind of funny, I remember designing things at Blu Dot -- I would always put myself inside the furniture, inside the letter holder, or the magazine rack and thought of them as architectural spaces or propositions. I was really just dying to make buildings again.
What was interesting to me at Blu Dot though, was that I learned about another way of thinking about making. When you're an architect, you're trained as an architect, you practice as an architect, there's a culture in the profession of architecture about how you do things. It’s pretty specific and it’s pretty narrow.
But furniture design that I did at Blu Dot was about manufacturing. We were interested in manufacturing. You have such a high degree of control over what you get. The dimensions are right, holes are in the right place and the finish is what you asked for. You have a much greater command over the material product. Whereas architecture, you give a large set of drawings to a contractor, and they give it to a subcontractor and they give it to someone lower. It’s a game of telephone, involving very large sums of money. Not fun.
FlatPak was, for me, a way to keep my sanity as an architect, because I need things to be very precisely done, and competently and carefully done. I need a lot of control to do that, so the manufacturing methodology made a lot of sense to me. Why is Lazor Office doing prefab? There is a whole series of reasons, but one of them is merely a way to practice and keep my sanity. [laughing]