Asif Khan on the Rise - Design Bureau

Asif Khan @ Design Miami

Asif Khan in his Parhelia project, which features more than 1 million Swarovski crystals in a 20-foot-tall cabin-like structure

Parhelia Miami_ 2_AsifKhan_Image by Steve Benistry

Untitled copy

West Beach Cafe; Photo by Julian Abrams

Tetra Light_Asif Khan_1

Tetra Light
Coca-Cola Beatbox_1_Asif Khan_Image by Asif Khan

Coca-Cola Beatbox, photo by Asif Khan

Coca-Cola Beatbox_2_Asif Khan_Image by Hufton+Crow

 Coca-Cola Beatbox, photo by Hufton + Crow

Asif Khan @ Design Miami

Asif Khan on the Rise

Monday, July 1st, 2013

By Sarah Handelman
Photos by Michael Pisarri

Asif Khan’s East London architecture studio is filled with an overwhelming amount of stuff. Old models, coffee mugs, papers, laptops, books, and bicycles bedeck every shelf, desk, and corner in the nest-like room. “I’m always collecting things and seeing things and absorbing stuff,” Khan says. “This collection is a visual library, and I don’t tend to edit it. It just grows.”

Surprisingly, the effect is far from cramped. Khan’s office, which is situated on the gallery scene’s much-adored Vyner Street, seems to serve as a snapshot of what happens when a career takes off without much warning. Despite having moved in five years before, Khan and his team of 10 only recently added a nameplate to their door—it seems they’ve been too busy to notice. 

Even before he graduated from London’s Architectural Association in 2007, Khan’s career was propelling at a breakneck speed. Knowing that the typical post-collegiate path of many young graduates involves joining a starchitect’s well-established firm, Khan realized that a move like that would only stop his momentum. So he went against the grain and established his own practice. It was a bold decision that has allowed him to choose his own projects, lead his own team, and see personal success much sooner—all at the age of 34.

“In school, the idea that you would assume the role of a heroic architect was purveyed to everyone,” he says. “We read the books. We saw the drawings. We said, ‘Hey that’s me in a few years.’ Then as time goes on, you realize it’s very difficult to get there. I guess I was bored of the academic route and the rhetoric, and examination method. I found I could get further and get more done by myself and on the phone just by talking to the right people.” The native South Londoner strives to make evocative yet relatable architecture with his practice; work that welcomes all kinds of visitors and new ideas. And in his relatively short six-year career, Khan has collaborated with major clients for big, global events—like Olympics big.

Khan teamed with fellow architect and former classmate Pernilla Ohrstedt to design the Coca-Cola Beatbox pavilion at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The building’s angular design used more than 200 interlocking, touch-sensitive ETFE plastic pillows, programmed with individual audio tracks recorded by über-cool music producer Mark Ronson, which enabled visitors to ‘play’ the entire structure. And although the Olympic design rules stipulated that one-third of any façade in the sponsor pavilion was allowed to be devoted to logos, Khan’s design for Coca-Cola was completely logo-less.

“As a Londoner, I was aware of the cynicism surrounding the Olympics, and the negativity the British public has towards corporate branding,” he says. “To diffuse this, I thought we could remove all logos, to engage people at a level who don’t normally think positively about sponsors. It was branded; the color was there, but it was really generous. I wanted to prove to Coke that without the logo, everyone would still know who they were, and they’d love them for it.”

The Olympic design proved to be massively successful, and as a result of the pavilion triumph, product commissions and sketches for competition proposals piled up as Khan and his team hurried to finalize the logistics of Parhelia, another mega collaboration with Swarovski for 2012’s Design Miami. “I had talked to Swarovski early on about trying to make architecture with crystals, and the Design Miami commission came out of that idea. We weren’t sure where to begin, but I wanted to explore the interaction of light and make it a tangible thing.” Khan and company designed a cabin-like pavilion made from honeycomb sheets of fused crystal to create an effect inspired by the naturally occurring light formations the structure was named after. Although he was clearly driving the creative team, Khan says it was a project born from collaboration. “Most of the projects we work on are a shared journey with the client. While we may not have the same picture in our minds of where we’re headed, those pictures tend to meet in the middle. We pull each other towards something we couldn’t have done separately.”

It’s a refreshing point of view, especially for a corporate partnership. At a time when the field might seem gloomy to some, Khan is genuinely excited about his profession, and his boyish enthusiasm—about almost anything, from collecting to science—is contagious. He is, however, methodical with both his work and choice of words, but not without seamlessly dipping in and out of academic theory, office banter, industry jargon, and his own biting self-criticism.

Hearing Khan speak about both the accomplishments and challenges he faces makes it easy to understand why in 2011, Design Miami had already named him Designer of the Future. But don’t think the accolades have gone to his head; he realizes he’s still relatively new to the game. “I guess it’s sort of early in my career, but it’d be nice to return to things to make longer explorations. That’s why you keep all these things around—because they continue to go through iterations: The first version is what you initially saw. The second happens, almost as if you’re sculpting, and it becomes better than what you saw. And it goes on.” 

It goes on, and will continue to go on for Khan, whose ever-growing project list includes new top-secret designs for a hotel and restaurant, and a building for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. While Khan remains hush-hush about specifics, it’s clear that by doing his own thing, he is going places. “There’s something about imagining as far as you can go with an idea and then reaching it, and realizing you’re in another center again,” he says. “And then you’re wondering, ‘Now, where can I go from here?’”

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