Robot Dogs, Interactive Fountains & Designing for LEGO: An Interview with Ola Mirecka
no-image, Robot Dogs, Interactive Fountains & Designing for LEGO: An Interview with Ola Mirecka
#technology & innovation
‘Anything is possible when you play,’ says Ola Mirecka, a Polish designer inspired by children’s sensitivity. Over three years at LEGO, Mirecka created fifteen sets currently available in shops around the world, one set even including a LEGO figure named after her. As she now takes her design ethos into more experimental territory, Mirecka talks to Culture.pl about her process and what inspires her.
Ola Mirecka graduated from the Design Faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and Design Products Faculty at the Royal College of Art in London. For three years, she worked as a designer at LEGO and has been developing her own studio since. She lives and works in Denmark, while her projects have been showcased in Poland and worldwide, including London, Berlin and Milan.
Michał Dąbrowski: In your designs, you combine both a child's world and a sense of humour. Like your LAVA lemonade, or your interactive fountain, or the LEGO hot dog stand. What inspires you?
Ola Mirecka: I have always been interested in letting some magic into real life, giving people the feeling that anything is possible. Like in child’s play – you make your own laws and play by your own rules.
MD: Your designs come from playing?
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OM: I've always been influenced by drawings and illustrations. I use them to create and tell stories. In Poland, I didn’t draw that much. I studied design and was convinced that drawing is reserved for graphic designers only. When I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I was involved in many projects simultaneously. Then sketching became absolutely necessary.
At some point, I started coming up with installations that were directly based on drawings. I would take weird, useless elements from them and introduce them into my designs. For instance, in the lemonade stand, I included a device to pop balloons. Such small details can then become inspiration for another story. I might have also been inspired by Klancyk, a Warsaw-based impro theatre group, which prepares its shows without a script, all while having lots of fun.
MD: How does that translate into your designs?
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OM: For me, an object becomes an excuse to tell a story. I look for objects with an unobvious function – they should inspire you to find one. It's kind of like the perspective of a child who's just beginning to grasp how our world functions.
During the creation process, playing's essential. We often forget what we used to be like when we were kids, and we tend to think in clichés. While playing, we step out of the box and it can be refreshing and therapeutic. If something is meant for kids and well-designed, adults will find it entertaining, too. Take Pixar's animated films, for example: they're perfectly understandable and fun for both.
MD: Was it this method that brought you to LEGO?
OM: There aren't many toys that adults love as much as LEGO. When I started working there, I realised that what I'd discovered on my own was essential in designing LEGO sets. They’re absolutely genius when it comes to construction, but the company has been on the market for so many years simply because LEGO pieces allow for uninhibited play and continuous storytelling.
MD: How does a designer understand play?
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OM: Playing is improvising. It’s a space in which you have creative freedom, where everything becomes possible. Kids don’t mind putting together different things, even if sometimes they clearly clash. This mindset is intriguing.
Playing is a kind of collage made up of different materials, stories, narratives and rules. The material can be LEGO pieces, but it can also be anything else.
MD: Did you improvise during the recruitment process at LEGO?
OM: The recruitment process was a series of workshops, during which we were given a drawing assignment. I cut up some A3 sheets of paper and used them to make a film. The tool became a toy.
MD: You made a film, which again means that you told a story.
OM: LEGO is a company which appreciates the designing process. They decided I was a good fit – I, for one, didn’t actually think so when I was applying. I changed my mind after the first month.
In this kind of design process, it’s the story and the ability to play that come first. Those are the two things that were important to me before.
MD: So does designing a LEGO set start with a story?
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OM: First, you create a narrative, then you have to ask yourself a question: ‘How do I build this?’ And then make sure there aren’t similar sets yet. A LEGO set is a world in and of itself, an alternate reality with its own rules.
Having completed the conceptual process, we move to actual creation. We work as a team and build lots of potential models that could make it into the set that would become, for instance, an amusement park. At that stage, we use the LEGO piece library, in which every element is catalogued and divided into separate drawers. This is when the fun begins. We look for an appropriate brick shape, colour and function. During my three years at LEGO, the process developed more and more. Each set is designed in such a way that children can make numerous play scenarios possible. A good toy provides countless ways to play with it.
After the sketches are done, we plan the actual product. At this stage, we have to take into consideration many design limitations such as the size, price and originality, in reference to existing sets. When this stage is completed, all we have to do is get the design ready for production.
MD: Was any set really crucial for you?
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OM: At some point, I became a car expert. I even designed a dog-shaped limo. It was difficult to build without it falling apart when you put a LEGO person into it.
When working on an amusement park set, and I was asked to design a food truck. Initially, I thought about a gelato truck, but it'd already made an appearance in The LEGO Movie. But people eat a lot of hot dogs in Denmark, so I used that as an inspiration for the truck and the LEGO people. The set is made with a sense of humour, which both adults and kids appreciate. We all like to laugh at silly things. I was trying to recreate this kind of humour elsewhere, even when designing the hospital set.
MD: Was Baby Ola born during the hospital project?
OM: In this set, we tell the story of a gentleman who slipped and broke his arm. It doesn't include a banana skin, which was my instant association, but there's a ‘Caution! Slippery surface!' sign. There's a waiting room, you can buy flowers, there's a hot chocolate machine and, for those looking closely, a hidden blood sample. There are elements which introduce a sense of reality into the set, like a fish tank where you can actually feed the fish. It's the real world with a little twist.
Kids often play hospital, but we meant to show them that a hospital's where children are born, hence Baby Ola. She's named after me – our birthday is on the same day. The set includes a photo album and her footprint.
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MD: What was your last LEGO project?
My final set was The Friendship House. My childhood dreams inspired it. It’s an old firehouse turned into a secret children’s hiding place. When I was a child, I dreamt about Villa Villekulla, the one Pippi Longstocking had. A place where no rules apply, where children feel free.
Two years before that, I designed a promotional set attached to a kids magazine. It included a cage with a hamster wheel. I felt like using it somewhere again. In this set there are also lots of different workshop tools, and there is a drop of water under the sink, suggesting a plumbing problem. You really can’t ever get bored with all the LEGO details. Ever since I made the Hot Dog Van, I always try to include a hot dog in my sets.
MD: How did your approach to product design change over those three years at LEGO?
OM: LEGO allowed me to translate having fun designing into making toys. I had a lot of freedom. After work, I could focus on my own projects. Then I decided that I wanted to direct all of my attention on them.
What I care about now is how some innovation becomes the result of play and how objects can develop personalities. I no longer look at objects from a functional point of view, I'd rather focus on the interaction with them, and the emotional aspect stemming from that. If an object has a function and performs it, it can also have an emotional aspect to it. Important objects are linked to memories.
MD: Is this is how Sensitive Dog was born? A robo-dog, that's supposed to remind us about sympathy.
OM: It was born during a six-month course called Fab Academy which I took last year at Fab Lab Spinderihallerne in Denmark. It brings together students from all over the globe, from Australia, Peru, etc. who study at local Fab Labs and attend joint videoconferences. The course program is very hands-on and combines digital fabrication, electronics design and coding. Weekly lectures are conducted live by Prof. Neil Gershenfeld from MIT.
My final project was a dog sculpture that reacts to human touch. An approaching hand is a source of information. It was an attempt of transferring natural behavior onto an object. I wondered what kind of feelings it might awaken in us. Will we treat it like a normal dog if it wags its tail? Perhaps this reaction, so embedded in nature, will make it seem more familiar to us, perhaps we’ll even end up befriending it. We live in an era of moving pictures. It’s only a matter of time before these pictures gain new dimensions. A brand new exciting, magical branch of design is being born – the design of smart objects.
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MD: Objects have an impact on us because of our emotional approach to them. But are they able to shape us somehow?
OM: Currently, technology is supposed to improve our life – make it simpler and more effective. I wonder what the world would be like if objects made no sense. What if a table didn't stand unless you spoke to it? What if a wardrobe only opened when you petted it? I'd like to design a robot which always has a cold. Perfection is not in fashion – imperfection is cool because it's human.
Ola Mirecka’s website: olamirecka.pl
Fab Lab workshop blog
contemporary polish designers
Interview conducted in Polish, 23/01/2018, translated by MS, Feb 2018