Vivek Jayaram x Alex Mustonen

“It feels like the rules have changed,or there are no more rules about what works or doesn’t from a standpoint of workspace.”

VJ

So, Alex, we’ve known each other since the earliest days of Snarkitecture. Do you remember how the firm got started?

AM

Yeah, I have a pretty clear memory of walking down the street in New York on the phone with Daniel Arsham (Snarkitecture Co-Founder). He was living in Miami and we were collaborating on projects, and he pitched the idea of starting a practice. 

It seemed like kind of a ridiculous idea at the time, but it took form over a long series of meetings in LA. I was consulting on a project of his there, and every night for a week we went to this legendary bar and restaurant, Dan Tana’s, and really hashed out what it would be. Then he moved back to New York, and we got a studio space in Greenpoint. And that was really the origin of it – just starting with very little sense of security around what it would be or the longevity of it. It felt quite experimental and open at that time.

VJ

And do you remember your first project together as Snarkitecture?

AM

The first official Snarkitecture project was probably actually related to the reason we met, which was the residency program for what was then called Legal Art. It was in a building owned by a friend of Daniel’s and mine at that time. It was very aligned with what we were interested in doing – working with creative industries and with the arts, so to be able to start with a project like that was very fortunate.

VJ

Where did the name come from?

AM

Snarkitecture was sort of a funny name that just came up in one of these conversations that Daniel and I had. He was doing these kind of nonsense names – like “Building Schmuilding” — for some of his art pieces, and Snarkitecture was something that sort of arose as a nonsense thing. 

At the same time, there was a great retrospective show of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work at the Whitney. He was involved in creating this idea of “anarchitecture,” and there was this scrap of paper in the show that was, if I recall, just words that he had jotted down that rhymed with “architecture.” 

Finally, it’s loosely associated with the Lewis Carroll poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” There was a sort of fitting analogy between the story in the book and the story that we felt we were creating, which is that of a crew of misfits searching for this unknown creature called the Snark. They’re not sure how to find it, or what to do with it when they do find it. So for us it felt like this parallel search for the unknown at the peripheries of the disciplines of art and architecture.

VJ

From the early days, we’ve always had a very collaborative working arrangement in that you always picked projects that were interesting from an intellectual property standpoint. 

AM

Yeah, not many companies in general, let alone creative companies – and even more specifically designers and architects – have that kind of collaborative working relationship. It’s been really beneficial to Snarkitecture as a creative practice and a business, and your early involvement encouraged and invited us to approach intellectual property from a different position.

A conversation we still often have with our clients is that Snarkitecture is not a for-hire service provider as traditionally understood in many circles of design and architecture, which has been a really important point that you’ve helped us kind of define, clarify, and make a strong case for.

VJ

It’s great to hear you say that because one of the reasons I left big corporate law firms to start my own thing was to create something where I could work with the most creative people on the planet – that was the only sort of vision I had at the very beginning. 

You also raised that idea of work-for-hire versus the strength of IP. Once I started Jayaram in 2009, I quickly realized that that was a major pain point for every successful creative person I knew. People making really interesting things and putting them out into the world didn’t really have access — or didn’t feel like they could have access — to legal counsel. And I often saw artists and creative people give away their IP, whether in a commercial context or otherwise, and that felt wrong to me from the very beginning, right? 

AM

Right.

VJ

And that wasn’t anything that you would learn in law school or even in early practice. That was more of just a conviction that I had. I realized that there was this sort of commercial culture in the U.S., where companies would exert leverage on creatives to say, “You should be so lucky as to make something for us, so we should own it from an IP standpoint.” And that just felt wrong to me, so it was great to partner in the early days with clients like you and Daniel, who frankly were willing to walk away from deals where people didn’t respect the IP in that way. That also gave me a lot of confidence to continue executing on that philosophy throughout my practice, which I’ve now done for 15 years. 

A second piece of that mutually beneficial relationship is the profound impact that Snarkitecture and your work has had on our company, our team, our spaces. You can see it if you look at our website, our logo, our swag, any of our physical spaces — so it has obviously been symbiotic from the work standpoint. But it goes a lot deeper than that, because there are also shared values, deep friendships and relationships that have developed over the years. 

AM

Was there a specific instance that was a turning point for you to start your own practice where you could successfully collaborate with creative clients?

VJ

I was fortunate enough as a junior lawyer in big firm practice to have brought in a couple of artist clients. And we got some really great results for them, but when my firm asked me to survey them about our work, almost all the feedback was: “We really enjoyed working with you, but big law firms have a very different culture, and it really didn’t seem like the firm can meet us where we are as artists.” 

And it got me thinking, “Who’s out there representing creatives?” Many art law firms in New York or LA or Chicago do really great work, but they’re often anchored by these larger corporations or economic interests. I really wanted to build something that was able to represent, both substantively and in spirit, the contemporary creatives who are working today, impacting and moving culture right now.

AM

To be able to meet people where they’re at and to speak their language is so important. We had experience on the financial side where our early accountant and bookkeeper didn’t fully understand what we did creatively or as a business. Whereas our current accountant — who works with art, design and architecture clients all the time – has a wealth of knowledge working within and around that discipline. And that makes a huge difference in how we interact, so it’s awesome that you saw the opening to bring that idea to law.

VJ

You’ve probably experienced this too – the more you do deals and make things and put them out in the world, you realize that the real secret is to find partners and collaborators who share your values. And it’s harder to find a lawyer and an accountant who share the values of a contemporary art practice, but that’s really how you can maximize the impact of a collaborative relationship. If you’re rowing in the same direction, you’re going to figure out a way to solve that problem or do the deal that appeals to everybody.  

That leads me to how everything happened with this artist and design residency. In January 2022, we were growing a lot and looking for a new space in New York. This one was 6,000 square feet, which more space than we needed, but I fell in love with its energy. Also, this was not only in the depths of the pandemic, but specifically during a three-week period where everybody had all but concluded that nobody was ever going to return to an office in Manhattan again, so we got the deal of a lifetime. 

AM

Just post-Omicron? I know exactly the moment. 

VJ

Around that time, I was speaking to you and Daniel, and it sounded like you were also in a transition period in terms of space for Snarkitecture. Honestly, I’ve never heard of a law firm sharing space with one of its clients like that, but I felt like we had an opportunity to transform this very raw space with a lot of potential into something magical. 

AM

I do recall it feeling very synchronous. We were coming out of a long period of remote and then hybrid work, so I felt quite open and it just kind of came together. I agree that the idea of our two practices co-habitating feels very unexpected and maybe unprecedented. But I also kind of like that – it feels like the rules have changed, or there are no more rules about what works or doesn’t from a standpoint of workspace. 

VJ

Yeah, at that time, I was reading a lot – as many people were – about the future of work. And I realized that the way Jayaram had been working since our founding was really similar to how people worked during the pandemic. We had always maintained physical spaces, but we never had a facetime requirement. I felt that there was no need to schlep across the city and sit in an office with a closed door for eight hours with your laptop, you know? That just seemed illogical and not like a productive way to use space or a human being’s time. 

So what we really wanted to do with this space was create a place that was built for an experience. Given that our communities overlap in large part, I felt we could transform the space into a community hub, and you guys did a really great job of that. If you need to have a private meeting, the space is totally functional for that. But if you also want to have a jaw-dropping space for a big event with people and music and socializing, it’s built for that too. 

I’ve also gotten texts or emails from my team telling me they went out for happy hour or spent the afternoon talking about music with your team members. It’s unique that we’ve built community even just among our people, and you never know what might emerge from that kind of collaboration.

AM

As two organizations with relatively small teams, it’s special to be able to offer them that cross-over and that professional, but also creative, collaborative setting. It’s good to have other people in the mix and to learn and hopefully grow from those interactions. 

One that note, one of the last times we hung out, we ended up just talking about day-to-day work routines. I’m kind of fascinated by the question: What kind of environment puts you in a space for creativity or innovation?

VJ

For me, when I’m relaxed, that ‘s when I’m in my most creative space and place. And in the modern workplace, where we are inundated with technology and emails and texts and Slack DMs, and everything else, it was important to me to create a tranquil workspace. And I knew that by working with Snarkitecture, we could achieve that very meditative vibe.

AM

Thanks for that — our intention was to make sure that enough of the space felt like a neutral backdrop to allow for creativity and, where it felt like the space benefited from it, to give it a little more identity or a bit more character through some of the design elements. And then the follow-up question is: What space do you think is ideal for collaborative work, either in a one-on-one or a larger team setting?

VJ

I think it’s a place where people feel at ease. Our space has two areas where I’ve seen a lot of really meaningful collaboration. One is the Commons area, which is the whole centerpiece of the space and a natural place for us to have spontaneous discussions. There’s a really good energy because it’s in the open, but it also somehow feels private enough to strike a nice balance.

The other space is the Record Room, which has become like our water cooler. So many times we’ll have standing meetings in there where it feels private but not detached from the space as a whole, and all the wood and the unexpected erosions and arches and details let you know you’re in a special and unique place. 

AM

So you feel like your best meetings or conversations happen in an informal setting?

VJ

Yes, my best conversation would be on a sofa somewhere.  

To wrap up, I just want to express our deep sense of gratitude to you and the whole Snarkitecture team. For us, it’s been a really magical collaboration and a one-of-a-kind space to be able to call home. 

AM

Right back at you – I’m grateful to you for inviting us to join in the process and for giving Snarkitecture a new home in a way. And I’m looking forward to celebrating on May 2 with you and our teams.

VJ

I’m really looking forward to seeing what we drum up in the future.