London-based design studio picks up prestigious Czech award with children’s game and shelf

Koski, photo: Nikola Zelmanovic

The London-based Studio deFORM, run by two young Czech designers Václav Mlynář and Jakub Pollág, has been voted the overall winner of this year’s Czech Grand Design award. The studio, which designs interiors and commercial spaces and is also active in the advertising sphere, has been awarded for its interactive game for children called Koski, and for the Zig-Zag shelf made for the Swedish studio Hem. I spoke to one of the company’s founders, Václav Mlynář, and I first asked him why they decided to study in London and eventually move there:

Koski,  photo: Nikola Zelmanovic
“We decided for the Royal College of Art because it is in London, which is a great place to make contacts and create a professional network, and also because the Royal College of Art is one of the best design schools in general. It was voted the best school in the world for the last three consecutive years, so it is really a great school to be in. A lot of great designers studied there and it was always our dream to be there.

“If I should compare the two schools, Prague’s UMPRUM is really great but in London you can meet people from all around the world. And since you pay quite a lot of money for the programme, everyone is trying to make the best out of it. Everyone stays there 24/7, even on the weekends and everyone is working really hard. In Prague, it is different, people don’t have such a nice environment to work in and they don’t spend that much time in school, which is a shame.”

Why have you actually decided to stay in London and move your company there? Isn’t the market more competitive there?

“It is definitely a bit more difficult than in Prague but we are still working with clients in the Czech Republic. Nowadays, it is not that important where you are. You can work for global companies from wherever. And as I said, London is great for creating a network of contacts.

“We have just set up our start-up company called Koski. And it is a great place to be if you are doing a digital start-up because London is full of people who are doing the same thing and who can give you advice. At the moment, we are still young and we can decide what we want to do. We can always go back or move somewhere else- we still don’t know.”

Speaking of Koski, how did the concept for the game come about?

Koski,  photo: Krystof Melka
“Koski is a mixed reality game platform: it is something between a board game and a game on your tablets and phones. It is a combination of those two worlds.

“You are playing the game by physically building an environment in front of you on the board and using your phone to look at this environment and see the game happening in front of you. You can interact with it by moving blocks or characters on the screen. So you are really combining a physical and a digital game.

“It started as my diploma work at the Royal College of Art. You have to choose a topic you want to work on. I decided, with the help of my friend Jakub, to design a new game and to mix the digital and the physical, because I saw a potential there.

“When I showed it at the final exhibition at the Royal College of Art, it got a lot of publicity and the video was seen over one million times. We received lots of press coverage and lots of investors contacted us, and we realized there was a potential to create something more than just a concept. So we set up a company and we are aiming for a crowd-funding campaign this year.”

So the game is not yet available on the market…

“Right now we are in the development phase. We are part of two accelerators in London, who are helping us to create a business model and product development. There is actually way more things we need to think about than we have thought. We have been to China to talk to manufacturers, because even to get to the kick-starter phase you have to be prepared. We want to make sure that all the numbers make sense and that we will be able to make it on time.”

What inspired you to create Koski?

“My colleague Jakub was always making fun of me because I was always designing things for children. I have won an award for making a multifunctional swing or a chair for kids. I made a few more concepts for kids during my studies.

“I have two small brothers, so I watch them play all the time. And I myself used to be a playful kid. I think kids are the ones who enjoy multifunctional products and who really use them. They are really good customers, because they enjoy having fun. That’s why I like to do that.”

Koski,  photo: Nikola Zelmanovic
Do you actually test your prototypes on your little brothers?

“Of course I do. I also have a lot of cousins so I have a great audience to get some really straightforward feedback, because they really tell you what they think. But we also need to get a feedback from parents because they are the ones who buy it for the kids.

“So that’s where we are now. We are also developing other games, because as I said it is going to be a platform, so you will be able to download different games for different players. So in the future we want to have more and more games, so once you buy it, you will be able to play it more times.”

Do you thing future of design in modern technologies? To be successful you have to understand modern technologies?

“The Royal College of Art was really important in this sense. We both learned about new technologies and how to combine it with the physical world and it was an eye-opening experience for us to see the new approaches. In Prague we focused more on traditional product design, such as furniture, lights and so on.

“We think that the future is definitely in new technologies and we will be surrounded by them more and more in the future. We think that if designers think about it more they can achieve some great results.”

We have been talking about Koski, but you have also been awarded for the Zig-Zag shelf made for the Swedish furniture producer Hem. How important is it for you to balance your work between commercial and independent creative projects?

“For us this has always been really important. Our studio actually started as a project at the Designblok festival in Prague and this was our sixth year of the event. We always try to do our own personal project at least once a year.

“For instance the Zig Zag shelf started as our own personal. Then we showed it at the Milan design fair and the Swedish company approached us, saying they wanted it in their collection. So sometimes a personal project can develop into a commercial one.”

And I guess you need these projects simply to make a living.

Zig-Zag shelf,  photo: archive of deFORM
“Definitely. We have to pay your bills, and living in London is not cheap so you definitely have to make a living. And it is really satisfying making a product that people use. It is a great feeling seeing someone in the street using our product or talking about it without them knowing that you have designed it.”

Finally, how important is it for you winning the Czech Grand Design award?

“We have already won the award for young designers. But winning the Czech Grand Design was really a surprise for us. Our tutors Olgoj Chorchoj (Michal Froněk and Jan Němeček), won it just a few years ago and for us, it has always been one of the top prizes. Now we won it as well so it was really great and we were really happy that people actually appreciate the work we do.”