Zaha Hadid Design: Shaping the Future

To shape the next chapter of an iconic creative legacy is a uniquely complex prospect. One perhaps no one is more equipped to fulfil at the helm of Zaha Hadid Design (ZHD) than Maha Kutay and Woody Yao, its UK-based directors.

Woody and Maha joined the studio early in their careers in the 1990s; Woody had been a student at Hadid’s alma mater, the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, while Maha met the architect at Columbia University.

“From a conversation in the lift, I ended up moving to London and joining the office in 1996,” recalls Maha. “I did collect her books and looked at her paintings, and I admired her a lot.”

At this time, Hadid and her team were largely focused on competitions, exhibitions and interiors. But while the built environment enabled her unique vision to exist on the grandest scales, the architect was, foremost, a multidisciplinary creative. Before earning her otherworldly buildings earned her a groundbreaking Pritzker Prize, Hadid painted and sketched, to study light and form. She urged collaborators and fabricators to test materials to their structural limits. She was curious about the possibilities of creating new organic forms, shaped by parametric technology.

“For her I think it was a space where she could just test things, and test her creativity also,” says Maha.

The architect’s explorations applied brilliantly to the design of smaller objects and furniture, and eventually, birthed a separate business, Zaha Hadid Design.

“I think there is still a lot to learn, and a lot we haven’t done before,” says Woody. “The interesting thing about Zaha Hadid is that she would design many, many things. It’s not just architecture. It’s everything. So I think we try to learn and do as much as possible to come up with a good design, whatever it’s going to be.”

Three years since the architect’s passing, ZHD continues to question what’s possible at the highest levels of design, technology and craftsmanship. It is still possible to draw a straight – or perhaps more appropriately in this case, undulating – line between Zaha’s built work and the beautiful objects produced by the studio. Each piece is informed not by any kind of inherited design perspective, but by its own particular materials and process. 

“For us in the office, we’ve always looked at Zaha being the client,” says Maha. “So the way we learned was to not come up with one option for the design, but to come up with many answers, and many ways of seeing things, for her to assess and direct.”

Like her buildings, the ZHD collection expresses a seamless convergence of the natural and digital worlds. The team works closely with its community of skilled fabricators to learn the finer points of each specified material, while producing both limited edition and scalable commercial works. Their crystal vessels, for example, display deceptively effortless fluidity, masking their significantly complicated construction. 

“The reason why it is in crystal is that no one else would pick it up. We tried to do it in glass, we tried to do it in metal – it’s so difficult that we didn’t even think crystal would be possible!” says Maha. “But it’s always that you create something, and you try and make it happen.”

Other products in the collection offer a modular solution to cater for modern tastes and budgets – their Cell Candle Holder for example, which can be purchased in parts. The Cell Candle Holder was one of many items showcased at ZHD’s first stand at DENFAIR 2019, and won the Best International Product at DENFAIR Awards. Find a full list of this year’s Award winners here.

So what’s next for ZHD? A new line of sunglasses, and a strengthening of their ethereal fashion line, among a variety of other confidential projects. But while there’s not a lot Woody or Maha can reveal about their upcoming work, it is clear that the maturing studio’s path is an excitingly unchartered one, and there is a renewed energy under their guidance which is perhaps the truest way to honour Hadid’s legacy.

“I think, if you look at the history of Zaha’s work, and how it evolved through the years, it was never looking back and copying the past, or reinterpreting the past,” says Maha. “But it was always looking to the future and reinventing yourself, and moving in different directions. And I think that’s what we learned from her. So we will hopefully not be looking at the past to copy, or reiterate, but we will be looking at defining who we need to be 10 years from now.”

Maha Kutay and Woody Yao, UK-based directors of ZHD, sat down with Design Anthology editor Suzy Annetta for a packed-out Speaker Series panel at DENFAIR 2019. Watch their full discussion here.