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‘Thinking about the future in extremes is prominent in San Francisco.’
Gems in this
Caught with a desire to drink in all the creativity and risk to which she could expose herself, Industrial Designer, Futurist and Space Architect, Phnam Bagley, has dedicated herself to viewing the world in all the imaginative ways she can.
That drive has taken her from her hometown of Paris to live in Denmark and the US, as well as exploring the design culture in Tokyo and Seoul. Plugged into the tech scene around her home in San Francisco, she now runs the highly regarded, envelope pushing design firm called Nonfiction, alongside her husband Mardis Bagley. It focuses on technologies that fuse hard science with inspired concepts of a better future. It’s here that she works towards her ultimate vision: making science fiction fact. We chat with Phnam about the opportunities of travel, venturing through the wilds of California and her San Francisco Travel Playbook.
On where you’re from
I'm a child of the 80s, and back then you were creative or you were logical. Being both was not an option. I wanted to be an artist and an astrophysicist. I never understood why you can be one and not the other. I grew up right outside Paris, in an environment deprived of colors. The buildings we were surrounded by were mostly concrete, and quite ugly. I was very aware of that ugliness, and that probably pushed me to want to see more beautiful things.
On the influence of color
When it came time to go to college, I didn't know what to do. I was interested in physics, but then I went to this job fair, and the first booth I saw was for a design school, with drawings and color everywhere. I remember car drawings with very psychedelic colors. I asked, ‘Why did this person draw with so many colors?’ And the man said, ‘It's my drawing. I am color-blind, I don't see the colors like you. So I actually have no idea what you see’. I found that fascinating. It completely opened up my relationship to how others perceive senses and colors. And so I signed up for that school.
On where creativity has taken you
I've always felt like I was an alien, even where I come from. I don't see that as a negative, I see that as an opportunity. I've always placed travel as a central part of my life. For college, I lived in Denmark in 2003, and studied in a town called Kolding and lived in Billund, which is where Lego is from. Then I moved to the US in 2005. I really loved experiencing these new cultures. You go into a new place, and you probably have some assumption on how it's going to be — all these assumptions are going to be wrong within two weeks.
On finding your voice
As a tourist, your brain is looking out and you're absorbing new things, whereas when you live somewhere, there's more dialogue. There are more anxieties as well: am I doing things right? But when you live somewhere new, where nobody knows you, when you speak a new language, you have the opportunity to become who you want to be. I have slightly tuned my personality, based on where I live and the language I use. For example, I'm shier in French; I can be more assertive in English, probably because in the United States I’m working, so being very clear in the way I express myself is a necessity.
‘When you live somewhere new, where nobody knows you, when you speak a new language, you have the opportunity to become who you want to be.’
On flying into trouble
I moved to the US one week before Hurricane Katrina. I land in this country, not very far from Louisiana, and all hell’s breaking loose. Western Europe does not have hurricanes that I know of, so it was very foreign to me. My English was not great, and so with my limited access to expression, I had to figure it all out. I think it was two weeks after, a bigger hurricane, Rita, headed towards Houston and we had to evacuate the entire city. My friend at the time, who's now my husband, actually threw me in a car with his friend and his cat. We just went inland and ended up in a ranch that was run by a Kenyan-Zanzibari woman. We stayed there for four days. Welcome to the United States.
On your evolving career path
At design school, I studied product design, packaging design, luxury goods design, and spacecraft. In Houston, I studied space architecture, which is the design of architecture in extreme environments, specifically microgravity and partial gravity on the Moon and Mars. But the problem was it was completely deprived of the intricacy of human behaviors, or beauty or texture. I spent the next 12 years trying to reconcile the world of creativity, imagination and storytelling with the very concrete and almost inflexible world of aerospace. Then for a long time, I was an industrial designer and designed a lot of things that launched and entered people's lives, and were thrown away in landfills. I came to a crisis, where I'm like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I'm not really changing people's lives, or transforming the way people conduct business’. Now I run a company with my husband called Nonfiction, focusing on the future — on and off this planet. What kind of impact does design have on people? What kind of impact does it have on the environment? I could not be prouder of the work we've done so far.
On changing lives with your work
Basically we take science fiction, and we make it real. We designed a brain stimulator that helps athletes learn movement faster, that stimulates their primary motor cortex. We are about to launch a product you wear 15 minutes before sleep, and it triggers your brainwave sleep pattern. People make the assumption that not sleeping well has a lot to do with what's on your mind, as well as the environment, but what's really happening is your brain is just not readying itself to go to sleep. This device helps you do that, and it's been quite life-changing for the people we've tried it on. We are also designing an educational system for Singapore – what kind of environment should it work in? Is it only focused on efficiency and meritocracy? Or should we also support mental health and sustainability? We are designing the future of food on Mars. That's actually a competition put together by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. We created a four-machine system that helps you grow food, transform it, and give texture, color, flavors and culture to the options you have up in microgravity.
‘One thing San Francisco has that I really admire is all these little city walks, or little parks — places to hike within the city.’
On San Francisco’s ‘shyness’
The reason I'm in San Francisco is because industrial design has a high concentration of studios here. Being right next to Silicon Valley, the community of designers is actually quite nice. But San Francisco as a place that inspires me creatively? Not so much. If you asked me if San Francisco is an inspiring city full of art and beautiful architecture, I would say no. In Tokyo, you look up, the architecture is just crazy, wherever you look, any angle. Even the manholes are beautiful. Whether you like it or not, you have to be inspired by it. And the people are really expressing themselves. But I think there's a lot of shyness in San Francisco, where people don't like to stand out. Obviously, there are exceptions.
On exploring the city by foot
One thing San Francisco has that I really admire is all these little city walks or little parks — places to hike within the city and all around. I think the landscape around here is very beautiful, and some neighborhoods in the north of San Francisco have very beautiful, well-kept buildings. There's also a charm to things that are a bit more worn. The Mission District has a lot of graffiti — it’s not as polished as everything else, which I personally prefer. It feels like it's a lived-in city. The Embarcadero, which is this very long street along the east side of San Francisco, is a very beautiful walk — you can see all these piers along there. When I feel like I need to rediscover San Francisco, that is one of the walks that I take from my house, all the way to the Golden Gate and back.
On San Francisco’s food scene
There are quite a lot of different types of cuisines and a lot of different neighborhoods that offer different things. One thing however, that I don’t love, is how early restaurants close. If you're hungry here after 9.30 pm, good luck finding a restaurant. Sometimes we go to a show and we're starving at 1 am, but there's nothing besides the questionable hot dog on the side of the street. I wish the city had more options when it comes to street food. But San Francisco is well known for crab. There’s this restaurant in Richmond called PPQ Dungeness Island, and the decor is dismal, but it's always a good time. You’re just having a great time with your friends, with this giant Lazy Susan, serving yourself some garlic noodles and fresh crab. It's delicious. Another thing well-known in this region is oysters. They raise oysters about an hour north of here, so we have access to fairly fresh ones, and that's always wonderful.
‘One of my favorite places in San Francisco is a late-night bar called Martuni’s. The magical part is that it’s the place professional singers go late at night.’
On a favorite night out
One of my favorite places in San Francisco is a late-night bar called Martuni’s. As the name says, they serve martinis, but the magical part is that it’s the place professional singers go late at night — people who work in musical theater probably go there to rehearse or to have a good time after work. There's a small room with a few tall tables where people drink their martinis, and a pianist who accompanies people in live karaoke. The first time you go there, you’re like, ‘Oh, people are singing’. And then you realize the people singing are really, really, really good. Unless you're a professional, you would never dare to even touch that microphone. I have had some pretty magical nights there.
On heading north out of the city
California is a gigantic state. North, you have Tomales Bay, which is where the oysters are. You can reserve a kayak on full-moon nights and canoe or swim among the bioluminescent plankton. Go northeast and you hit Tahoe, a big lake completely surrounded by mountains. It’s beautiful in the winter — we go there to snowboard and ski — then in the summer, head out on boats or hang out with some friends in the sun. It's very quiet, pretty wonderful, and it's just three-and-a-half hours away from here.
On heading east and south
East Bay — Oakland, Berkeley — has its own culture that’s very different from San Francisco. It’s a lot more authentic, a lot less commercial. There are people who really live there, who are at the center of it, and I really appreciate that. Silicon Valley, I don't really know because I usually go there to see clients and eat lunch and that's about it. If you go south a little bit more, you have Big Sur, which is this absolutely gorgeous, raw cut of coasts on Central Coast California. As you continue south, it gets a little bit drier with a bit more desert. I was recently in Palm Springs, not very far from Joshua Tree National Park. It's the kind of landscape I’ve always found very American; something I saw in movies. There's a lot of cultural nostalgia that happens with California.
‘If you go south a little bit more, you have Big Sur, which is this absolutely gorgeous, raw cut of coasts on Central Coast California.’
On a window or an aisle seat
I'm a window person. For some reason I don't need to go to the bathroom every three minutes, which is great. Also, I am the type of person who falls asleep in any position anywhere, so when you have a window seat you can lean on the side and fall asleep for half an hour. I regenerate a lot taking these little naps. I don't really take naps when I'm on Earth, but when I'm traveling… I think it has a lot to do with the vibration aboard an airplane or in a car. I just get lulled into sleep.
On a song that best represents San Francisco for you
The song that best represents San Francisco for me is called ‘Sweet Transvestite’, interpreted by Tim Curry. I recently heard it in the city, and it's a famous song from the 1970s musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
On San Francisco in one word
I'm here because of innovation. Thinking about the future in extremes is very prominent in San Francisco. Other types of extremes, too. Extreme wealth — sitting right next to homeless people. The extreme of sexual liberation is a lot more visual here — you can see it in the streets or during festivals like the Folsom Street Fair.