Tom Sachs

Sculptor, Bricolage Artist, Product Designer, Mission Commander

Jan 02, 2016Words By Jackson ScarlettPhotos By Bryson Malone

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"When people design products to be bought, rather than used, it's just f*cked."

Always be knolling.

Tom Sachs

InterviewedOctober, 2016

Whether you’re just meeting him for the first time or you’ve followed him since he appeared as the brothers' “artist friend” on HBO’s short-lived The Neistat Brothers (2010), you like Tom Sachs. Hell, you might love him. Even if you’ve never seen his work, like his Tiffany & Co. Glock, his holy grail Nike collab ‘art’ sneaker The Mars Yard Shoe [ed note: Size 13, my man!] or one of his recent full-scale forays into interplanetary travel, just meeting him you get the impression that he’s a guy that likes to play. The way Tom plays these days is by creating complex, functional objects via a process called bricolage. For those not in the art scene, that's "the creation or construction of something from a diverse range of available materials." You know – like MacGyver.

We met Tom at Mission Control to chat about his latest mission, Space Program: Europa, at San Francisco’s YBCA and chopped it up about everything from gear to menswear to Wu-Tang Clan to Apple removing the headphone jack: 


I moved to New York City thirty years ago because it was the maker capital of the world. It was where we defeated the Nazi’s by out-producing them in industry. So much of it starts with the Northeastern Industrial Corridor, which is—you know—Boston all the way down to Baltimore, and so much of that is Rust Belt. New York City would be Rust Belt if it wasn’t the service capital of the United States, but all making is gone. There is not a single great hardware store or well stocked industrial supplier on the island of Manhattan.

"Made in USA was the ultimate, but really only between 1945 and 1974"

The island of Manhattan was the best manufacturing island for something like 100 years, depending on how you measure it, but going to a place like Istanbul or SF, or almost any other city in America has better options.

HB: We’ve got this great place called Tap Plastics down the block…

Tap Plastics is amazing. Canal Street 25 years ago had ten plastic places as big as that. So the ones that are left are just scraps of what's left over. There’s no surplus supply. A lot of that is real estate prices going up—the end of military surplus. American Military surplus is gone. 1980's German Military surplus is the best that's available.

HB: But where do you go to get it?

You go online and get it. There's no place locally to go.There are a couple places that I like that I go to, but they’re online. And I’ve gone and visited some of them in Pennsylvania. People talk about Japanese obsessives like the Real McCoy or whatever that geek out on American military surplus stuff, or Japanese otaku who love Snap-On tools, but really made in USA was the ultimate, but only between 1945 and 1974. So all the stuff we love, like Levis or vintage amplifiers or guitars, it's all in that period because energy that was what was left over from the war, and then it's declined until Vietnam. So a lot of those things that we love, whether it’s the 1974 Winnebago Brave or the Apollo Space Program—they're sort of byproducts of the war effort. 

HB: In a way, they’re frozen in time. 

I think there’s a more optimistic way of looking at it, and that’s if going to the Moon and killing God was the ultimate art project, there are some concrete technological innovations that we got out of it that have lasting value today. I'm not talking about Tang and Velcro, but instead cellphones and microcomputers. It’s not a coincidence that the Mac Mini is the exact same size as the Apollo navigation computer.

It’s kind of an inside joke, go look it up. Google the two and put them side by side. [Mac mini] was my go to—now we’re using Raspberry Pi, because they’re a lot cheaper and smaller if we’re programming. The ATM [here in the cafe] runs on Raspberry Pi, but four years ago it would have been a Mac Mini.


I’m kind of a frustrated industrial designer, if you can’t already tell that. I took a class in college called Graphics, because I thought it was going to be Raymond Loewy. And I got there and it was drypoint [marker] intaglios and I immediately tried to take a photography course—but of course it was too late. It was full by then, so all that was left was Sculpture. So alot of those things, those ambitions are channelled into sculpture.

"Wu-Tang, for me, was like the Minor Threat of Hip-Hop"

I don’t want to call it brand collaborations, because the only real brand collaboration I’ve done has been with Nike, the sort of, only brand I have an ongoing, collaborative relationship with. I kind of like it that way. There are other brands that I’ve had longstanding relationships with, like Knoll. They’re all on that chart there [ed: see above Sachs Family Crest]. Knoll, McMaster as a consumer, Wu-Tang Clan. 

HB: Have you worked on anything with Wu-Tang?

They’re just part of me, because I’m a fan of them. I’m … one of their “cult members”. And Wu-Tang, more than anything because they had so many interesting ideas…  if you want to call it "Black Capitalism" or whatever, but WuTang, for me, was the Minor Threat of Hip-Hop, because they have this do-it-yourself aspect. Business diversification in the community. They had a nail salon called Wu Nails. It was short-lived, but the idea that there was a whole gang of these guys, and Wu-Tang was the first hip hop band that had a graphic identity that was so strong. There were other bands, like Run DMC, that had logos and stuff, but those Wu-Tang symbols, and the way they marketed themselves—it had this lasting quality that was very influential. And they sort of came up around the same time that I did. Not in the same community, but in an adjacent one where there was some overlap.


I’d encourage you to look at that timeline over there because that’s the answer to that question, but you know: Louis Armstrong, Bob Marley, Werner Herzog … Lil Wayne. Some of them are there. But I would say that "art" isn’t my biggest influence—I love art, that’s my job—but I’d say that the artists that inspire me are musicians, it’s the music more than anything else.

"The cheapest shirt is the one you paid $100 for but you wear every day."


I wish people would take tailoring a little more seriously, although it’s difficult, it’s expensive, it takes time. Though you can certainly do it yourself. Also, I don’t think it really matters, I just think it’s important that you wear what you’re emotionally comfortable in, and that you keep your old things and you repair them, instead of just always buying new ones.

The cheapest shirt is the one you paid $100 for but you wear every day. Those are kind of the values that I’d like to share. On your website a lot of the products sort of suggest utility and heirloom quality. Like your wallet [looks at photographer] is so beat and used and it gets better and better every day. This jacket, I’ve gone to great extent to repair. It’s just thread, and it’s my go-to jacket. The most expensive is the one that costs $10 that you never wear. It's called cost-per-use.

...Right now.

And I also think it’s OK to change. Uniforms are great, look at Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein or … Captain Kirk—having the same uniform every day makes it so your mind can work on more important things.


Here’s my situation: I never check bags, ever. I’m going to Japan in a couple weekends and I have a carry-on, a rolly, the biggest one that fits overhead. It’s hard, so it’s a little annoying, but four wheels changes everything.

Sometimes they fight me, but I always carry on. But the real hack is the second bag, which can be quite large. The rolly is the dolly for the second bag, which is filled with computers and books—which can be quite heavy. The book's weight can kill you, but you need to have them. I travel with art books sometimes.


EDC is displayed in knolling [an organization technique Sachs swears by from his time in Frank Gehry’s architecture studio], always. That’s how it’s represented. But the reality is that it’s in your pocket. But I didn’t invent knolling, and knolling wasn’t invented at Frank Gehry’s—it’s been around for a long time. I love EDC stuff, I think it’s great that you guys do that. I love it. This is my EDC. [Tom pulls out small scalpel-shaped x-acto]

HB: Looks serious

Yeah. TSA approved. [smiles] It’s undetectable, it’s got a lot of plastic. It’s got three positions: open, closed, and lock [Tom gives an impromptu demo]. The lock is key, because this will accidentally cut you. It’s a scalpel, an autopsy scalpel. This is a number 11, it’s been used for autopsies because it’s heavy-duty and it’s disposable and it’s cheaper. You open the package and it’s not sterile. But this is a standard number 11 style scalpel blade which I use in the studio all the time. We use a bigger one there, it’s a little sturdier, but I like the idea that it can fit in your pocket.

[Pocket dump continues with Field Notes notebook] Love this. That guy is a visionary. I watched a video of him, the designer behind it, Aaron James Draplin. I can send you a 10 minute interview of him, he’s a great thinker.


So, Field Notes is too small for me, but I like this one (it's A6 size), and this pen. This is a customized version of the Aviator’s Pencil. But it’s three—black, red and pencil. Made by the blind for the Air Force. The worst eyes for the best eyes. But this one’s got a custom clip. 

[Tom pulls out Presto! correction pen] …Best white-out pen ever. The only white-out pen worth having. 

[Tom takes out Krink K70] Sharpie for grownups. This is the best product they make—you guys should carry this—the K70. Tom Sachs says: “It’s the Sharpie for grownups. Takes skill to use though.” They made it with a clip too. It’s a game-changer. Sharpie’s not good enough. Takes skill to use though.

HB: You’ve done a lot of work with the Sharpie

Well, Sharpie is the proprietary eponym of permanent marking pens. But, it’s not good enough, for … OEM Applications [Tom grins]. It’s true!


It’s just—it changes a lot. If I were to compare it to anything it would be the Eames Studio of the 1960s, because one day it was a furniture shop,the next day a filmmaking studio. We do different things, and people come in and take photographs and it’s different every time. We do so many things. It’s just an amazingly flexible space where we’re just making stuff. It’s the temple.

"We love the space, but the space is a vehicle—it’s a spaceship for the ideas."

…But it’s also the temple that’s ready to be torched in a second, because it’s always about the goal. We love the space, but the space is a vehicle—it’s a spaceship for the ideas. 


Space is the ultimate hardware experience. People are into [my works] The Space Program or The Tea Ceremony for three basic reasons. This is going to be a huge generalization, but: In The Tea Ceremony you’re in it for 1,the spirituality (zen), 2, for the sensuality—which is the taste and the smell of the tea, the caffeine high, touching the materials—or you’re in it for 3, the architecture, the kimonos, the teahouse, the bowls and all the accoutrements. Same with The Space Program. People are into it for one, the philosophical things: Where are we going, where do we come from, what is God, why are we here—these big, big questions. And also the scientific side of that, we go to Mars because it’s like Earth, so we can compare the two. Science is a comparative act, so we can understand the geological history of Earth and Mars, and the water thing, and if we have a place there. Or number two, we have people who go for the sensuality or the physicality of the adventure. People like Ernest Shackleton or Roald Amundsen, the ultimate badass, who had no aspirations for science. He just went up there, planted the pole, got in, got out. Pure Viking shit. He just took it. The third reason people go is for the hardware—not the James Bonds of the world, but the Q’s of the world. Not the rocket scientists, the rocket engineers. It’s a little more blue collar, a little less romantic, but it’s the maker side of things. 

I don’t know exactly where I am in all of that. Probably, I’m on the maker side of things, because work is what sets you free.


Now that we have so much shit on us all the time, because of the cell phone charger. 

You have two chargers on you if you’re traveling. I have one charger now because I use an iPhone and an iPad. It’s kind of dumb—they’re the same device, just a bigger version. [Tom taps the laptop we’re recording on] This is definitely a different device, it has a lot more capabilities. I’ll probably … who knows. They’ve fucked up iTunes so badly, and it’s so frustrating, and I hope this gets in there because I really am true Apple loyal oppositionist—is that the right word? 

I’ve had every Apple product including the first couple of computers—I didn’t own them personally but my high school had them, that means I used them, they were “mine”. I’ve had every single one including a Quadra and everything in between, and I’m so frustrated now that the utility has been reduced, where I spend a decade working on my iTunes library and it just evaporated with this new operating system. It feels like the system is making demands of me to learn it over and over again. Instead of just serving me utility needs like a good tool.

Maybe I just don’t know how to use it yet—but I went through the “maybe I don’t know how to use it yet” on the last major update and I just was kind of getting used to it. This time, I think it’s actually gone because it’s been replaced by Apple Music, which is just another competitor of Spotify and it doesn’t seem as good or better in any meaningful way.

It’s really frustrating, because the reality distortion field of removing the 1/8” plug. It’s really insane. I’ve already lost the headphones that came with the new phone. I immediately got the new phone. I’m not going to not get the best camera in the world. The Best Camera Ever Made is the new 7S. So I’ve already lost the headphones, and now I’m on strike two. This is what comes with the new phone [he pulls out lightning to 1/8” adapter] so, you’ve got to get that. These headphones aren’t important or worth talking about, but my point is, these are the headphones that I had and you’ve got to plug it into this little thing. 

But now when I lose this, I don’t get to hear my music … I’m done. 

The thing is, and we’ve all been through this conversation many times. Any time there is some sort of great or disruptive technology, there’s a Luddite backlash against it, and I think you always have to weigh the new against the old—the advantage of … We all know what’s wrong with this is that you can’t plug it in at a party, you can’t DJ—you have to have this [dongle] and that’s not a guarantee. And if you’ve ever traveled to any place in Africa, or any place that isn’t San Francisco in the world for that matter, an 1/8” jack gets you pretty far. I just don't see what's being gained here.

HB: It’s a true universal standard

Yeah, and the question is what does the new thing bring you? When there is a true paradigm shift, like this thing [the computer] was the size of a building, then the size of a  refrigerator, then the size of a bookshelf, then the size of this—so the next paradigm shift is on your wrist or what, inside your body? Then it makes sense to lose the jack, but in the meantime, it’s kind of like Black Lives Matter: sure we’ve had amazing civil rights improvements in the past 50 years, but how much longer do we have to wait? 

"In that same way, we can’t wait until the next generation—it’s a matter of life and death." 

Do we have to wait another generation before our children are not being assassinated by the police for driving while black? We cannot wait. It’s urgent—our lifespan is too short. In NASA, they do their missions so that they can happen in a 4-year political cycle, or 8 years if you’re risking it. Because the next president’s going to come in and crush your project. In that same way, we can’t wait until the next generation—it’s a matter of life and death. 

In some ways it’s kind of the same thing with the phone because our lives are short and we innovate because we must—not because we can. Because you can doesn’t mean you should. Apple’s whole thing is “we don’t care what you want, we’re giving you what you need, as we see it.” That’s been pretty productive for a while, but I don’t see the leadership, especially when you take away this thing that they gave us: the ability to DJ off of a phone. It’s incredible. The past decade has been unbelievably creative with that and I don’t, like, maybe it’s just too new and I need to get an Apple tutor, but I don’t know anyone who knows anyone who knows how to do it. Because if you go into house parties, they’re not going to have this thing. 


We’ve got a couple things that we’re working on. It’s probably too early to talk about what it is because it’s still in development, but the only thing I would say is that I have an ongoing—I’d describe it as a conversation, with Mark Parker—he’s the world’s largest creative director. He’s an amazing artist and designer and he commands the biggest team in industrial design.

"That’s what a collaboration is—it’s a friendly fight."

Maybe that’s … I guess we’ve got some other things to compare with …  But I guess, no one makes more stock keeping units. They’re working to slow that down and refine. They’ve done that the last couple of years by reducing waste and the technology and … The projects that we do are a byproduct of our ongoing conversation and I guess you’ll have to wait and see. But the important thing to me is that it’s all about developing and continuing a conversation, it’s not about a finished product.

We have some very strict rules, the guidelines of the collaboration: it always has to be 50 percent Sachs, 50 percent Nike, it has to be something that neither could have achieved without the other, and no decoration. It’s not about just taking something existing and doing new graphics on it. We experiment and we don’t let it out unless it’s solid. Those are the only things we agree on. It's a battle, and that’s why it’s interesting.

That’s what a collaboration is — it’s a friendly fight. 

And that’s how we all learn. That’s my value to them, and that’s their value to me. Learning. I think those guys are really committed to that idea, and my product stands to represent not what the whole company is, but one fraction of a percent of what it could be.


[The Noguchi Museum exhibition] was amazing. It continues. Right now a lot of it is here at YBCA. In the fall the Tea Ceremony will travel to Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Some of it will be opening in Japan next week at the Ogetsu Ikebana school in the lobby. We’re doing a little installation called Heaven, which will be some of the objects that are like the ones here. 

The projects that we’re working on here — right now we’re on Europa — and even though the exhibition is up, we’re stilling working on it. We’re working on the cafe, The Logjam Cafe.


There are all these amazing ways that people can get involved in The Space Program, for example: you can come here and get a Swiss passport with your photograph on it. You can come here and participate in the program by sorting screws and earning stickers and patches and badges and stamps and become one of us. Through the process of indoctrination you can go on a tour inside the Lander. These are all things that aren’t really advertised—you’re actually the first ones that are talking about it. That’s all throughout this cafe. 

[Tom points to the woman behind the cafe counter] This is Mary. Mary was the first person to walk on Mars and on Europa, she’s a real astronaut. So … you can get a cup of coffee from Mary. It’s kind of special. There are a lot of different possibilities here. It’s not just about all this schwag, it’s about engaging and attracting and it doesn’t have to cost any money. If you don’t want to pay to get your photograph on a real, genuine Swiss passport—$20 cash no questions asked—you can do the same thing with a visa. We’ve issued free visas for your passport. So we’re working on that and there’s a new movie that you can watch. It’s got a provisional soundtrack. I’m working on a new soundtrack with one of my favorite artists ever but I can’t talk about it until it comes out, because I don’t believe—until it’s out, you never know what could happen. It’s not real until it’s done, but it’s so far so good, fingers crossed it’s going to be great. It’s a movie about The Tea Ceremony, the experience at the Noguchi Museum, so you can see that there—on this monitor [he points above us]. 

This whole exhibition is about sculpture. And I’m interested in this boy stuff like, rockets, but it’s all an armature for sculpture, and sculpture-making. Like if we’re talking about shoes, or a pocket dump or whatever, it’s all about sculpture. I view that pen as a sculpture because it’s modified in several other ways. 


We use the phrase “demonstration.” We have a swear jar. I’m as guilty of it as anyone—we all call it “performance,” or we say “the real NASA,” but really the correct term is “The Other NASA,” because our space program is real. We’ll do it on January 13th—that’s our next live demonstration at 6PM in San Francisco. It’ll be a marathon like the last one. It’ll be 5 hours. Probably until midnight. I might even want it to be longer. [H]

You can watch Tom's 2012 mission to Mars in the film A Space Program, available on Amazon. Space Program: Europa continues at YBCA in San Francisco through January 15th.

Tom’s Social Hangouts

Tomby the numbers

  • 3Interstellar LandingsTom's Space Program has landed on the Moon, Mars and most recently Europa, a moon that orbits Jupiter
  • 1Killer Nike CollabTom's capsule collection for Nike, NikeCRAFT, launched the revered Mars Yard Shoe ... and rumor has it another one is on the way
  • 26Years in the StudioSince 1990, Tom has worked from his studio in downtown Manhattan, Allied Cultural Prosthetics

Tom’sfavorite things

  • "Love this [Field Notes Notebook]. That guy is a visionary. I watched a video of him, the designer behind it, Aaron James Draplin. I can send you a 10 minute interview of him, he’s a great thinker."
  • "Sharpie for grownups. This is the best product they make—you guys should carry this—the K70. Tom Sachs says: “It’s the Sharpie for grownups.” They made it with a clip too. It’s a game-changer. Sharpie’s not good enough." 
  • "Tap Plastics is amazing. Canal Street 25 years ago had ten plastic places as big as that. The ones that are left are just scraps of what's left over."