A Conversation With the Architect Who Is Bringing the World's Iconic Buildings to the Chessboard
Co-founder Ian was interviewed by Archinect about our design process, manufacturing techniques and current/upcoming projects.
You can read the full feature here:
"Trained architects turning their hand to product design is not a new phenomenon. In the 21st century Sam Jacob Studio is producing t-shirts and Zaha Hadid Architects are producing everything from vases to shoes, at the turn of the previous century architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was designing clocks. It is common for architects diversify into other careers, as polymathic architecture education fosters a wide variety of skills.
I spoke to Ian Flood, co-founder of Skyline Chess, a London-based company that was started when housemates and architectural designers Ian Flood and Chris Prosser “would play chess in the evenings and concoct the architectural skylines of their dreams to compete in theoretical games”. So far the pair have created architectural chess sets of London, New York, San Francisco, Dubai and Paris, with a special Brutalist London edition. Shanghai and Hong Kong chess sets are in the pipeline.
The project was started with a London chess set six years ago and has gone from strength to strength since. The chess sets are now stocked in such hallowed halls as the Guggenheim, MoMA, The British National Gallery and The Southbank Centre. The driving idea is that materials such as bronze, metals and marble combined with the knowledge and execution of an architect makes for a high quality product.
Founders Ian and Chris believe in using traditional production methods such as lost-wax casting and sketching. For example, the San Francisco chess set, available in solid bronze or powder coated metal has the following architectural make-up: “The pawns are played by the famous Painted Lady houses, St. Mary’s Cathedral plays the Rook, with Columbus Tower playing the Knight. Coit Tower is cast as the Bishop, with the Iconic Transamerica Pyramid playing the most powerful piece on the board, the Queen. The King is played by the recently completed Salesforce Tower.” The pair have also produced sets of playing cards for the London, Paris, New York and San Francisco editions.
I asked co-founder Ian Flood some questions...
In cities like New York and San Francisco where the architectural offerings are vast, it must be difficult to choose only a selection of buildings. Is there a specific process behind this?
We’ll start by looking at the city as a whole and begin to select buildings based on their form and height. In a traditional chess set the king is represented by the tallest piece, and then in descending order of height to the pawns. We try to retain that legibility in our games.
We aim to choose buildings which could be recognisable as the chess pieces they going to represent; for example the bishop in our London chess set is played by 30 St. Mary Axe and the Chrysler Building for New York, both of which have a similar silhouette not dissimilar from the mitred hat of a traditional bishop. This allows us to compete different cities against each other on the board as well.
We try and stay true to the relative heights of the pieces in each set, so they can be identified as a cityscape.
Alongside the city editions, you have the London Brutalist Edition which focuses on a particular architectural style. Are there any plans to do another style or is the focus in the future going to be on cities?
We’re both big fans of Brutalism and this edition allowed us to showcase another side to London’s architecture which our first version didn’t necessarily represent. Currently we’re focusing on new cities (Hong Kong and Shanghai will be launched next), however we’re definitely looking to do future editions based on other specific styles and periods of history.
For the bronze editions you collaborated with a small family business in Birmingham, England, where they manufacture the chess sets using an ancient lost-wax casting technique. Do you feel it’s important as a designer to support local craftsmanship?
Definitely. We have a close working relationships with 3 small manufacturers here in the UK which allows us to test new ideas and overcome any manufacturing issues a lot more easily than using overseas companies.
It also allows us to test new ideas on one-off editions, for the Paris Wireframe set we 3D printed in castable wax before using lost wax casting to create the pieces. As the tolerances were so fine we had a lot of input from the foundry about what was possible.
There is a high level of skill involved in the production of the sets and it’s great to see them at work first hand whilst helping to preserve these ancient techniques where possible.
You have had high profile clients such as NBC and Chanel, who has been the most interesting or surprising?
We currently have an exciting new edition in progress for a big institution in Rome, which we’ll be sharing more details of in the coming months, and have a wide range of clients internationally. Closer to home we’re currently working on a proposal for a major UK sports team.
You use hand sketching as part of your creative process, do you feel that analogue skills are still important in the digital age?
Very much so, just as tracing over a floor plan can be the easiest way to solve a problem, we find that working by hand can sometimes lead you to a different outcome that you may have developed using a computer.
Is there any particular building which you have modelled that has either changed your opinion of it, or deepened your appreciation for it?
We’re currently working on a range for the recent Hudson Yards development in New York – The Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick is an incredible engineering feat and posed us with some unique challenges to make it work as a chess piece.
You offer a bespoke service and have created amongst others, a chess set to celebrate 100 years of The Bartlett School of Architecture. What is the most unusual request that you have received?
Working with the Bartlett really allowed us to be more unconventional with our thinking (as you would expect from them) and the final result is quite telling of this! We get all kinds of bespoke requests, from designs based on private islands to sets featuring peoples family members (and pets)…
Lastly, if you could pick a favourite chess set, what one would it be?
I spent some time working in an architecture studio in Paris, so this edition is a particular favourite of mine. The set which myself and Chris play with most often is probably San Francisco."