The architect Joshua Prince-Ramus describes the approach of his New York firm REX as "productively losing control," which means letting client constraints lead the team in unexpected creative directions. The method's roots lie in his stint as partner in charge of the New York office of Rem Koolhaas' OMA, which conceived the dramatic stacked-volumes design of the Seattle Central Library in part to meet city regulations. Completed in 2004, the structure provided a blueprint for the projects Prince-Ramus would undertake after OMA New York morphed into REX, which hinge on new modes of flexibility. His best-known, the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, finished in 2009, lifts and retracts various parts of the stage and auditorium in minutes to facilitate a wide variety of theatrical configurations. "The whole tension between form and function is false and unproductive," the 41-year-old former philosophy student says. Instead, his studio's watchword is performance, a springboard to ambitious but responsible concepts like Museum Plaza in Louisville, Kentucky, an H-shaped 62-story skyscraper slated to open in 2013 that will house luxury condos, a hotel, loft apartments, retail spaces, and an art museum. "These days, you either have amazing wild forms that are way over budget and off schedule, or you have very dutiful architecture and it's just boring," Prince-Ramus says. "To me, that means the architects just weren't good enough in either scenario."
MEET THE MAKER
Biggest creative hero: Wagner. I'm not really a classical-music buff, but as an architect I'm challenging typologies, and Wagner pushed the form: He really invented his own universe.
Most indispensable tool: My Naim stereo.
The one thing everyone should know how to make: Pancakes.
An everyday object that is perfectly designed: To quote Voltaire, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."
Dream project: An opera house.
— By James Gaddy
Photograph by Matthew Monteigh
When he burst onto the global automotive scene with the 2005 Maserati Birdcage 75th, a bubble-canopied concept that looked appropriate for an interstellar Le Mans race, Jason Castriota says he was going for "future shock." That same sensibility begot his influential 2009 Stile Bertone Mantide, an origami-like 638-horsepower bird of prey. "I enjoy playing the provocateur and challenging people's notions of what cars should look like," says the 37-year-old, who lives in New York and Italy. His knack for statement cars—whose genes can be replicated to create production models—has prompted even heritage-obsessed brands like Rolls-Royce to invite him to play with their design DNA. Last year the struggling Swedish automaker Saab hired him as design director, and his 2011 PhoeniX concept, with serpentine buttresses and a teardrop canopy that evoke the company's jet-and-rocket-making roots, points toward Saab's aesthetic future. Castriota's mastery of aerodynamics also prompted Shelby Supercars to commission him in 2010 to develop the Ultimate Aero II, which the company says will be the world's fastest production vehicle at 275 miles per hour. "An automobile's not a couture dress," he says. "But that doesn't mean car designers shouldn't take chances."
MEET THE MAKER
Biggest creative hero: Leonardo da Vinci was the world's greatest designer.
Most indispensable tool: Besides eating utensils, any writing instrument, because I always start by sketching.
The one thing everyone should know how to make: A proper espresso.
An everyday object that is perfectly designed: Nothing is perfect, but I often find beauty in imperfection.
Dream project: Same as every car nut—creating my own brand from zero.
— By Jonathan Schultz
Photograph by Matthew Monteith
Like many other children of the seventies, Dennis Hong grew up obsessed with Star Wars and The Jetsons. Since then, the 40-year-old Virginia Tech associate professor of mechanical engineering has been chasing the holy grail of robotics: a machine with the same shape and abilities as a human. Last year, he oversaw the building of CHARLI, the first full-size, autonomous, ambulatory humanoid robot designed in America. The Navy then commissioned Hong to develop a successor, SAFFiR, which will be used to fight onboard blazes, though its ability to navigate the tight corridors of a ship means it could be put to work virtually anywhere. Hong's work has also led to ingenious spin-offs, like an affordable prosthetic hand that can grasp an egg without breaking it. And this January, a blind man successfully steered a car Hong had outfitted with sensors and a nonvisual interface (including a tactile tablet that "maps" the road using compressed air) around obstacles on the Daytona 500 track. Hong compares these ancillary benefits to those ushered in by the Apollo program. "Trying to go to the moon, we developed all these different types of technology: cell phones, satellite TV, Tang," he says. The road to a real-life C-3PO could be similarly rewarding.
MEET THE MAKER
Biggest creative hero: Nikola Tesla.
Most indispensable tool: My Moleskine sketchbook and a pencil.
The one thing everyone should know how to make: Peace.
An everyday object that is perfectly designed: The rubber band. Cheap, ubiquitous, and useful in so many ways—just ask MacGyver!
Dream project: It's often the one I'm already working on.
— By Michael Silverberg
Photograph by John McCormick/Virginia Tech