The future doesn't just happen. It's made. These 34 visionaries are proof that the sign of true genius isn't a great idea, it's the ability to make that idea a reality. These maverick thinkers have shrugged off the status quo and battled the headwinds of convention to bring their creations to life—they will entertain you, house you, reshape your body (and restore it when it fails); they will tantalize your senses and quite possibly deliver you a tomorrow of unlimited energy. Get ready to meet your makers.
"Look, I don't think that I'm strange, but I know I'm definitely strange," Pharrell Williams says, crunching a Dorito and considering how others may view the method to his creative madness. "My process works for me, and it may seem a little . . . I don't know. I mean, I do weirdo shit like watch Huckleberry Hound at two in the morning eating Corn Pops, you know what I'm saying?"
Williams sits on a sofa, legs folded Buddha-style, in the recording studio hidden on an upper floor of the Setai Hotel in Williams' adopted hometown of Miami. This citadel of Asian minimalist chic might seem an unlikely home for an R&B and hip-hop hit factory, but as evidenced by Williams himself, Zen-like exteriors can mask pop ebullience.
Even after shaping the musical history of much of the past two decades—34 Top Forty hits, 17 in the top 10, 5 No. 1 singles, and a No. 1 album as a member of the recording-producing duo the Neptunes and the band N.E.R.D. and as a solo producer-performer—Williams finds his cultural currency at an all-time high. The 40-year-old Virginia Beach native is coming off a summer in which his creations have dominated airwaves, screens, and conversations, having worked his Midas touch on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," and a pair of tracks on Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail and contributed three songs and theme music to Despicable Me 2, which, like the first movie (which he co-scored), became a sleeper blockbuster. The rules of pop engagement dictate that Williams should take a victory lap, or at least go on a headlining tour. Instead he's dispensing koanlike musings. "We're not actual creators—we're just vessels, pulling from inspiration," he says. "Sometimes it comes from oblivion, sometimes it, like, walks by me. But again, it's not within you. You're just an observer, and your job is like a stenographer—you're capturing things. I'm a recording artist, in all I do."
And all he does is . . . you name it. While Williams considers music "the nucleus of everything," the orbiting particles include fashion (designs for his own labels, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, among many others), fine art (sculpture shown at Art Basel, the Tate, and Versailles), accessories (jewelry and glasses for Louis Vuitton), media (his i am Other YouTube channel, a judging gig on the new competition show Styled to Rock), tech (UJAM, a cloud-based music-composing-for-the-masses site), textiles (Bionic Yarn, which makes high-end fabrics from recycled plastics), and furniture (a line of chairs shown at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris)—and he's making plans to add perfumer, architect, and filmmaker to his résumé. If there's a common thread to all these avocations, it's that Williams, culture's reigning polymath collaborator, rarely goes it alone.
"Every time I work with somebody, it's like a crash course in, like, their university and their perspective," he says. "You know, if you're not learning, you're wasting time." The list of preeminent institutions of higher learning at which he's studied includes those of Takashi Murakami, Marc Jacobs, Hans Zimmer, and a who's-who of musicians—from Justin Timberlake and Kanye West to Gwen Stefani and Azaelia Banks to Lupe Fiasco and Frank Ocean . . . ad infinitum. His 2012 coffee-table book, Pharrell: Places and Spaces I've Been, a sort of senior thesis in eclectic cooperative studies, includes conversations with figures ranging from Buzz Aldrin to Anna Wintour. If Williams the student were to get a report card, the first thing it would say is "Plays well with others."
Williams likes to call the be-helmeted duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, a.k.a. Daft Punk, "the robots" because of their superhuman dedication to precision. "Those guys are at a whole other level in terms of caring about every detail," he says. He could, however, be talking about himself: During the making of 2008's Hard Candy, Williams' repeated criticism of Madonna drove the pop diva to tell him, "You can't talk to me like that." Tears gave way to a major blowup, which in turn led to a clear-the-air talk. Williams is unapologetic about his approach. "You'll never discover anything by matching what's going on," he says. "The key is to find that which does not exist and try to make it undeniable."
A self-described "kidult," Williams credits his tastemaking to his restless, childlike curiosity. "I want to go to Machu Picchu, touch the pyramids, hang out in the think tanks at NASA, and harass all the people at Oreo cookies to make more different flavors," he says. "I'm always open, because you just never know what's on the other side of the door."
That free-spirited methodology will be tested in some very high-profile ways this fall. Working with Miley Cyrus on her upcoming album, Bangerz, Williams wants to channel a single mood: "Freedom," he says. "She's just growing up, and she deserves her time and to do it her way." He's applying a variation on the same "her way" theme as he helps Beyoncé complete her much-delayed, much-anticipated new album. "I'm still very much a student when it comes to B," he says, "because there's so many things that she has in her head—so many ideas and so many incredible ambitions. More than anything else, I'm there to assist."
At the same time, he's intent on realizing the next wave of his own ambitions. He's at work on creating a fragrance and pursuing a project with Zaha Hadid, the first woman ever awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize ("Zaha is 100 percent genius. We're lucky to have her 2050 mentality in 2013").
If this all seems like part of a masterful multi-hyphenate's master plan, it is and it isn't. "I create based on what I feel like is missing," he says. "You jump in and follow your gut. It's like a sculpture—you're just adding on more clay, you're chiseling away and adding on until you feel like it's done, and you stand back and go, 'Oh! It's a person.'"
In that moment of creation, Williams' Zen façade falls away. "Recording in the studio, he doesn't ever try to play it cool," Cyrus says between late-night sessions with Williams. "When we make magic, we could, like, explode with how excited we are, and I think that's the energy everyone gets from Pharrell."
So Williams plans to just keep mixing métiers and genres, betting his accumulated cultural capital that something serendipitous will emerge. Which makes Williams' anthemic refrain—Up all night to get lucky—something of a mission statement. "You've got to go experiment. The Reese's cup—that happened by mistake, know what I mean?"
THE A-LIST COLLABORATORS
Pharrell's most famous co-creators on Pharrell.
"I want to be like him—I think everyone should want to be more like Pharrell. Someone who respects art and loves art in every form. He's always got crazy artists coming into the studio, cool chicks from Japan that are just drawing this amazing artwork, and just—everything he does I'm just inspired by. It's a great energy to be around. I wanted to get with him first, 'cause I wanted to be free. I don't want to have any labels. Pharrell helped me on that soul search—he suited me up in my armor to be strong and to go against what everyone thinks you should do and be free. He prepared me for the battle you have to fight to be different. He was like, 'I love you, you're my sister. I'll fight for you, I'll do anything'—that was the moment where I just knew: Me and Pharrell, this is, like, a forever thing. We're going to continue to make music together, as long as both of us are making music."
Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter
"Pharrell's an extraordinary, multitalented artist—songwriter, singer, rapper, producer. He's a great collaborator, because he has a deep knowledge of all these different roles and what it takes to make a great song. As a singer, he'll know how to interact with a producer, and likewise, as a producer, he'll know how to interact and work with singers. He was always really the only choice in our mind for 'Get Lucky.' We've known him for a long time, and we've always considered him as this genuine, timeless entertainer, glamorous and elegant. It's precisely this timeless elegance that we ultimately wanted to capture on the record. We were totally in sync—we were just on the same wavelength all along the ride."
"I envy him, honestly. He is a true genius—he has a great personality matched with Picasso-like creativity. He had the idea of creating jewelry as an art piece, and he approached me about building a cabinet to display the jewelry. I became interested in the context he was aiming for—the idea of creating a symbol of society's out-of-control desires—and so I added my own context by turning the cabinet into a monster. He liked that, and things took off from there. I think Pharrell is in a class of his own in bringing out the best in his collaborators. He has a wide range of tastes and is well versed in all of them, but he never flaunts this as he pulls from those he works with. A wonderful creator."
"It's the experimentation part that I love about him. I was supposed to help Pharrell on Despicable Me, and all I tried to do was stay out of the way of the onslaught of creativity that was coming from him. And then we started talking about technology, and we started a company called UJAM that's developed interesting musical applications. We listen to each other. It's a well-balanced relationship because, at the beginning of the conversation, we both know what we're talking about, then we get to the middle of the conversation and we're now on thin ice, talking about experimenting with something that neither of us knows about. We normally both have an endless supply of imagination. Organized chaos—we thrive on it. Because it's Pharrell, you don't just limit him to music. There's the fashion thing, the art thing—there's all these other things. All these polymorphic qualities make it really interesting. That's why I love Pharrell, because, yes, we will touch on music, but then I've heard him talk on human rights, I've heard him talk on artists and their role in the world. Everything is informed by everything else, and that's why his music's good."
"He does his own drums, his own chords, all the arrangements—and he's a master songwriter. I can always say, 'I like this better than that,' but I try to give him space. Then once he has a couple of great lines, I jump in with a couple and give him time to think of his next couple—we go back and forth. The songs we've kept pretty much happen in about an hour and a half. The first two days, we did songs that were a bit more R&B-flavored, and then the third day we did 'Blurred Lines.' It seemed like something that never really existed before. We had Earl Sweatshirt with the Odd Future crew over in one studio, Miley Cyrus finishing up her Pharrell song in the other studio, and he and I were there, and by the end of the night, everyone was dancing and partying together to that song. I thought 'Blurred Lines' could be a hit, yes, but you never can expect this type of success. You think I'm going to do an album without that guy ever again?"
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Tesla Model S is that it's the first mass-produced electric car that's desirable first and green second. With its aerodynamic rear haunches, retractable door handles, and 17-inch dashboard touch screen, it's as lustworthy as any ride on the road—earning the coveted 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year Award as well as Consumer Reports' highest auto rating ever. Behind this sex appeal is designer Franz von Holzhausen, 45. "If we create things that make people's lives better, then we are doing good design," he says. During his stint as head designer at Mazda, his wickedly expressive proportions and sustainable solutions got great reviews but never really moved the needle inside the company. But they convinced Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recruited him in 2008 to be Tesla's chief of design. "We have no hundred-year history to draw on, like some other brands," von Holzhausen says. "So we were able to create a design that transcended time." His next challenge? Reinventing the SUV with the Model X sport crossover, due out next year.
The robotic exoskeletons that Nathan Harding makes don't deliver super-strength like the ones in Elysium, even if they are capable of carrying 200-pound loads for several miles. But the 45-year-old CEO of Ekso Bionics is less interested in science fiction than in medical miracles: U.S. rehab centers have been testing his exoskeletons that use battery-powered motors at the hip and knee to trigger movements for paraplegics. "The links in an exoskeleton are a lot like your bones," he says. "And if you do it right, they behave like your bones," giving the wheelchair-bound a chance to get up and walk.
Even by avant-garde standards, the Norwegian painter Bjarne Melgaard, 46, is a canvas of contradictions: a sharp-dressed former weight lifter who's create installations with dainty Chihuahuas as well as graphic S&M pieces. Lately he's moved away from violently scrawled text to subtle psychological portraits. Still, the fact that he's on the cusp of mainstream success surprises the shock artist. "Nobody was receptive to my work at all when I started out," he says.
John Foley, 42, loved his workouts at SoulCycle but hated that scoring a bike felt like getting a reservation at Per Se. "There are probably 500 exercisers in New York who want into a single class, and maybe 5,000 people across the U.S., and 20,000 globally," he says. "To me, that screams distributed technology." So Foley founded Peloton last year to share top-tier fitness experiences with home exercisers. A former president of e-commerce at Barnes & Noble, Foley took his cues from the e-book business: paid content, inexpensive device. The Peloton bike, however, is anything but bare-bones: Designed to evoke the slick lines of an Italian racer, it features a water-resistant, Wi-Fi-enabled touch screen that live-streams classes taught by coveted spin instructors at Peloton's fitness studio in Manhattan as well as on-demand archived sessions. A real-time chat and social-networking platform allows you to interact with other Peloton users and track your performance on a leader board. The bike costs $1,190—about the same as much inferior spin bikes—and the unlimited content will run you $39 a month (close to what a single class at SoulCycle costs). "We want to be the Apple of exercise," says Foley, who also plans to sell spin gear (shoes, heart-rate monitors, apparel). "Apple cares about the aesthetic of everything—the hardware, the interface, the marketing. We're bringing that combination of cool sexiness and technology to the fitness category."
Finally, a real feel-good rubber: Jim Moscou and his Boulder, Colorado, condom company, Sir Richard's, have applied the Toms business model (and added a bit of style) to the below-the-belt accessory. After making an all-natural latex condom, the 45-year-old entrepreneur recently took sexual healing global by donating one condom to Haiti for every one bought here. A program is in the works for sending rubbers to Africa and other in-need regions. "It's audacious, I know," Moscou says. "But when you think about the cost of HIV and unwanted pregnancy, we have a chance to literally change the world." After this month, he will have shipped 1.5 million condoms—in specially designed packages with illustrated step-by-step instructions—to Haiti.
Growing up in a coastal village in Brittany, France, Yann Vasnier couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a chemist or an architect, so he found a way to be both. As senior perfumer for Givaudan, Vasnier, 36, straddles what he calls the line "between science and art," working with the fragrance house's lab coats to brainstorm scents for $2.5 billion brands like Axe while also replicating the aromas of endangered substances like oud and patenting the peppery smell he created for Marc Jacobs' hit fragrance Bang.
Three to Watch: The Fragrance Archivists
The next great olfactory innovation will be the ability to "record" an aroma for posterity (and for reproduction). These innovators are making the ephemeral scents eternal.
Using a handmade still-like system, the 24-year-old Welsh designer places an object (roses, mince pie) over boiling water; steam absorbs the smell, which condenses in a tube and then drips into a beaker, where alcohol is later added to preserve it.
For seven years, Tolaas, 48, worked like a fragrance anthropologist, sealing scented objects in airtight cans. With an archive of more than 7,000 sample (including the aroma of money), she has partnered with fragrance and flavor manufacturer IFF to re-create selected scents.
The 26-year-old Brit is pioneering "fragrance photographs" with a machine called the Madeleine. An object is placed in a glass dome, and a vacuum sucks the aromatic air through a tube; it's then absorbed by a polymer-resin "odor trap."
On its surface, the "floating cloud" at London's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion this summer coolly illustrated a Japanese give-and-take between man and nature. But its architect, Sou Fujimoto, 42, went a step further: The roughly 3,800-square-foot structure had no real roof or walls, instead using slender white cubes whose edges seemed to disappear into thin air—building on his early radical transparent designs while appropriating both the physical and the digital meanings of cloud. "I want to create architecture that can embrace such complexities," he says.
"I've been called the music shrink," says Joel Beckerman, 50, the founder and lead composer of Man Made Music, who uses his studio as a therapy couch to get corporate clients to express their brand identities and then translates them into sound. Equal parts Philip Glass and Don Draper, he's the pioneering figure in the increasingly influential field of sonic branding. He's worked with more than 40 companies, and each presents the same challenge: Evoke a feeling that then becomes instantly recognizable, if only subconsciously. The results are indelible catchphrase compositions (called mnemonics), which can be as short as a few notes. AT&T's new "logo" was just four notes, but Beckerman and his team created a whole sonic library around it: a main anthem, long and short themes, and a six-note melody (incorporating the four-note logo); ring tones in various musical styles; start-up and shut-down sounds; a sound installation in its flagship store; in-game arrangements for the San Antonio Spurs (who play at the AT&T Center); tones for product placement on TV—each one designed to dial up the same brand in your brain. That's his aim: total recall.
His Greatest Hits
1. AT&T, 2011
To fit the company's new themes of uniqueness and humanity, he used boxes, a broken glockenspiel, a bagpipe, and "a crappy old piano."
2. SUPER BOWL XLVII, 2012
"We had to imagine every single game scenario," Beckerman says.
3. THE WEATHER CHANNEL, 2013
Its new sonic identity delivers "a passionate explorer kind of vibe."
The biggest challenge for any first responder is going into a dangerous situation blind. As an M.B.A. student at MIT, Francisco Aguilar, 30, was so affected by the horror stories of rescuers crushed under rubble or poisoned by dangerous gas during the recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that he resolved to find a solution. With his classmate David Young, an Army vet, Aguilar developed a baseball-size throwable camera-sensor that stitches together images captured by six wide-angle lenses, records audio, detects radiation and carbon monoxide levels, and transmits the data back to a smartphone over Wi-Fi. The device, nicknamed the Explorer, is in the final stages of production and is drawing interest from many law-enforcement agencies, but Aguilar expects it to find an audience among hobbyists as well: "One nature photographer wanted to roll it into an animal burrow to see what's inside."
Say hello to the Nike super-shoe: Like a fitness Frankenstein, the Free Hyperfeel takes the best elements of the company's most recent releases and turns them into a breakthrough, better-than-barefoot minimalist running shoe. Weighing just 6.4 ounces, it's made of only seven pieces—a typical Nike sneaker has more than 50—and took over eight years to engineer. Fewer parts make this shoe more like a sock in fit (knit and compressive) and feel (light and flexible). The trio who dreamed it up—Tony Bignell, 41, vice president of footwear innovation; Sean McDowell, 42, vice president of running; and Lee Holman, vice president of apparel design—dissect the revolutionary runner.
For the Whitney Museum's new logo, this Amsterdam graphic-design collective—Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers, and Danny van den Dungen—found a solution in just four straight lines, which form what they call a "responsive W," an emblem that can expand and contract in an almost infinite number of ways.
The acclaimed landscape architect of New York's High Line, James Corner, 52, has also turned run-down parks in Seattle and Philadelphia (shown here) into stunning urban spaces. Now at work on Chicago's famed Navy Pier, he compares his designs to scenography, or plot twists in a novel—"except we're doing it with bodies in motion."
Rich Brilliant Willing
This year, the design trio of Theo Richardson, Charles Brill, and Alexander Williams took over a 2,500-square-foot space in Brooklyn to start producing, storing, and shipping their works—like the new aluminum Gala chandelier (shown here)—themselves. "We've just been trying to give our work a more human touch," Richardson says.
Somehow, high-end design has missed out on the explosion of e-commerce destinations. But serial maverick Ambra Medda, 32, who first upended the industry in 2005 when she cofounded Design Miami, is filling the void with a site she's calling a "Wikipedia of design": L'ArcoBaleno. With backing from the likes of Tom Dixon and Reed Krakoff, it has her trademark mix of cutting-edge galleries and well-curated next big things, offering both classic Marcel Breuer chairs and exclusives from emerging stars like Moritz Waldemeyer. "If we don't help you discover new things," Medda says, "we will have failed."
Ever since Hugh Herr lost both legs below the knee in a rock-climbing accident at 17, he's devoted himself to trying to create a prosthetic device that works as well as or better than biological limbs. Now 48 and the biomechatronics director at the MIT Media Lab, Herr has succeeded in developing the BiOM ankle, a revolutionary prosthesis that can move fluidly over any kind of terrain thanks to a microchip programmed to respond like the body's own tendons and muscles. "At my age, the bionic part of me is better than the biological part," Herr says of the BiOM, which he's worn since 2006. In the not-too-distant future, a slew of prosthetically enhanced octogenarians might even pass you in a 10K race. "It's the end of disability," Herr says of our coming bionic age. "And it's even better than immortality, because you get better with age."
There are happy accidents all the time, but few unexpected discoveries have the potential to influence history like Ric Kaner's. The 55-year-old UCLA chemistry professor had been trying to develop more efficient ways to produce a new carbon-based material called graphene, one of the strongest substances known to man, but he and his assistant, Maher El-Kady, found that when they exposed the material to light in the lab, it transformed into a super-capacitor—in other words, a highly efficient, biodegradable power source capable of charging 30 to 100 times faster than current lithium-ion batteries, juicing up smartphones and, potentially, electric cars in seconds. Although batteries are a few years from the market, the race to harness the full paradigm-shifting potential of Kaner's discovery is already on. "As people become more familiar with the technology, they'll find new applications for it," he says.
Before there's a recipe for one of his taste-bud-bending spice mixes, Lior Lev Sercarz says, there has to be a story. "I want to understand the message," says Lev Sercarz, 41, who began his culinary career in the Israeli army before falling under the spell of coriander and cumin. He makes his custom blends (either sold out of his New York City shop or served as proprietary creations for chefs like Daniel Boulud) using an intense process of researching, toasting, grinding, and combining the ingredients—it's part precision science, part poetry. "It's like how a painter understands what color can be created by mixing different paints together," he says.
4 Chefs Who Cook With His Creations
SPICE: Cancale N.11
INGREDIENTS: Fleur de sel, orange, and fennel
DISH: Seared skate with sautéed romaine lettuce and pickled scallions
Restaurant Marc Forgione, New York City
SPICE: Ararat N.35
INGREDIENTS: Smoked paprika, urfa, and fenugreek leaves
DISH: Barbecue baked oysters
SPICE: Sheba N.40
INGREDIENTS: Paprika, ginger, and cumin
DISH: Braised short ribs, coffee, and apples
Oleana, Cambridge, Massachusetts
SPICE: Ana N.36
INGREDIENTS: Sumac, sesame, and rose petals
DISH: Rice pilaf in a phyllo crust
David Benjamin Sherry
Los Angeles–based photographer David Benjamin Sherry, 32, invented a way to give his pictures "an almost infinite depth." He coats each print with a fine dust of white sand gathered from his photo sites in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona and hand-dyes the grains to match the colors in the image.
For a commission in Brooklyn Bridge Park, sculptor Oscar Tuazon, 38, built a water fountain inside a black-oak tree he found in a forest two hours north of New York City, then had it installed on site. "A sculpture should be a living thing," he says. "To me, a tree is already like a sculpture."
"Everyone can relate to sun and rain," says painter Sam Falls, 29, who cut long pieces of rope, covered them with different-colored powdered pigments, arranged them on bedsheets, and set them out in the rain—then he let them dry, turning nature into an unwitting collaborator.
Ever since he took his first sculpture of computer-programmed strobe lights to Burning Man in 1997, New York City–based artist Leo Villareal, 46, has been fascinated by the communal potential—the "digital campfire"—of LED sculptures. Crowds swarmed last fall's Buckyball in New York, and more than 50 million people have seen his biggest project: Since March, The Bay Lights has featured 25,000 sequenced white LEDs on the suspension cables of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge.
When MakerBot, the 3-D-printing start-up, was bought by manufacturing giant Stratasys in June for $403 million, it was clear that Bre Pettis' brainchild was destined for more than just making tiny Star Trek figurines. But serious business has always been the goal of the 41-year-old CEO: MakerBot's Replicator printers, which debuted last year, are already being used to make prosthetic hands for children and prototypes for the next generation of Hubble telescopes. In August, the Brookyn-based entrepreneur launched the Digitizer, a desktop scanner that reproduces objects up to eight inches tall, like a 3-D copy machine. "Just wait," Pettis says. "Soon, when you want something, instead of buying it, you'll say, 'I could make that.'"
A Brief History of the Technology