As founders of the creative studio PlayLab Inc., Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeff Franklin have installed giant inflatable flowers in midtown Manhattan; launched the world’s first water-filtering, floating public swimming pool on the East River; orchestrated runway shows for Louis Vuitton; and partnered with clients like Adidas and Drake on wildly diverse projects.

What they don’t do is confine their work to any one industry, product, or outcome. The pair makes that abundantly clear in PlayLab’s mission statement: “With no particular focus, we explore themes using art, architecture, and graphic design to initiate ideas for ourselves and others.”

“We take play seriously,” Coates said. “We don’t have a focus and don’t want to do the same type of thing over and over again. We push out the things we really want to see in the world.”

Their multidisciplinary approach took root at Virginia Tech, where the pair met in 2004 as students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Archie Lee Coates IV
Archie Lee Coates IV. Image courtesy of Luca Venter.
Jeff Franklin
Jeff Franklin. Image courtesy of Luca Venter.

“We came out of there feeling like we could do anything,” Franklin said. “What I got most out of Virginia Tech was a way of thinking – a process for approaching problems that could be applied to all aspects of art, culture, science, and the world. No matter what the output or end result was, we had a defined way build up and execute an idea.”

PlayLab was born during their second year at Virginia Tech, over long days and late nights of architecture projects, doodling, and dreaming.

“In one of those sessions, we were like, ‘Let’s just create a studio where we do this all day,’” Coates said.

By the time they graduated – Coates in 2006 with a B.F.A. in graphic design and Franklin in 2007 with a bachelor’s in architecture and a minor in industrial design – PlayLab had a steady stream of design work in Blacksburg. Within a year of moving to New York City, they had landed enough clients to make it a full-time pursuit.

“It was fast,” Coates said. “We were 22 and owned our own practice. I think one of the reasons it came to fruition so quickly is because PlayLab was like a continuation of college. We came out with the confidence and process to build something and just see what comes out of it.”

A giant bouncy castle served as part of a whimsical backdrop created by PlayLab for the Louis Vuitton Men's Spring/Summer 2020 Runway Show
A giant bouncy castle served as part of a whimsical backdrop created by PlayLab for the Louis Vuitton Men's Spring/Summer 2020 Runway Show, 2019. Image courtesy of Be Good Studios.
PlayLab’s runway set for the Louis Vuitton Men's Fall/Winter 2020 Runway Show
PlayLab’s runway set for the Louis Vuitton Men's Fall/Winter 2020 Runway Show. Image courtesy of Louis Vuitton.

Their multidisciplinary approach helped PlayLab attract a diverse array of client work, ranging from branding and graphic design projects to art installations, books, building concepts, digital products, events, fashion, footwear, and product launches. Examples include “Grown Up Flowers,” an installation of 30-foot public inflatable flower sculptures throughout midtown Manhattan; giant worm-like tents for the New Museum of Contemporary Art; a rebrand of the United States for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; a plus-shaped water-filtering floating pool on the East River called + POOL; and a video compilation of every time Joaquin Phoenix has walked in films, called “Walking Phoenix.”

This year, after more than a decade in New York, PlayLab moved its home base to Los Angeles to be closer to their growing clientele in the West Coast art, entertainment, and fashion industries. Four of their five employees from New York joined them.

“We’ll always love New York and have huge respect for it,” Franklin said. “But we’re looking forward to having more space to explore and a new set of influences.”

Those influences include an impressive array of veterans and rising stars from fashion and music, including Virgil Abloh, Reese Cooper, John Elliott, Kanye West, and Drake.

Abloh, Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director and founder/CEO of the fashion label Off-White, has become a close friend, muse, and collaborator, inviting PlayLab to create spectacular sets for Louis Vuitton runway shows, as well as Abloh’s monograph, titled "ARTWORK," on the occasion of his career retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. In one recent show at Paris’s Place Dauphine, PlayLab installed a giant red inflatable bouncy castle, crepe stands, and oversized Louis Vuitton-monogrammed park benches as a backdrop for the debut of the spring menswear collection.

PlayLab collaborated with Nike to launch the Nike x Stranger Things 3 campaign, which featured 80s-style footwear inspired by the Netflix hit series
PlayLab collaborated with Nike to launch the Nike x Stranger Things 3 campaign, which featured 80s-style footwear inspired by the Netflix hit series. Image courtesy of Nike, 2019.

“Designing a Louis Vuitton runway show was probably one of the biggest things on our wish list,” Coates said. “It’s architecture, it’s theater, it’s graphic design, it’s branding, it’s production. Everything that Jeff and I learned at Virginia Tech about breaking down borders, boundaries, and disciplines really coalesced in those shows.”

PlayLab wasn’t the only important partnership Coates and Franklin formed at Virginia Tech. Coates is married to 2007 alumna Emily (Groeber) Coates (B.F.A. in graphic design) and Franklin’s wife is 2007 graduate Jennifer Uchida (B.F.A. graphic design). The couples met as undergraduate students.

Coates and Franklin give back to the university with service and financial support. For the past two years, both were inaugural members of Dean Richard Blythe’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies Advisory Board. They have remained active supporters of the School of Architecture + Design and School of Visual Arts.

As principals of PlayLab, Coates and Franklin also created a scholarship for a student in the college through the Beyond Boundaries Scholars program. They said they hope the assistance will make it possible for the student to pursue opportunities like a transdisciplinary research project.

“We always say we got a full-service experience at Virginia Tech,” Franklin said. “We hold the university dearly in our hearts. We got so much out of it, it’s hard to imagine what our lives would have been like if we hadn’t gone down that path.”

– Written by Marya Barlow