THE DREAM FACTORY: Syyn Labs California workshop

A few blocks away from the brewery, tucked behind the sliding, barn-style doors of an old paint factory, is Syyn Labs’ headquarters, a 5,000-square-foot warehouse with 20-foot-high ceilings and polished concrete floors. The space is divided into two main sections: an office outfitted with couches on wheels (“for easy reconfiguring,” Sadowsky says) and an actual workshop, with a mezzanine that connects the two. Relics from past projects are everywhere: an AstroTurf minigolf hole is suspended from the ceiling and a giant hand that reads “click here” and was used as part of a collaboration with Chevy hangs over Sadowsky’s desk.

Brett Doar testing a Rube Goldberg transition

Surprisingly, Syyn Labs has only five full-time employees, though its ­number of team members on any given project grows according to the skills and hands required and can sometimes exceed 50. “Our model is most effective when we hire for the specific skills that we need,” says Sadowsky. “There are a lot of people who are core to the organization, and they’re our first preference, but there’s also a growing network of really awesome builders, techies, painters and sculptors we bring in on an ‘as needed’ basis.” This includes projects like creating a working organ made from 24 cars that runs on a single battery for DieHard automotive and crafting a 100-foot-long double helix of colorful, synced lights from 512 computer-controlled LEDs and more than a mile of wire for the Glow festival in Santa Monica, Calif. They’ve also formed a partnership with Motion Theory, an L.A.–based production company that provides Syyn Labs with a complete range of video-production and support services that Sadowsky says, “help us envision what it is we want to achieve.”

Since its inception, the organization has grown intellectually — tackling each new project with even greater degrees of knowledge and sophistication. “I don’t think that everyone who was [initially] part of the organization could really see the potential,” says Sadowsky, “but I saw Syyn Labs as an opportunity to be a bit of a disrupter in the industry. That significant, long-established brands like Chevy and DieHard started recognizing this approach and reaching out to us — it’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. These are companies with really deep pockets that are willing to push the envelope.”

For Syyn Labs, the actual development of an idea is less about how the moment of inspiration strikes and more about establishing enabling constraints — or productive parameters — to help shape it. For example, once they have an idea of how big something should be and how quickly it should move, they can start defining the materials. Sadowsky and his co-workers ask questions like, “How do you store energy, and how do you take that stored energy and make it into something that can move the machine along in an interesting way?” So, if they want to roll something across the floor, what rolls well? It could be a ball, tire, bicycle or even a cable spool.

“What we do is whimsical, and there aren’t many rules,” Sadowsky says. “And since we’re generally not endangering lives, it’s OK to incorporate things like bowling balls and trampolines.”


LAURA KINIRY, a regular contributor to American Way, lives in San Francisco, where she writes frequently about food and drink, the arts and travel.