20Q: Nelly Ben Hayoun

Thrilling, creative, passionate, these are just some of the terms that could be used to describe the work of Nelly Ben Hayoun. She shares some of her quirks.

1. What would you like to have written in your obituary?

She went to Mars, met with the dinosaurs, engaged with politics, lived for 100 years and married a few astronauts. She lived every day to its extreme, thinking that nothing is impossible to achieve.

2. How do you deal with failure?

I fight! Failure is always part of the process. I fail a lot, and I mainly look for it, the more I fail, the more I learn. "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same" (from Kipling's "If")... this articulates my approach to work, as whether you succeed or fail, you take what you can and you move on to the next project. Continuously look to the new challenges, to the future without dwelling on what happened.

3. What would you save from your burning house?

The picture of my Armenian grandmum and grandad

4. Who in the world, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Boris Vian: Polymath: writer, poet, musician, singer, translator, critic, actor, inventor and engineer. 

5. What's one thing that you haven't done that you would still really like to do?

Going through a black hole- that is called going through "Spaghettification”. But I will get there (as for Mars!).

6. What’s the best creative advice you ever received?

I was lucky enough to have incredible tutors, a selection of their advices could be:

  • Creativity is a muscle, work hard to keep it going
  • Learn from and respect your peers
  • Trust in your instinct
  • Edit, edit, edit
  • Never be satisfied 

7. What always makes you laugh out loud?

My sister.

8. What's the one gadget that you can't live without?

A whistle with an integrated compass (I am always getting lost - even with a GPS! This gadget has proven to be very useful, especially when I was lost in the deep radioactive forest of Chernobyl!)

9. Winter or summer?

Definitely summer! I am hot blooded! Born in the south of France! So yes the sun more than everything!

10. What items would you put in a time capsule?

A hammer and a jigsaw (my favourite tools), and probably something to do fire with (just in case), some sort of fire stones!

11. What is the question you ask yourself the most?

How did you manage to put yourself in such a situation?!

12. Which animal do you most identify with?

An elephant with the eyes of the tiger!

13. What's your favourite film?

Hard to tell. Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Kubrick.

14. What is your present state of mind?

I am currently working on a very exiting new project... So I am in a warrior and passionate state of mind, trying everything possible to make it happen.

15. What is something you know you do differently to most people?

Apparently I am good at cooking "crepes" and at bringing chaos and thrill in people’s everyday!

16. Which superpower would you most like to have?

Can I have two superpowers? I would like to fly and be able to break walls!

17. What qualities do you most admire in others?


18. Are you a morning person?

Yes, definitely, an early bird! I used to wake up at 5am to practice boxing!

19. What does water taste like?

The taste of whales?!

20. What's the most adventurous thing you've ever done?

That is a very difficult question. Every project I do aims to be more extreme then the previous ones. What would you say was the most adventurous:

Lighting up a volcano into my living room while my landlord lives downstairs?

Being in the middle of a neutrino observatory while a Sonic BOOOOOm is happening.

Lifting off on board of the Soyuz (rocket).

Making dark energy in my kitchen sink.

Going to Chernobyl and Baikonur Cosmodrome with 40 wild students on board of the Unknown Fields Division.

Teaching students in Iceland from Platform 10 at the Royal College of Art how to experience extreme leisure activities on the top of a waterfall or how to hunt sharks…?

Or maybe the most adventurous is the one I am currently working on…. I can’t really speak about it yet but it involves an orchestra on some sort of satellite….!

Here's Nelly Ben Hayoun's speaker presentation at Design Indaba 2011. 

Watch the Talk with Nelly Ben Hayoun