The average arm’s reach of an adult is 53 centimeters. Symbolically speaking, it’s the distance from thought to action, from an idea to creation.
Those crucial centimeters inspired the name “” – and that’s the technology firm that won Apple’s App of the Year for its revolutionary sketching app “Paper” and the corresponding digital stylus “Pencil”. Both work as intuitively as, well, paper and pencils, except that the result immediately appears on your iPad. We met Georg Petschnigg at the FiftyThree Headquarters in TriBeCa, New York.
This portrait is part of a series with Vitra. Visit to find out more about 53 inc’s design pieces and other interior concepts.
When you ask the founders of successful firms how it all started, many describe that one magic moment, that serendipitous day when it all happened. Do you have that kind of founding myth?
Well, if you can call three years a “moment”… In our case, it’s not like it all happened in a flash. The most important part is meeting the right people: We’re four founders, Jon Harris, Andrew Allen, Julian Walker and me. I met all three of them while I was working at Microsoft. Jon, Andrew, and I had been working on a new tablet device called “Courier”. We had known of Julian’s work on 3D and zoomable interfaces and had always admired his work. And then we finally got to know him personally – and in 2011 we got together to start FiftyThree.
What brought you together?
A simple conviction that we all share: That being human means to create. And the task of technology is to support human beings in their endeavor to create. What we found fascinating was that we use all kinds of technology to improve our productivity, but when it comes to creating ideas, we revert to a pencil and paper.
And this is how your app came about? In the end, it’s about digitizing that process of generating ideas, isn’t it?
We are inspired by ME the intuition and immediacy of the analogue world, and bring that to the digital. Today many digital creation tools are complex and we think creative productivity should be accessible to all. Ideas begin with Paper.
I read that you’re called “FiftyThree” because that’s the average arm’s reach. So it’s roughly the distance between your heart and your hands. Do you think that influences the way we organize our workspace?
It’s a huge influence! We spent a lot of time looking at various workplaces and we noticed that all pretty much look alike. Design may be important, but the most important thing is something else: the stuff you need most needs to be reachable within an arm’s length.
FiftyThree Inc Profile:
Location: 60 Hudson Street, TriBeCa, New York.
Founders: Julian Walker, Andrew S Allen, Jonathan Harris, Georg Petschnigg
Size: 6.600 sq. ft.
Interior Design: +ADD by ME Laura Gonzalez Fierro
Job Vacancies: fiftythree.com/jobs
Main Team Specs: design, engineering, business development and community management
Team Members: 35
Specialization: Apps, Services and Hardware Products
Do you think the traditional tools – such as real paper and pencils – will be lost at some point?
Well, it’s true that most of what we consume today is digitized. And most people read online. But I don’t think books will become any less precious.
Speaking about tools, what kind of tools are you using at FiftyThree ?
We use everything from Tweetbot, Xcode, MailChimp for campaigns and several analytics tools like Mixpanel and Flurry. Tableau is awesome. It can do very rapid analysis for any data-set. It’s like Excel, except you can work with really diverse data-sets and it’s highly visual.
So in your eyes, one doesn’t exclude the other?
No, it doesn’t. It’s about using the right tool at the right time.
The interior at FiftyThree looks like it’s adapted to the design of Pencil – same color, same style. How come?
That’s a beautiful coincidence. Our architect and industrial design teams both followed the same FiftyThree brand guides. One of the tenets is honest materials. This is what led our architect, Laura Gonzales, to choose walnut. Because that’s an indigenous tree in the US. In parallel, our industrial design team also ended up choosing walnut for Pencil. The decisions where made independently, but the result is that we now have an interior that matches our first hardware product!
What else were your criteria when you started designing your own workplace?
The south-west orientation was very important. That way we always have great light. The light in New York is very bright and sharp. It’s quite dramatic. With the orientation we get the morning lights and sunset.
What’s the next step for FiftyThree in terms of developing “Paper” and “Pencil”?
We’re moving towards a collaboration services. “Paper” and “Pencil” are made for sketching and capturing your ideas – but then at some point, you need people you can work with. People that inspire you. So we are working on making that possible in the digital sphere.
That’s all I can say for now.
I heard that your grandfather had a tremendous influence on your work and your approach to design. Can you tell us more about him?
My grandfather is Hubert Petschnigg, one of the founders of the German architecture firm . He always used to say, “What counts most is that human beings feel well.” That was more important than all other design criteria: “When in doubt, go for the option that makes the human body feel better.”
What was your reason for moving to New York?
We went for New York because after the financial crash in 2008 it was obvious that New York would have to reinvent itself again. That’s what NYC does in general. It rediscovers itself. Whatever happens, it gets back on its feet.
How come you chose Tribeca for your headquarters?
It is a little calmer here when it comes to Manhattan. But at the same time, it’s right between the financial and design districts and Soho – it’s an interesting mix of design, art, and finance. And all the subway stations come together here as well. It’s really convenient and you can easily come in from New Jersey or Brooklyn. Not to mention the fact that there’s lots of really nice shops and restaurants.
Is New York still a good location to start a business?
Yes, even though New York can be challenging at times. Well, New York is a beautiful city, but it’s definitely not easy to start something. But one advantage is that it has lots of media. If you have a product you want to put on the market, you can meet the right people, get the word out there and make it happen.