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Architecture Design Published

A Decade after Katrina, Tulane Expands Its Social Innovation Agenda

October 20, 2015

Tulane University’s URBANbuild initiative was founded in 2005, not long before Hurricane Katrina ravaged much of the surrounding area. And if its mission had been important before, it became even more pressing in the storm’s aftermath.

As Tulane’s School of Architecture’s design-build program, URBANbuild sets out to give students firsthand experience of the work that goes into building an energy-efficient home, combining academic with technical knowledge. Over the course of the semester students participate in every aspect of the building process, from researching and developing proposals to communicating with material providers and working directly with subcontractors.

Following Hurricane Katrina, URBANbuild turned its focus toward designing for the immediate community as it dealt with the consequences of the natural disaster. “We had an opportunity and a responsibility to help the communities in a much greater way,” Byron Mouton, director of URBANbuild, says. “Helping people who decided to return to understand that they had access to greater options.” Since its inception, the program has spearheaded the design and execution of 10 projects, including affordable housing in underserved areas and even a pop-up community market—all have had a small-scale but deeply-felt impact on the urban fabric of New Orleans.

Now, with the ten-year anniversary of Katrina, many are revisiting the extent of Katrina’s impact on the area and reassessing how the disaster has shaped how designers can deal with catastrophe and hardship on a broader scale. In these discussions, Tulane has stepped up to the plate once more, with its Tulane City Center projects (the community outreach arm of the Tulane School of Architecture) and its newly founded Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking.

As a university-wide initiative, the Taylor Center is committed to becoming the area’s hub for social innovation and design thinking. Through a wide array of programs and activities—including lectures, workshops, and fellowship opportunities—Taylor is seeking to blur the lines between the academic environment and the larger community, by acting as a resource to both. Its Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship minor creates an academic framework for understanding and enacting social change, with student organizations and speaker series helping to spread the ideas of the program. Additionally, the Changemaker Institute Accelerator helps turn these pursuits into potential careers.

Apart from its programs, Taylor also offers several funding opportunities, including the New Day Challenge, which supports student-led projects that address social challenges affecting New Orleans. The development of the city and the surrounding area remains one of Tulane’s main concerns, as its programs seek to not only confront immediate issues but integrate community engagement as part of the curriculum. “At Taylor, URBANbuild, and Tulane City Center, engagement and social innovation are at the very core of everything we do,” Taylor’s founding director Kenneth Schwartz says. “Adding these programs up, it’s a remarkable confluence of social innovation for this university-wide enterprise.”

Full article here.

Architecture Design Published

Spatial Reasoning: Gender, History, and Minimalist Spaces

September 22, 2015
Frances F Denny

Article for the Minimalism issue of A Women’s Thing magazine.

“Penny Sparke begins her book on the relationship between gender politics and design, As Long as It’s Pink, by recounting a segment from the cult 1990s BBC television series Signs of the Times. The show, which set out to document the personal tastes of British homeowners, featured a woman “married to an architect for whom white walls and minimal décor were de rigueur. The woman explained how she sometimes went into the children’s bedroom—the only room in which curtains were permitted—and softly wept.” What could be so unsettling about the design of a room that it would drive a woman to tears? And more generally, what is it about minimalist spaces, those mainstays of architectural history classes and interior design magazines, that makes them seem cold and alienating to people who actually spend time in them?”

Full article (+beautiful layout) here
Photography: Frances F. Denny

Design Independent Designers

Best New Makers

July 20, 2015
Dana Bechert Ceramics

Dana Bechert
Behind the intricately carved geometric patterns of Dana Bechert’s ceramic vessels lies an ongoing problem-solving process: “I create things as I develop a need for them,” says Bechert. From coffee pour-over funnels to planters and tea sets, Bechert’s interests in cooking and gardening find a functional expression in her ceramics. She credits her time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the broad range of classes she took there, with teaching her how different crafts can inform one another.

In her work, Bechert, who grew up in rural Connecticut and has a studio in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, draws from imagery as diverse as American pieced quilts, Native American Acoma Pueblo pottery, and historical textile prints and weavings, but her primary source of inspiration remains geometry as it appears in nature. “Most of my ceramic work is done outside, among the birds, bugs, and plants,” says Bechert. “I find my work looks best when it is paired with organic matter, and I feel like, in some small way, I am able to add value to these wild subjects.”

For an artist who prefers to work in nature, winter might be considered a quiet time to rest and regroup, but Bechert has, instead, been keeping busy with her next project, a camp and artist residency called Oak Hill Nature Center. “It will be focused on environmental and agricultural education, with traditional craft and culinary skill-building as part of the curriculum,” says Bechert. “I’m excited to see how my ceramics practice will fit into my pursuits there.”

Founding studio DAMM gave wife-and-husband team Brenda and Robert Zurn an opportunity they were more than happy to embrace—to work on new projects together. “From our very first apartment together, we have made our own furniture, including bookshelves, coffee tables, bed frames, and cabinets,” Brenda says. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Zurns decided to launch their joint venture with a foray into lighting. “Lighting allows us to be sculptural in an open way,” says Robert. “The restrictions on lighting are minimal and, if done well, a fixture or a lamp can stand alone like a unique art object.”

From a Memphis-inspired table lamp to the pastel simplicity of their Hombre pendants, their products reveal a wide variety of influences and visual expressions. And although their ideas might start in different places—Robert being heavily inspired by concepts rooted in the art world and Brenda’s interest in history and storytelling—they share a strong preference for utilizing simple, honest materials.

In their work, the Zurns strive not to disguise the authentic nature of materials such as wood, brass, and glass. “These types of materials have a built-in history because people have interacted with them for millennia,” says Brenda. “They also have sense of authenticity that goes all the way through the object.” The duo is set to continue exploring the field of lighting design in developing its first floor lamp, but is also eager to expand its range through a line of home goods, which it plans to release later in the year.A sense of history, both in terms of its aesthetics and the exceptional level of craftsmanship, is a signature quality of Smith Shop’s work, particularly its elegant copper and steel serving ware. “We look backwards a lot, and try to create work that embraces tradition, but also breaks away from it a little bit,” says Craig. One of these historical points of reference is Detroit itself, its Art Deco heritage, and, even more so, its unwavering sense of entrepreneurship. “For a long time in Detroit, the currency was talking about doing things that would turn the city around, and eventually it became a city of doers,” Craig says. “We’re here, we’re committed, and we’re doing things.”

Studio Dunn Furniture
Studio Dunn
Faced with the difficulty of finding custom-design work in the throes of the economic downturn, Asher Dunn decided to create his own. “When the market crashed, we all looked at this uncertainty around us and were eager to regain a sense of stability in our lives,” Dunn says. “A huge amount of innovation and entrepreneurship came out of it because one way people recovered a sense of control, was by employing themselves.” For Dunn, the decision was fortunate—his first collection won him the Best New Designer award at the 2010 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF).

That same year, Dunn founded his studio, which has since grown to employ seven other designers and makers. “I wanted to recreate the atmosphere that I found while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design,” says Dunn. “Our design process is very natural, but there’s always a lot of back and forth.” The work produced by the studio is highly varied, both visually and materially—from the warm, midcentury modern-inspired wooden furniture to raw industrial lighting—but is driven by Dunn’s desire to explore the capabilities and limitations of materials, as well as a commitment to using only sustainable materials.

As the studio’s repertoire is expanding, with forays into metalwork and soft goods, Dunn remains dedicated to carving out his own path. “There is a huge amount of value in entrepreneurship and being able to create your own success,” Dunn says. “It’s exciting to see that people are returning to creating things themselves, and that we are starting to reevaluate what it means to manufacture products in the United States.”

Smith Shop Detroit
Smith Shop
Detroit, once the national icon of mass manufacturing, is quickly becoming one of the most exciting incubators for young makers and craftspeople. Among these is Smith Shop, a metalworking studio founded in 2012 that has made a name for itself with a selection of ethically sourced and exquisitely crafted jewelry, kitchenware, and architectural hardware.

Smith Shop is based in Ponyride, a vibrant studio space and community of small creative businesses in the Corktown area that sprang up in an effort to revitalize the city. Spaces like Ponyride have been instrumental in organizing exchanges between makers and the general public—Smith Shop values workshops and lectures. “There’s a long history of craftspeople sharing what they do with people who want to learn,” says Gabriel Craig, one of the founders of Smith Shop. “Metalworking is primarily an oral tradition. It’s an opportunity for people to engage with their hands and learn how manufacturing happens.”

John Hogan GlassworkingJohn Hogan
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, the birthplace of the Studio Glass movement, John Hogan had a long tradition to draw from. “I started blowing glass at the Toledo Museum of Art youth art program at 15 years old,” says Hogan. “That started me down the rabbit hole of glasswork.”

With the help of some of the country’s most influential glassmakers, Hogan immersed himself in the history of the craft, from the highly technical Italian approach to the more minimal method, focused on the optical qualities of glass, that he observed during a sojourn in the Czech Republic. Finally settling in Seattle, the current hub of the glass-blowing community, Hogan is now eager to help other artists and designers develop their own projects through Ballard Assembly, a consulting, prototyping, and production operation that he is developing.

Meanwhile, Hogan’s personal work, which manipulates glass for experiments with color and light, is garnering accolades in both commercial and gallery settings. And while influences on his work come from sources as diverse as electronic music and culinary art, he distills them all in crisp, simple forms that let the material shine through. “For me, the most challenging aspect of working with glass is staying out of its way,” Hogan says. “I admire artists and designers who choose to work in many materials. But, for me, the specific elements of a material as complex as glass can only be understood with immense amounts of time and focus.”

Originally appeared in Metropolis.


Greta Grossman

July 19, 2015

Today mostly remembered for her elegant and playful Grasshopper Lamp, in the 1950s and ’60s, Greta Grossman was a highly sought-after architect, interior and industrial designer who worked across two continents.

Growing up in Sweden in 1920s, Grossman, as a precocious teen, defied expectations by taking up woodworking, a predominantly male profession at the time. She followed this venture by becoming one of the first women to graduate from the Stockholm School of Industrial Design. Greatly influenced by functionalism, Grossman travelled across Europe, visiting the pioneering Weissenhof settlement and joining the conversations at the Motta restaurant in Milan, a primary meeting place for Milan’s art and design world, where, among others, she befriended the famed designer Gio Ponti.

Back in Sweden, Grossman rose to prominence in Stockholm’s design scene after opening Studio, a store and a workshop, which immediately became the most popular gathering place for young Swedish designers. Grossman herself became the poster-girl for modernism in Sweden, until in 1940, under the dark cloud of the Second World War, Greta and her husband, jazz player Billy Grossman, emigrated to the United States. Once settled in Los Angeles, Grossman opened a store in Rodeo Drive. Grossman played up her Swedish heritage (her business cards read simply Greta Magnusson Grossman: Swedish designer) in order to attract American customers who were awed by Swedish design after the highly-successful exhibition of Swedish Modern at the New York World’s Fair.

Grossman’s personal brand of modernism was never a cold, monochrome one. But once in LA, it fully blossomed by combining a Swedish fondness for color and texture with the opportunities allowed by bright and open spaces of Southern California. With a humanist sensibility, she designed large, airy living rooms which were meant to serve as spaces for dining, entertaining and working, while keeping the bedroom a private haven, removed from the bustle of activity in the rest of the house. Always designing for comfort and practicality, she placed a great emphasis on roomy, multi-functional kitchens, saying: “no architect should be allowed to design a kitchen without running a household for a couple of months! Please, keep us from the ‘rationalized’ kitchens with all their expensive and fancy appliances but without decent cupboards for this and that.”

Grossman’s furniture, too, shows a strong interest in merging functionality and comfort. However, this did little to curb her desire for experimentation, as she enjoyed combining wood with new materials, such as metal and plastic, and playing with bold colors. The most iconic products Grossman designed after moving to LA were the Grasshopper and the Cobra lamp. The Grasshopper, introduced in 1947, is made up of an aluminum conical shade resting on a tubular steel tripod stand and remains her most popular design, while the Cobra won the 1950 Good Design award and was consequently showcased at the MoMA.

Grossman remained a design star in California for the rest of her life—her pieces selling to Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra—while today she is renowned internationally for her significant role in defining the modernist esthetic.

Originally published: Dwell.


Harry Bertoia

July 18, 2015

Recognized worldwide as a genius of 20th century design, it’s hard to believe that Harry Bertoia designed only one series of furniture. His steel wire chairs, designed in 1951, are a masterpiece of structure and transparency and remain a staple in every midcentury inspired home. While most of his contemporaries were interested in the properties of wood and plastic in their designs, Bertoia focused on steel, combining his metalworking knowledge with his interest in sculpture in producing a collection of woven-wire chairs, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them,” Bertoia said.

Bertoia, who was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1930, met Florence Knoll at the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art. While he started working on chair designs in California, collaborating with Charles Eames, another Cranbrook alumnus, he moved to Pennsylvania to develop an original seating collection in 1951. Florence and Hans Knoll encouraged Bertoia to explore whatever he liked, and he was immediately drawn to the idea of utilizing steel wire in developing a new chair design. To further soften the hard shell of the woven-wire, furniture designer Richard Schultz was asked to help Bertoia in coming up with ideas for the upholstery. The collection was introduced by Knoll in 1952 and quickly became a classic. The success of the collection allowed Bertoia to move away from furniture design and devote himself entirely to his art.

Although the products of a single collection, Bertoia chairs remain one of the most popular chairs in home furnishing. It’s hard not to be drawn to the strictness of steel wiring made delicate by the transparency of the grid. The chameleon-like qualities of the chairs allow them to work well in any environment, from dining rooms to outdoor spaces, and they make a bold statement wherever they’re placed. So for those who are wondering how to include these chairs in their home or are just curious about the story of this modern classic, here’s a look at the history of the Bertoia seating collection and some of the Dwell homes that showcase the chairs to their best advantage.

Design Published

Design Classic: Jens Risom Collection

April 20, 2014

Jens Risom’s 1942 designs for Knoll were born out of wartime necessity but went on to become signature midcentury modern designs.

Full article here.

Jens Risom’s furniture collection was the first designed for and manufactured by Knoll. Originally known as the 600 Series, it quickly put the new furniture company on the map, and remains one of its most popular designs to this day.

Born in Denmark, Risom left for the United States in 1938. Soon after settling in New York, he met Hans Knoll, who was a year older and had been in the United States a year longer than Risom. The two quickly bonded, aware of the gap in the American furniture market and ambitious to fill it with quality design. “There was no furniture, nothing to be had…everybody was anxious to buy everything they could get their hands on,” Risom recalls.

The two embarked on a mission to create simple, inexpensive furniture for American consumers. The resulting collection made two of the few materials widely available during wartime—surplus army webbing and parachute straps—and wrapped them around a supple, curving wooden frame. Aided by Knoll’s entrepreneurial prowess, the collection was quickly became a mainstream staple of office furnishing. But the lounges, armchairs and stools, which made up the collection, also proved immediately successful with broader American audiences eager for simple and functional design.

Risom didn’t have much time to enjoy his successes; drafted in 1943, he spent two and a half years in the army. When he returned, he found there was little room left for him at Knoll. In this time, Hans had married Florence Schust, who, according to Risom, “was a brilliant designer but was not as impressed with the Scandinavian wood furniture as she was the metal furniture from Mies and Saarinen.” Nevertheless, Knoll continued producing the collection without Risom’s name attached to it. In the late 1990s the collection was reintroduced under his name, capturing the attention of a new generation of design enthusiasts.

Design Published

Design Classic: Eames House Bird

April 17, 2014

The small decorative black bird is considered one of the most famous Eames pieces, even though it wasn’t designed by Eames at all.

Full story here.

The story of the Eames House Bird is less a story of Charles and Ray Eames and more one of Charles and Edna Perdew. This husband and wife team from Henry, Illinois, passed on their gun repair business to their son in the 1930s and dedicated themselves to carving and painting bird decoys for hunters. A simple black bird Perdew carved around 1910 became a highly sought-after model by quite a different audience in the 1950s, primarily for its minimal shape and dark color. It was popularized by Charles and Ray Eames, who acquired one on their travels in the Appalachian mountains. The wooden bird became a center piece of the Eames living room and soon started to make an appearance in many of their product photo-shoots. It can even be seen in a 1952 cover of the Architectural Review, a solid shape among a grid created by Eames chairs.

Realizing the broad appeal of this simple decorative piece, Vitra has recently started reproducing them by creating 3D scans of the original. However, unlike Perdew’s versions, which were mostly carved out of pine, the Vitra version is made of solid alder with a black lacquer finish and steel wire legs. Its reappearance has brought the little black bird back to many mid-century inspired homes, where it often perches on top of furniture, elegant and unobtrusive at the same time.

Design Published

Design Classic: Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair

April 7, 2014

A look at Eero Saarinen’s Womb chair, an icon of midcentury modern design.

Full article here.

Unlike Harry Bertoia, who created a single collection, Eero Saarinen produced numerous designs for Knoll that became inextricably linked to the history of the famous furniture company.

Saarinen designed the Womb chair in 1946 at the request of Florence Knoll, whom he met at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “I told Eero I was sick and tired of the one-dimensional lounge chair…long and narrow…” Knoll said, “I want a chair I can sit in sideways or any other way I want to sit in it.”

Saarinen rose to this challenge and created a chair that proved comfortable in a number of different positions. Originally named No. 70, it soon became known as the Womb chair because of its comfortable, organic appearance. “It was designed on the theory that a great number of people have never really felt comfortable and secure since they left the womb,” Saarinen explained.

Apart from its novel appearance, the Womb chair is also highly innovative from a structural perspective. Saarinen wanted to construct the chair out of a single piece of material, and achieved this by experimenting with new materials and techniques drawn from the shipbuilding industry. The final result—a padded and upholstered fiberglass shell that sits on a polished chrome steel frame—combined simplicity of shape with true comfort and flexibility.

Initially released in 1948, the Womb chair quickly became a cultural icon. A 1958 Coca-Cola advertising campaign showed Santa Claus drinking a Coke in a Womb chair. The chair also made an appearance in a New Yorker cartoon as well as a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.

“Every object, whether large or small, has a relationship with its context,” Saarinen said in 1958. “Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my father was that in any design problem, one should seek the solution in terms of the next largest thing. If the problem is an ashtray, then the way it relates to the table will influence its design. If the problem is a chair, then its solution must be found in the way it relates to the room.” The sculptural form of the Womb chair effortlessly achieves this balance, matching any interior while still drawing the eye to its colors and curves. Today, the Womb chair seems like an almost ubiquitous addition to any midcentury-inspired home. Click through the slideshow to view houses we’ve featured in Dwell in which the Womb chair is a fixture.