November 20, 2015

Kai Avent-deLeon’s beautiful Bed-Stuy brownstone. Photos by Brian W. Ferry for Apiece Apart. More images can also be found here.

Casa Fayette interiorsThe interiors of Mexico’s Guadalajara Casa Fayette hotel, designed by Dimore Studio. More images here

Design Published

New Talent 2015

November 20, 2015

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of very inspiring designers and artists for the October issue of Metropolis magazine.

Margrethe Odgaard

margrethe odgaard design
Margrethe Odgaard’s interest in pattern could hardly be called superficial. The Danish designer has not only been utilizing pattern as a decorative element but also recognizing it as a force that guides most of our everyday experiences. Sometimes her work seeks to illustrate patterns already existing in our lives. At other times it even dictates how we use objects, like her tablecloth for Georg Jensen Damask—which gives guidelines on how to set the table and fold napkins—or her Divan daybed, which subtly directs where to lie on its surface.

A graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who also studied “I’m looking to create design that not only replies to human behavior but also interacts with it and creates some kind of difference.” at the Rhode Island School of Design, Odgaard praises the role of apprenticeship in design education. “It teaches you to identify a problem where it’s not about your own artistic expression,” she says. “It’s more about how you can find a solution to a problem with the skills you have.”

Odgaard believes designers are ready to develop their own voices once they have sufficiently honed their skills. For her, this meant fostering a dialogue with other creative voices, from furniture designer Christina Liljenberg Halstrøm to chef Jakob Mielcke. “In that dialogue you refine your work and there’s a greater chance that it becomes relevant,” Odgaard says. “For me, collaborations are another kind of communication that makes me sharper to what my own identity is as a designer.”

The long process of gestation helps explain the impressive quantity and quality of work Odgaard has produced since officially launching her independent studio in 2012. What instantly comes across in her designs is a keen understanding of color and pattern, which nevertheless remain tightly bound to function. Particularly striking is her ongoing Fold Unfold project, where, uninspired by the idea of designing a tablecloth with a floral pattern that is disrupted by folding creases, Odgaard created a design in which color seems to be bleeding through the folds, the pattern both highlighting and camouflaging the creases.

While her work to date has spanned textile, graphic, and product design, Odgaard is now moving on to designing within the larger scale of architecture. Her first project: outfitting and color-setting the Danish Architects’ Association’s new headquarters, which is slated to open in December. “The way we move and what we feel in a room are both very interesting to me,” Odgaard says. “For each room, I have notes from the association where they tell me what activities will be going on, and my goal is to use pattern and decoration to emphasize that energy.”

But no matter the medium of expression, Odgaard’s work remains firmly grounded in a social context, illustrated by her project Colour Cup—lightbulbs encased in elegant beadwork, mimicking the technique of African basket weaving. Created in collaboration with women from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the light bulbs were designed to give the group an opportunity to expand their market and export their products. Since then, the Colour Cup has been acquired by both Muji and the Conran Shop. “I’m trying to engage with society in a different way and to take social responsibility,” Odgaard says. “I’m looking to create design that not only replies to human behavior but also interacts with it and creates some kind of difference.”

Brynjar Sigurðarson

Brynjar Sigurðarson Design
The roots of most of Brynjar Sigurðarson’s art and design work can be traced to the traditions of Iceland, but the 29-year-old artist and designer developed his fascination with his native country only upon moving to Switzerland to study at ECAL (École cantonale d’art de Lausanne). “I experienced a whole new perspective on the culture I come from,” Sigurðarson says. “Before, I didn’t know anything else.” He credits the move with cultivating his interest in the anthropology and geology of the region. “If geology is about the production methods of nature, for designers there is much to learn from that,” he says. These interests account for much of his work, from his Glacier Project candles and Spectrum vases—resembling waves crashing on Icelandic shores—to his Study Boards, which are visual repositories that bring together drawings, photographs, and collected objects from Icelandic villages.

Sigurðarson’s own design process, much like nature’s, is often mysterious. “Most of my work follows a feeling. I try to shape what comes to me,” the designer says. “I don’t really see myself as a conductor, but rather the performer.” Not surprisingly, his practice spans many mediums and is almost impossible to pin down. The one constant of Sigurðarson’s work—which encompasses drawing, design, theater, and video (a short documentary detailing hermit Borgþór Sveinsson’s search for the legendary bull-fish was recently acquired by MAK, the Museum of Applied Arts, in Vienna)—is his preference for examining materials and narratives rather than producing discrete functional objects.

His exploration of Icelandic traditions began with a one-month stay in Vopnafjörður, a remote fishing village in northeast Iceland. Part field study, part art project, the experience left an indelible mark on Sigurðarson’s practice. The turning point was meeting a 75-year-old shark hunter and fisherman, whose workshop Sigurðarson spent a week in, learning how to use netting needles to make fishing nets. The designer translated this technique into his 2013 Silent Village collection for Galerie Kreo in Paris. The exhibition showcased a selection of 11 furniture pieces embellished with various found objects and decorative details, including brightly colored rope and nylon fishing wire, in a reference to the binding technique. “I think decoration tends to be highly underestimated,” Sigurðarson says. “The decorative parts speak a language, in this case the language of the fishing village.”

Now splitting his time between Lausanne and Berlin, where he recently founded a studio with Veronika Seldmair, Sigurðarson continues working on what he dubs “exercises”—process-heavy pieces that oscillate between anthropology and design. “In my work I try to bring up a picture of the ambiguous environment and speak of my experience,” he says. “Things such as atmosphere and personal experiences tend to get overly complicated when put into words, so maybe it is not so far off to translate them in the shape of objects.”

Sylvain Willenz

Sylvain Willenz design
“Simple” is not a dirty word for Sylvain Willenz. “There’s no point in designing something purely for the sake of being wild,” he says. “A designer doesn’t need to prove something through the object. What is essential is that the user finds it functional and friendly.” His belief that a simple form can still challenge a material is clearly visible in many of his projects, from the clean lines of his injection-molded plastic buckets to the sensuous beveled curves of marble and wood in the Alaka collection, developed in 2015 for the French manufacturer Retegui. This flexible approach and pared-down aesthetic has helped the Brussels-born Royal College of Art graduate amass a body of work that runs the gamut from furniture and lighting to textile design.

This prospect of variety is what appeals to Willenz and his small team as they work on projects varying from external hard drives to printed textile ranges. “I think for everyone in the studio it’s nice to be able to work on products that have different types of energy,” he says. “One day we’ll be working on something that will involve a lot of engineering, working with 0.01 millimeters, and then jump back to a textile where we’re talking about centimeters.” His rug collections for companies such as Ligne Roset and Menu fall into the second category, where Willenz abandons technical specificity for a painterly quality that lies somewhere between op art and colorfield painting. “I think the first rug we did was probably the hardest project to start,” he admits. “But then once we got started we just couldn’t stop—we had all these ideas. For me personally it was the perfect medium to express my interest in drawing and graphics.”

Connecting all of this diverse work is an immediately appealing aesthetic that projects softness and warmth. “I’m not about aggressive corners and angles,” Willenz says. “I like the idea that objects give you a reassuring feeling, that they have a sense of friendliness.” But he is also careful not to let familiarity veer into the realm of the formulaic. This can easily be seen in his 2015 Moor Club Seater, designed for the Belgian manufacturer Durlet. The concept evokes the long tradition of plump armchair design and imbues it with a cartoonish quality drawn from the Belgian heritage of illustration, all the while playfully subverting both influences. “You have this feeling that you’ve seen it, but you actually haven’t,” Willenz says. “It’s almost like déjà vu.” It’s this quality of design that seems at once old and new, present from some of his earliest works (he singles out the Torch lamp as a good example), that has carved out room for Willenz, deservedly setting him apart in the saturated field of design fairs and exhibitions.

Sean Baker

Sean Baker design
Sean Baker believes a key aspect of design strategy is being aware of the discipline’s potential pitfalls. “One of the biggest worries I have with the spread of design thinking is the idea of a packaged set of tools that can just be copied and pasted into any situation,” he says.

For Baker, design is more about careful navigation between disciplines, being cognizant of constraints and comfortable with complexity. “Human beings are not prone to being at ease with ambiguity or taking risks,” Baker says, “especially when you tackle really complex issues like disaster management or response.” His background, which spans biological sciences, anthropology, and sculpture, plus a graduate degree in transdisciplinary design from Parsons the New School for Design, has more than set Baker up for this task. “I think one of the main things that designers in my position can bring to the table is questioning people’s preconceived notions of the problem, or the framing of the problem.”

This line of thinking has informed all of his undertakings, from the Newburgh Project, which helped local entrepreneurs envision businesses that could thrive in the still-struggling postindustrial city of Newburgh, New York, to Fuse: Next Generation, which guided a group of experts in developing extracurricular science and math programs.

Perhaps even more nuanced was Project Fogg, which brought together a highly diverse team of experts—from the federal government to members of grassroots organizations—in an effort to provide a platform that would address the lack of information that follows in the first 10 hours after a major natural disaster. Led by Baker, the stakeholders turned a theoretical project around community resilience into a material toolkit, producing a weather balloon outfitted with a camera and transmitter. These kits are set to increase the capabilities of disaster management by making response times and resource allocation faster and more accurate, bridging the gap between a community’s needs and institutional response.

It is this sensitivity to different perspectives and experiences, both expert and community-led, that has aided Baker in his transition from design consulting in New York to his current position as lead designer for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab in Washington, D.C. There, he has taken on the revamp of USA Jobs, the federal hiring platform used by more than two million people, with the goal of adapting the search engine from a job seeker’s perspective. He is also helping the lab with the development of a design curriculum that could be applied across federal agencies. Once again, the project is not so much about providing a rigid framework for design thinking. “A lot of it is about changing the ethos of federal agencies,” Baker says. “It’s about getting them to see value in their personal expertise but understanding that syncing that expertise up with other disciplines is very enabling. And design strategy is this wonderful discipline that actually provides people with the tools that they need to navigate the complexity of that process.”

Full article: Metropolis

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


Pirelli Tire Building

August 6, 2015
Pirelli Tire Building by Night Owl City

While the severe beauty of some modernist buildings seems to finally be getting the recognition it deserves (Marina City), many other Brutalist works seem to have used up all of their luck in fighting criticism from both the public and (some) experts (Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore). The recent Rhode Island trip reminded me of another Brutalist wonder that seems to be sitting out its slow and ungraceful demise—Marcel Breuer’s 1970 Pirelli Tire Building.

Today known for the name given by a later owner, the building that marks the entrance to New Haven was originally built by the Armstrong Rubber Company—a family-owned tire company that started to fear it was becoming too dependent on orders from its primary client, Sears and Roebuck. Seeking to strengthen its identity the company’s leaders approached the mayor of New Haven about purchasing a plot of land right off the highway in  New Haven’s Long Wharf neighborhood. The mayor, eager to increase the presence of New Haven and have the building become a symbol of the city, requested the work of a noted architect and—having previously worked with Johnson, Saarinen, and Kahn, among others—recommended Marcel Breuer for the job.

The Armstrong Rubber Company called for a relatively simple plan. The company needed two or three floors of administrative offices, which they wanted separated from their research and development laboratories in order to minimize the noise of testing tires. The mayor, on the other hand, worried this would make the building imperceptible from the road and demanded a skyscraper be built instead. Breuer offered a compromise by building a two story base that housed the laboratory and suspending the offices over a two floor gap. The goal was for the offices to expand and fill the in-between slot in the future, although that became unlikely as the company asked Breuer to reduce the number of office floors from five to four instead.

And although the main form, at once hefty and gravity defying, as well as the freestanding sign that once accompanied it are undoubtedly stunners, Pirelli’s most distinct feature remains the narrow side of the building, boasting one of the most striking examples of Breuer’s use of molded pre-cast concrete panels (what he referred to as crystallic forms) which give it a highly sculptural presence while providing protection from the sun.

After changing owners several times and finally being abandoned in 1999, the land Pirelli occupies was acquired by Ikea in 2002. After much criticism from the public and media the company reneged on its original plan to demolish the building, but knocked down the extension of the originally L-shaped building to build a large parking lot, at the same time draping the main form in advertising. Not much has changed since then but, as several journalists have noted, the neglect has likely had an significant impact on the structure and the interiors of the building, leaving its future resurgence highly unlikely.

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Architecture Travel

Rhode Island Modernism | Ira Rakatansky

July 28, 2015
modernist rhode island architect ira rakatansky office

From striking Colonial-era houses to the splendor of Newport mansions Rhode Island is undoubtedly rich in architectural history. However, its modernist tradition lies surprisingly empty. The main exception is Ira Rakatansky, a Harvard alum who, in the 1940s, studied under Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. Rakatansky left behind a selection of elegant residential works mostly centered around Providence, so when a recent trip to Rhode Island included a stopover in Providence, a quick tour of Rakatansky’s work was in order (I primarily followed this map, which lists his key buildings). I was surprised that many of these structures were often difficult to spot from the street, appearing almost hidden on their lots. And although Rakatansky believed landscape was secondary to architecture, the discrete volumes, large windows and muted palette of his buildings undeniably establish a gentle rapport with their surroundings.

One of my favorites was Rakatansky’s architecture office (above), all angles and glass. Not to mention the striking detail of clerestory windows in the main building, particularly powerful when seen from the inside.

In 2010 Apartment Therapy presented a lovely tour of Rakatansky’s own home, which can be found here.

modernist rhode island architect ira rakatansky houseRhode Island Recommendations: 

Cabin (Jamestown)

The Mooring (Newport) / Simpatico (Jamestown) / Al Forno (Providence)

Cable Car Cinema (Providence) / RISD Museum (Providence) / Newport Mansions (Newport)

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.