Showrooms and exhibits contend with a set of site-specific issues—about impact, temporality, flexibility, and toughness—that make them ideal laboratories for experiments in materials, technology, and planning. Four new installations reveal a lot about how architects make it happen.
Steelcase Worklife Center
Shimoda Design Group
The Steelcase Worklife Center is one of the Chicago Merchandise Mart’s largest showrooms, spanning 45,000 square feet and encompassing four areas displaying the furniture manufacturers’ various brands. The company hired Los Angeles-based architect Joey Shimoda, who also designed the Steelcase Center in Santa Monica, to create interiors that would unify the showroom with the common corridor bisecting it. After reading about a project by molded gypsum, concrete, and fiberglass fabricator Formglas in a magazine, he called the company and was on a plane to its Toronto headquarters the next day to discuss a series of geometric architectural elements he envisioned for the space.
“We knew that cast gypsum would be a good way to do this,” said Shimoda. Glass fiber reinforced gypsum (GRG) is a white, thin-cast alpha gypsum that is preferable to traditional plaster castings because of its light weight, high strength, and easy installation. The team began to work on three main architectural elements for the showroom. Because an undulating glass wall would separate the Center from the corridor, Shimoda wanted to draw visitors to the storefront with a row of totems—elliptical column covers in a pattern of stretched and compressed facets. The second element, called The Body, would be a veiled enclosure to shelter the showroom’s cafe, bar, and presentation room from the rest of the space. The third feature, born of necessity, was a screen over the return air louver for the Mart’s exhaust system, which required a pattern with 70 percent perforation.
The team collaborated with Steelcase global vice president of design, James Ludwig, to create each element’s pattern. The goal was to create a large number of design possibilities by using one shape as a starting point and manipulating it to achieve multiple forms. Shimoda and the Formglas team produced computer files in Rhino and CATIA. Using a laser scan of the existing structural elements along with site measurements, they accounted for space constraints. The finished forms were divided into segments that would allow for them to be transported to the showroom and installed there.
Using the computer models, Formglas used a 5-axis CNC mill to manufacture molds for each shape. Each of the twelve column designs is approximately ten feet high and is constructed from eight pieces with a range of elliptical geometries supported by wood reinforcing ribs. Saw-tooth overlap joints allow the column cap and base to fit together smoothly; joints were caulked, sanded, and painted on site.
The Body feature wall went through several iterations. The first, a series of horizontal ribs with integrated LEDs, was not in Formglas’ scope of work, but they agreed to take on a modified design later in the project.
The double-sided grille is made up of horizontally intersecting curved ribs that create diamond-shaped openings and establish a semi-opaque enclosure around banquette seating. Formglas experimented with fusing individual components in the mold, allowing for a faster construction process and easier assembly. While the mechanical portion is open, additional sections are backed with drywall. The wall is painted gray, creating a functional design element that connects all of the Steelcase space, visible through its glass walls along the corridor. In total, Formglas fabricated approximately 1,000 parts for the space over the course of three months.
Jennifer K. Gorsche
Marquart+ and ViroDesignLab
At Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, Maya Romanoff, manufacturer of handcrafted wall coverings, had to make the most of an off-the-beaten-path sixth-floor corner location at the end of a 70-foot hallway fronted with another showroom’s glass wall. To find the bright side, Romanoff retained Tom Marquardt and Mary Beth Rampolla of Design Collaborative, the branding and design firm that recently rebranded themselves, now as two firms: Marquardt+ and ViroDesignLab.
The first step was to incorporate the design into the hallway. The designers asked plasterers to create a triangular wedge shape in the ceiling that starts from a pinpoint before expanding to the showroom’s glass entrance. The wedge is reflected in the floor as well, where the designers peeled back the hall carpet to reveal a concrete floor that they finished in shiny clear Ardex latex. An LED-backlit logo spreads across the entire wall opposite the adjacent showroom, delineating clearly where Romanoff begins and the common space ends.
Once inside, clients enter an oval space intended to swoop sight lines around what was originally a truncated square space. “The final plan was based on a radial system, like a globe grid,” Marquardt said. “We wanted to deny any right angle.” The Ardex finished floor, which began at a thin point in the hallway, spreads throughout. The ceiling, which dropped down a foot at the entrance, pitches back up almost two feet before running along the perimeter of the space in a circular fashion creating a dynamic eave. The eave incorporates a soffit to accommodate the 9-foot tall panels displaying product, but it also doubles as the place to hide all sound, electrical and climate systems.
Three different display units were developed to work within the soffit. For the back of the showroom ten magnetic slider panels hold small swatches, while thirteen five-foot-wide pivoting panels evenly stagger beside windows overlooking the Chicago skyline. Opposite the pivot panels, a bank of 30-inch wide pullout panels brings a condensed product library into the showroom. In both the pivots and the pullouts, the wall coverings do not sit within a frame; they wrap each panel.
Throughout the space, lighting is minimal, with 2800 Kelvin used the most and the MR16 wide spots dimmed to about 40 percent less than the average showroom. LED tape fastened to the top and bottom of a T95 Plexiglas gives the soffits of the pullout section a warm glow. To get it right, project architect James Wild went so far as to consult with boating specialists to perfect the design and weight of the wallpaper display panels.
Wild also worked closely with millworker Hire Nelson to devise the system. It is based on a pine frame with a cardboard core wrapped with two 7/16-inch luan panels. A heavy duty Accuride custom drawer system sourced by Hafele gave the panels their elegant glide. Wild said the panels took months to perfect. “Once you get going in the fabrication, you get something that’s a departure from where you started,” he said, “but it’s that much better.”
Contract design aims to impress with its flexibility, durability, and reliable appeal. But for a few days each June at NeoCon, it is also supposed to knock your socks off. It’s a conundrum that LA architect Clive Wilkinson addressed last year in designing the 30,000-square-foot Chicago showroom for furniture and workplace giant Haworth. He did such a good job they brought him back for 2011.
To provide a wow factor without upstaging furniture that needs to be frankly functional, Wilkinson decided to organize discreet gathering zones reflecting the latest thinking about the workplace. “This year it was all about open and enclosed environments,” said Wilkinson, noting that many U.S. manufacturers are far behind their European and Australian counterparts in terms of space design for offices. “It’s shocking that they are still doing cubicles while, for everywhere else, it’s all about activity-based working.”
Now even office work revolves around social hubs. And so at Haworth, columns are circled with benches and called the “front porch”; lounge furnishings are arranged to encourage informal collaborations, and one-on-one meetings are more likely to take place at a café table than around a desk. Storage does triple-time duty for acoustic and visual privacy, and sometimes even seating. In place of conference rooms with hidden audio-visual equipment, there’s an "arena" for groups with overhead projection screens set up to suggest a private screening room rather than a formal powerpoint. But the most subtle definition—and manipulation—of space can be found in the ceiling where Wilkinson varied the perforations in acoustic tiles depending on work area needs, with the fewest over public circulation where the hum of activity is desirable and over 50 percent in areas for private exchange. The changing pattern of the ceiling thus becomes both a decorative motif as well as a signal of what happens where.
Mindful that the showroom would change again in twelve months, Wilkinson was efficient at recycling as many elements as possible. Putting a platform display atop a reflecting pool—that might reappear next year—and covering last year’s mirrored columns with this year’s colorful vinyl wallpaper to appear as if the edges were inlaid with an artful reveal. “The overall approach,” Wilkinson said, "was to make 20 percent in cost give back an 80 percent change in impact."
Julie V. Iovine
Patrick Seguin Gallery
Design Miami/Basel, Switzerland
Jean Prouvé’s 6×6 House of 1944 is remembered as one of the greatest prefabricated designs of the 20th century. And so at Design Miami/Basel this year, gallerist Patrick Seguin staged a daily assembly and disassembly of the house to demonstrate the durable allure of Prouvé’s constructional philosophy. Prouve developed the prefab house—to help displaced French families following World War II—so that it could fit in a truck and be erected by three men in one day. Seguin’s installation proved that this is still a relevant and applicable design for today’s architects.
The 6×6 House’s construction begins with a metal-frame base of four metal beams placed on the floor to create a square perimeter into which internal beams are fixed with 150 milimeter metal bolts. From here the portal frame section of the Compass—a core load-bearing structure that Prouve also used in the eponymous table—is bolted into the central metal floor joist. The wooden floor plates are laid flush with the base in two sections exposing the metal frame at the edges and at the center.
Along with metal, wood was a scarce material in war-torn France, which limited the number of houses that made it to production. The free-standing metal Compass is bolted to two almost 22-pound cross. Metal pediments that are bolted perpendicular to the beams and parallel to the Compass are raised to slot into the U-shaped channel on the top of the wooden wall panel. This process is repeated to form a bank of parallel rafters each slotted into the top of the wooden panels that form the house envelope, each with an equal wooden panel fit flush to the metal frame to complete the roof.
Alongside the House, Seguin installed eight glass cases with models of other Prouvé houses, all being restored or awaiting reconstruction by the French gallerist. Indeed, Prouvé is once again a prominent figure in design: also at Design Miami/Basel, Jousse Enterprise presented an example of Prouve’s 1956 school house, while Dutch clothing company, G-Star RAW, has reinterpreted Jean Prouvé’s furniture with 17 pieces on show at Vitra’s Germany campus. According to Seguin, In September, Norman Foster is curating a Prouvé show at the Ivorypress in Madrid.
Amersfoort, The Netherlands
Always for the elite, delicate Meissen porcelain became even more rare following World War II. Today, collections of the European porcelain are showcased in museums, and ornamental pieces are regarded as high-class kitsch. But where others see excess, Robert Roos, the curator at Amersfoort’s Kunsthal KAdE, sees a unique material with centuries of history. Inspired by Meissen pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Roos commissioned Brooklyn-based design studio SO-IL to create a contemporary 3-D setting that would challenge the stereotypes of Meissen and showcase its artistic, sculptural and technical strengths. The venue’s new installation asks viewers to look at 32 Meissen works anew, through geometric cases made out of brightly colored acrylic.
The installation juxtaposes the narrative ornamentation of the porcelain with the clean lines and sharp angles of acrylic. The goal of the curious presentation is to create an experience in which viewers walk around each piece rather than looking and moving quickly on, explained SO-IL’s Ivo Hoppers, who helped detail the cases. “The porcelain is quite kitschy and decorative. We wanted to show it as an object that could be dissected,” he said.
The cases, which have pointed tops, range in height from 35 to 40 inches, set upon medium-density fiberboard bases made by Kwant Meubelmakerij in the Netherlands. Hoppers and his team utilized digital imaging and miniature replicas of the porcelain pieces to preview how the light would show each piece through the angles of the cases. The cases were produced at Vink, a plastic processing facility almost next door to the Kunsthal KAdE exhibition space.
One of the project’s biggest challenges was sourcing the right material for the cases. Normal acrylic is available in just a few colors that would have been too harsh for the installation, according to Hoppers. The team finally located Raatz Kunststoffe, a plastics company in Germany that manufacturs acrylic in a wider range of subtle tones of blue, yellow, green and in a radiant sheet that changes color with the light. Each case uses panels of a different color, while a mirrored base-plate provides additional views. Once the installation ends, the cases may well be reused to lend new perspectives elsewhere, the architect said.