The Nebuta House in Aomori, Japan wraps steel ribbons around a glass-and-steel structure to create plays of light and shadow.
Courtesy molo

Vancouver-based design and production studio molo has made its name creating products with the most ephemeral of materials—paper. And their newest project—a year-round cultural center dedicated to the Japanese tradition of making paper floats—is as good a metaphor as any for the timelessness of ephemera. The firm, founded by Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, is building the so-called Nebuta House in the northern Japanese city of Aomori.

“The Nebuta are incredible creatures and characters created from paper, light, and myth,” said Forsythe, adding that the building will provide a place for visitors to witness the yearlong creation of the mythical beings, which emerge for just one week in August when millions are drawn to Aomori to watch dancers and musicians guide the Nebuta floats through the city streets.

molo’s softwall (top) and softseating (above) concepts use the inherent strength of paper to create inexpensive yet beautifully designed furnishings.  
courtesy molo

Unlike most of molo’s product designs, the Nebuta House is made from more sturdy materials. More than 800 individually shaped steel ribbons will encircle a glass-and-steel structure, creating a 40-foot-tall screen that casts a pattern of light and shadow on the interior. In addition to a restaurant, it will contain gallery space, a theater, and a place for visitors to watch Nebuta artists at work.

Though an ocean away from their hometown, Forsythe and MacAllen, who began experimenting with paper shapes in 2003, are familiar with the Nebutas’ washi paper shells and flexible wood-and-wire forms. After launching their softwall and softblock space dividers, they moved on to make variations of the collapsible, modular shapes for lighting and seating. They recently added LED lighting to their original concept of movable paper walls.

In the spirit of traditional shoji screens and the contemporary cardboard structures of Shigeru Ban, the studio continues a long history of finding strength in inherently weak materials. For the softwall and softseating products, the paper erodes nicely, developing a patina like the pages of a love-worn book. But for other experiments like the softhouse, which was the first “soft” concept, proposed as a solution for homelessness, the designers said they still are trying to find an appropriately durable material.

Last winter, Forsythe and MacAllen built an outdoor public room of snow as part of the outdoor FREEZE exhibition in Anchorage, Alaska. The 84-foot Northern Sky Circle proved to be a favorite gathering place for attendees, who kept a fire going there around the clock.

As their textile softwall goes on display this year at MoMA, the studio continues its research into finding innovative uses for commonplace materials, but without losing sight of the long-term value of temporary things.

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