Louisville installation elicits fabric-like behavior from wood.
PART Studio designed and built their plywood Peek-a-boo Curtain in just four days, after a last-minute invitation from Louisville arts and business networking organization I.D.E.A.S. 40203. “We went to a meeting, talked about it, then drove to the plywood store,” recalled principal Nathan Smith. Luckily, the architects were not starting from scratch. Rather, Smith and partner Mark Foxworth seized the opportunity to build a full-scale mock-up of an idea they had been tossing around for some time: a curtain that, though built of wood, would behave like fabric. Staged at FirstBuild, a design and fabrication studio run through a partnership between GE Appliances and Local Motors, the exhibition also gave the designers a chance to explore the space between art and commerce. “With our piece we were looking not only to span the specific interests of the groups involved, but also to consider the relationships between product design, art, and architectural design,” said Smith.
The imminent deadline meant that Smith and Foxworth had to use the tools at hand, namely their studio’s own small-format laser cutter. The choice placed certain limits on the design. “Laser-cutting is great, but it gives you a lot of constraints because there aren’t that many materials you can use,” said Smith. The architects opted for 1/8-inch-thick plywood. The size of the cutting bed also informed the scale of the individual tiles. The upside was that “because the tiles were so small, we could get a certain amount of fabric behavior,” explained Smith.
PART Studio developed the tiles’ perforation pattern in Grasshopper, using a twisting-triangle shape to simulate a human body passing through the curtain, and exploring multiple iterations until they found one they liked. The designers had earlier tested the curtain concept for an interior design project, a dressing room. “In that, the open and closed relationships were pretty specific to the pattern,” said Smith. “In the context of an art exhibit, it was more important to take the openness and opacity to extremes because it was a compositional thing.”
With respect to assembly, said Smith, Peek-a-boo Curtain “is frankly not a very difficult project from a technical standpoint.” The architects wanted to laser-cut or otherwise fabricate square metal rings to attach the tiles to one another. But with just a few days to build, and with zero budget, they opted for an easier solution: yellow zip ties. The tiles are arranged in vertical columns, then staggered horizontally. Each component has a total of six holes for vertical and lateral connections. “The original hole pattern didn’t work out; the tie holes were a little close,” said Smith. As for staggering the tiles, “that was a big discussion that actually ended up making it a little less fluid,” he said. “We liked the pattern, but it would’ve been a little more graceful if we’d done it straight. We thought it would have a more fabric-like stitched-together visual, and it does, but it behaves more like fabric as an actual grid.”
Peek-a-Boo Curtain, which Smith and Foxworth hope to refine for specific interiors projects, is part of the firm’s broader mission to change Louisville’s design culture, one small project at a time. “We prefer to do installations and micro design-builds to competitions,” said Smith. “We’re in a very small market. For our practice, it doesn’t really help us to show our clients a museum in Helsinki.” But what they can do is participate in the area’s nascent art scene, from organizing a competition for the annual Festival of Riverboats to putting on design-based shows at the Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft. “We’ve been able to have a consistent practice in a way that wouldn’t have been possible two years ago,” said Smith. “We’re trying to do work, to do things like Peek-a-boo Curtain and whatever comes through the door, but at the same time we’re trying to improve the conditions, culturally, for where we are working.”