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Five years after Detroit’s bankruptcy, design fuels recovery
Emerging Voices 2019
SCHAUM/SHIEH experiments with architectural tools to produce surprising spaces at every scale
For SCHAUM/SHIEH, the city is not a mere backdrop for designing buildings. Instead, it is a source of productive potential and a platform for theoretical and built experimentation that has informed the firm’s relationship to design from its founding in 2010.
The studio’s founding partners, Rosalyne Shieh and Troy Schaum, first explored this interest in speculative projects for Detroit and the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung. Their early urban proposals for Detroit led to an installation at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale of a room that was also a staircase and public seating, one of many prototype structures they envisioned could infill the spaces between vacant homes in the city. This design, part of a larger project called “Sponge Urbanism,” challenged the divide between domestic and public space and confronted the broader narrative about vacancy in Detroit.
This intersection of urbanism, form, and identity is something that the studio has carried into its commissioned work, especially for cultural institutions and spaces with hybrid programs. These include the Judd Foundation’s buildings in Marfa, Texas; White Oak Music Hall in Houston; and most recently, the Transart Foundation, also in Houston.
While its Judd Foundation work is an exercise in restraint, aimed at preserving and restoring the artist Donald Judd’s vision for more than a dozen buildings in Marfa, projects like White Oak show how the designers play with form, massing, and landscape to create a distinctive destination for Houston’s music lovers and a new open space for the city as a whole. The main two-story concert hall, which contains multiple stages for different types of music and audience sizes, is part of a larger 7-acre complex which includes a lawn for outdoor performances and an open-air pavilion and bar, converted from an existing shed on the site.
Across the studio's diverse range of projects, abstract representation and diagrammatic processes are essential tools to generate concepts and collaborate with partners and clients. But, as Schaum explained, “We always like to come back to where that kind of set-making and pattern-making starts to break down and question its own set of possibilities, where the sets open up new possibilities for inhabitation rather than where they complete themselves in perfect studies of pattern or complex assemblages.”
This is evident in SCHAUM/SHIEH’s Transart Foundation (a 2018 AN Best of Design Awards Building of the Year). The project includes two structures comprising a private residence, art studio, and exhibition space, and is located across from the Menil Collection within a largely residential neighborhood.
Transart's white stucco facades, with their thick massing, look substantial, but are peeled away at the edges and corners, giving the overall appearance of lightness, like curled paper. The sculptural massing of the main building, juxtaposed against its relatively compact size— closer to a large house than a museum—also makes the foundation appear more monumental than it is, demonstrating the way SCHAUM/SHIEH works with scale to blur the lines between private and public space. This exercise in form and material produces unexpected moments and transitions that serve the multi-functional art space well.
But ultimately, the practice is most interested in its ongoing dialogue with the broader world. As Shieh explained, “I want the buildings that we make to belong to the world, and not to architecture. We don’t necessarily put them out there in a way that we hope that they tell architecture what they are, but that they somehow produce some kind of surprise.”
A Year in Sports (Architecture)
Let's kick it: Here are the top sports architecture stories of 2018
Jean Lin of Colony talks the future of independent furniture design
JL: Good design is always about the interaction between an object and the environment it occupies—the people it interfaces with. There are ways that we can talk about social and ecological issues through form and aesthetics. Is the product masculine or feminine? How long does that piece last versus how long will that piece seem appealing? However, I wouldn’t say that what’s coming out now is a direct visual or formal reflection of everything that’s going on in the world. What designers are now taking into closer consideration is how they source material, what companies and vendors they decide to collaborate with, and how they run their businesses. Sometimes, it’s simply a question of being active and not apathetic toward the things that are changing in the world around them. That awareness seeps into everything they do.
AN: How do these changes in the way talents work affect trends?
JL: The talents that are leading the way are now pushing themselves to create timeless pieces. This is a reaction to Instagram culture, the latest and flashiest designs that often look the same, go viral, and get all the attention—but only for a fleeting moment. I love trends and believe they become popular for valid reasons, mainly because they are approachable at the given time. Right now, monolithic forms and earthen jewel tones are all the rage, but next year we could be talking about much more delicate shapes and a different color palette. Trends get pushed to their threshold and spark antitrends that then take over. The designers that show at Colony are using material, but in an aesthetic and formal language that can last much longer.
AN: Do the collectible and art design markets create economic conditions that give independent designers the time and space necessary to develop these types of designs?
JL: I don’t see the collectible design market as something that has a great impact on the wider design industry. It’s aspirational and only targeted to the 1 percent of people who are able to afford a luxury item that isn’t necessarily functional, and perhaps it’s more reflective of artistic expression. What truly pushes designers to innovate is a different kind of high-end market that is educated in the quality of craftsmanship and the value of good design. Emerging designers are finding a comfortable place in the market. The upper middle class, interior designers, and the hospitality industry are starting to appreciate the quality of this output. In turn, there is a demand for beautiful, functional, and well-crafted work that doesn’t have to sit on a shelf to be acknowledged.
AN: You mentioned that interior designers are important clients. This is especially true in New York City, where a strong surge in real estate is keeping the industry busy. How are independent designers faring in other parts of the country?
JL: This summer, Colony and Design Milk launched an initiative called Coast to Coast to help dispel the misconception that the only design market in the United States is New York. I think that this city is an amazing commercial and creative center for design. I also think that the sentiment that people never have to leave because all the best talents come or sell here is too insular and no longer accurate. We visited Detroit, Nashville, New Orleans, and Santa Fe to get a better understanding of how the independent design movement has expanded. Many local or transplanted talents are becoming a force for good in their communities, helping to change the market and creative landscape. I’m now planning to orient Colony with a broader focus and to incorporate design from different parts of the country.
AN: The independent design or maker’s movement has been going strong for the past 15 years or so. Is there a potential for autonomous talents to collaborate with larger manufacturers and the contract market?
JL: It would be a challenge. A lot of independent talents have altogether discounted the possibility of collaborating with big companies. The gap between these two areas of design is wider than ever. Unlike in Europe, major manufacturers and design brands in the United States don’t have the time to dig in and find talents who aren’t on a top 10 list. They’re always going to go with the star designers they’ve worked with before. This reality forces and facilitates independent design companies to grow, out of necessity. However, large companies definitely look to young and emerging talents as a resource, even if they don’t give credit where credit is due. As independent practices become a stronger commercial force, this will happen even more. The good news is that consumers are also seeing the value of well-made furniture and product design, even if it has to be sold at a higher price point.