15 July 2008

Naivety and Bluntness with Prouvé

Ensconced as we are in the digital aspects of our field, perhaps by default, I still find the physical touch of materials as the most rewarding, on building sites to smaller scale furniture production. It has been easy for us, located on Chrystie Street for 15 years, to stop by our Chinese welder to discuss steel sections, minimum bending radius for perforated steel or just for samples, on lunch break. Over the years we have steered our clients to trust our local neighbors to make stairways and other architectural pieces and not just their standard stainless steel kitchen cabinets. Finally, one month after moving our office further into China Town this spring, we had Chinese Standard Sheet Metal make a final furniture piece for us, combining local know-how (and a loving attention to fine deep embedded welds and polishing) and my long-held interest in early Jean Prouvé furniture. This would be a final send-off from the Lower East Side, deeper into the Far-East Lower East Side, where we have set up our new offices. I could never afford one of Prouvé pieces, even when I eyed them on Rue de Seine in the early 80's in Paris during my university years, but I felt is was time to have my own somehow, even if I was to make it myself. So here is my take on creating, retroactively, a signature Prouvé table - completely original as he never created a center support broken as a "floating link" as I did here but he may very well have wished he had tried. This table, the "Console" as we call it, clearly recalls the fine touch he brought to welded and bent steel: a "mixture of naivety and bluntness" as Konstantin Grcic would say.

It is held together with only four bolts at the center, allowing the glass to be sandwiched between the two end pieces in a very stable configuration. The legs recall more of Charlotte Perriand than Prouvé, triangular and tapering in profile, created by cutting an "L" profile along its length, rather than folding plates as would have been customary in the metal shops of Nantes in the 50's. In addition to our friends at David's General Steel, I owe thanks to our Swiss Intern Joshua for exploring the design in drawings and full scale models, before returning to ETH in Zurich.
The next step is to explore various finishes and a version in die-cast aluminum. Any takers?

20 May 2008

And in this Corner...

And in this corner, our new office.... 40 feet frontage on Eldridge Street....

...with a view of our very own Guggenheim (the semi-circular local Public School at Hester Street) from the third floor.
But is it Green in this hardscrabble corner of China Town?

Yes, and we relate below how we did this gut renovation in just over 8 weeks.

The loft building, one of a very few on the Lower East Side, is an all concrete structure built for heavy manufacturing by the Witty Brothers, a stone throw from the Manhattan Bridge off-ramp. The facade material and ceiling heights appear far nobler, than the condition we found on the inside.
Most of the eight floors continue to house garment factories, producing the continuous steam out the back-facing facades, and the resulting corrosion of the windows and fire-escape metal work. Street-side the windows were in far better shape, requiring eliminating the add-hoc installation of window AC units and grille work. All side party-line windows had been long-blocked by steel shutters. We are pleased to find a space in such terrible shape, gracefully aged and empty of most partitioning, to start a new adventure in office/homesteading - what we had begun 15 years ago on Chrystie Street.

The gutting began three days after we signed our lease and was well manage by a crew of Malay workers that took pains to separate every material by type and by size, and to be carried by one person, so that no dumpsters were needed to clean out the 4,000 square foot space.
While this was on-going we began a thorough breakdown of our former loft space, preparing donations of all tables and cabinets, books and magazines to the NYPL, and preparing the re-use of project samples to be built into the new space: door hardware and fittings, large glass samples from a Herzog & de Meuron facade and so-on. How better to design a green project, then to reduce from the outset the construction material needed - and the embedded energy in the products - by using all the samples we had accumulated over the years?

During the build-out, we were aware that we could afford no delays to acquire any materials, so we specified only what we could find on hand, preferably not far from the Bowery.
When this failed, we approached some of our favorite manufactures to secure donations to showcase some of their products, and we limited this exclusively to three areas: lighting, acoustical material and sun shading. It worked and we were able to get materials delivered perfectly in sequence to the on-going construction. The only single item that failed to meet the schedule for a project that included all new mechanical, water closets, kitchen, wood shop, new electrical and lighting throughout - was the sliding door handles from Design Source on Bowery, long the preferred source of architectural hardware. Buying local, then, as we did on many products - as well as avoiding the trip across the Manhattan Bridge to cheaper chain outfits - did not always produce the right results.

But, there is an even better end to this story. How to furnish this new build-out? Furniture production and contemporary product design, unfortunately remains a very toxic business. Very few products that meet our functionality and design sensibility can really claim to be "cradle-to-cradle"; unless of course, you are actively helping to prevent these products from reaching the first stage of the cradle process, by re-using, recycling furniture from somewhere else. This is what we were able to do, by the combined fortuitous efforts of our office, a non-profit group with whom we have worked with for a number of years on sustainable lighting projects, and a privately held bank founded by a philanthropic-minded executive, who was moving headquarters from their mid-town location.

During construction of our space, where we acted as GC as well, our team also began to assist this bank with the assessment, breakdown and eventual removal of their entire office furnishings and equipment to a non-profit. A portion of these FFE items were sold at cost to us, and a portion as compensation for the move-out coordination. The result is nothing from the Midtown location found itself in a dumpster despite the very tight move-out schedule and building security and the furniture found a new life up-state and downtown. It is worth mentioning that this furniture line, which we took pains to save, contains no glues, wood by-products, VOC paints or finishes, and has an assume life-space of 50 years. Originally designed in 1970's they will have time to be in and out of fashion more than once, without ever going to McDonough's honorable "cradle" - certainly more than we will be able to say about ourselves.