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December 21, 2009

George Nakashima: The Soul of a Tree, in Austin.

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DWR Austin recently curated a very special event celebrating the master woodworking of George Nakashima and his daughter Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. Courtesy of Lindsay Nakashima (George’s great-niece) and Eugene George (both pictured below), two local collections were on display for one evening only, including vintage pieces dated from 1945. 

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December 17, 2009

Building time at MIT.

I could do my job with a typewriter and a bench (and the bench is optional), which is why I’d be lost in a workspace described as: “housing a gigabit fiber-optic plant connecting a heterogeneous computer network, ranging from fine-grained, embedded processors to supercomputers. There are 3D printing prototyping resources, and laboratories for DNA labeling, new sensors, micro-encapsulation, quantum computing and perceptual studies.”

I’m betting that one of those things is MIT-speak for a typewriter, but if ever there were a building packed with gizmos I don’t understand, it would be the space described above. Namely, the newly expanded Media Lab at MIT, which I checked out last Saturday on a 22-degree, “I’m a genius for relocating to California” morning. 

The recently completed Media Lab expansion at MIT.

Designed by architect Fumihiko Maki, the exterior of the MIT Media Lab expansion is spot-on with its balanced proportions, sense of scale, use of materials and appreciation for setting. There’s a satisfying rhythm in the repetition of rectangles and squares, creating a composition that’s elegant and sophisticated. Parts of the building are veiled in metal screens that filter light for a more comfortable interior while providing a bit of privacy. These screens will also help maintain a uniform aesthetic after the occupants move in and MIT-ize their new spaces with robotic window blinds and convolution theorems taped to the glass. 

As pleasing as Maki’s work is, I’m wondering if it’s too perfect, like a mathematical proof that’s no longer challenged, it doesn’t make anyone think. Every detail of this building is so well resolved that there’s nothing left for us to do but admire it. And where’s the fun in that? I’m curious to hear how the Media Lab students and faculty like the space, especially since they’re moving from the somewhat cavernous Weisner Building, designed by MIT alumnus (class of 1940) I.M. Pei. The Weisner, with its rounded corners and white tiled exterior, has been compared to an inside-out bathroom (earning it the nickname “Pei Toilet”), and as the target of an MIT “hack” (prank), its gridded exterior was transformed into a Scrabble game. (The next time you play, keep “Pei” in mind for an easy five points.)

The Weisner Building (which I.M. Pei described as “a space-making object”) with the new expansion in the distance.

If Maki’s building doesn’t wake up your cranium, then Frank Gehry’s building is sure to give you a brain freeze. A few months ago, I was asked my opinion of MIT’s Stata Center and I clambered onto my soapbox and denounced the Disney-like cartoonish building ripped from the pages of a Dr. Seuss story with all the fury of someone who’d clearly never been to the building site. Shame on me. And shame on Mr. Gehry for not inviting me sooner. (Not that Mr. G and I are friends or anything. The fact that I mention him in almost everything I write these days is as baffling to me as it is to you.)

The Stata Center at MIT.

After spending time at the Stata Center, I still think it reeks of overreaching – both by the architect and the school – but there’s also something very special about it. It’s packed with surprises. They lurk around every corner. It’s the type of space where if I were an MIT student (all day long I’d biddy biddy bum), struggling with how to make two plus two equal five, a walk through the Stata might just help me generate the idea I’m looking for.

There are unexpected moments of beauty that made me stop and stare. And when I stepped outside and saw the Airstream-like orb that punches through the pavement, I literally gasped (although, that might have been from a blast of arctic air). Yes, it’s very carnival like, and I even photographed my distorted reflection as seen in the orb’s stainless steel siding, but isn’t the whole point of creative thinking to have fun? Think unsystematically? Tear down (or construct, in this case) walls?

The Stata Center, including the Airstream-like orb that extends into the interior space below the pavement.

I was enchanted. Sort of like a date-from-hell who turns into someone you’re actually interested in. This building has got something. In its kaleidoscopic configurations, I see a metaphor for how making random connections can lead to new ideas. We tend to think that places of order and balance (like Maki’s new building) are pleasing environments, but to MIT students, maybe Stata feels more comfortable – providing relief from the order they’ve imposed upon their lives.

What do you think about these (and other) buildings at MIT? Drop me a note in the comments field below.

Gwendolyn Horton

December 11, 2009

Now in Dallas: Take a magazine, leave a magazine.

Last night saw the kick off a brand new concept at the Dallas Studio. The idea is simple: In an effort to build both community and inspiration, we’ve launched the Dallas Magazine Exchange. Stop in to borrow one of many design-oriented magazines or leave a few that you have around and just don’t have the heart the throw away. 

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December 09, 2009

The longest running lounge act.

When designing their Lounge and Ottoman (1956), Charles and Ray Eames asked themselves, “How do you design a chair for someone else?” The solution they came up with was to look for the universal side of themselves and design for that, since “we all have more in common with each other than we do with a rock, tree or fish.” Pairing that approach with their vision to create a chair with the “warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt,” ultimately led to the design of the Eames® Lounge and Ottoman. The video above is of the chair’s debut on Arlene Francis’ “Home” show on NBC. While Ms. Francis’ words are dated (“Almost always, when there’s a successful man, there’s a very interesting and able woman behind him.”), the iconic Eames Lounge has endured as a timeless classic. (P.S. The Herman Miller Sale ends Sunday.)

December 08, 2009

By George.

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I stumbled upon this vintage (circa 1958) Swag Leg Armchair at Manitoga, the Hudson River valley home and studio of the late Russel Wright. The chair was designed by George Nelson, and to me, it always looks like it’s smiling or about to say something (“Aren’t you going to answer that phone?”). I’m glad that Herman Miller preserved that part of the design (“It could be your mother calling.”) when they reintroduced the collection a few years ago. However, they did update the materials – from molded fiberglass to recyclable polypropylene – while maintaining the sculptural shape that fits the body and provides a pleasant “give.” Don’t forget, the Herman Miller Sale ends Sunday. (“Necessity is the mother of invention.”)

December 07, 2009

Herman Miller brings people (and chairs) together.

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At last week’s “Herman Miller: Then and Now” event at the DWR Evanston Studio in Illinois, about 40 folks gathered to see vintage Eames pieces paired with the new licensed classics. “All the vintage pieces were more than 50 years old,” says proprietor Norah Utley, “with some pieces going back as far as 1946!” The evening included a presentation by David Carter of Pegboard Modern who shared his extensive knowledge of the iconic company, as well as a screening of the films of Charles and Ray Eames. 

It’s a fine and wonderful thing to be able to read the histories and stories behind these legendary designers and their work (and we invite you to share your own experiences in our comments section). But at DWR, we’d like you to be able to experience them first hand, as well. During the Herman Miller Sale (which runs through December 13), the Newport Beach Studio will be celebrating the Eameses with a film festival and DWR Scottsdale welcomes folks to the Studio to check out Herman Miller’s latest introduction, the Setu Chair. But you can test drive the work of Charles and Ray, Isamu Noguchi and George Nelson anytime really, by just stopping into your local Studio.

December 04, 2009

Anyone? Anyone?

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If you saw the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” you probably remember the scene when the Ferrari crashes through a garage wall and falls into a ravine. Well, that garage (wall intact) and the house that goes with it can be yours for $1.8 million. Listed by Sudler Sotheby’s, the 5,300-square-foot steel and glass home was designed by A. James Speyer and David Haid in 1953. Located in Highland Park, Illinois, the property is known as the Ben Rose House – the name of the homeowner who lived there for 51 years. For additional photos (check out the furniture), click here.

December 03, 2009

Almost toasted: how the Marshmallow Sofa was saved.

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In 1956, Irving Harper was working at George Nelson’s design firm when the two of them were approached by a Long Island company that had invented self-skinned injected plastic cushions. The inventors believed that the plastic discs could be produced inexpensively and saw the potential for creating something interesting with them. Harper and Nelson were intrigued and spent a weekend designing possible ways to use the discs. A model of a sofa was made (using checkers arranged on a small frame), which led to the design of the Marshmallow Sofa (above). Unfortunately, the plastic discs were not inexpensive to produce after all, and the Long Island company could not deliver the product they’d promised. Herman Miller still agreed to manufacture the sofa, even though it required 18 specially designed, hand-made cushions. This drove up the cost and production time, which is why fewer than 200 Marshmallow Sofas were made between 1956 and 1965. (The first Marshmallow to come off the assembly line is part of the “Good Design” traveling exhibit.) In 1999, Herman Miller brought the Nelson™ Marshmallow Sofa back into production, now available with leather, crepe or vinyl cushions (and included in the Herman Miller Sale).

December 02, 2009

Herman Miller® on tour.

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The exhibition, “Good Design: Stories from Herman Miller,” has arrived at the second stop of its 15-city tour: The Goldstein Museum of Design in St. Paul, Minnesota. Organized by the Muskegon Museum of Art (MMA), the exhibit focuses on the process of problem solving in design, and the stories behind the pieces that this iconic furniture company is known for, like the Aeron® Chair, Nelson™ Marshmallow Sofa and Eames® LCW. “Herman Miller has not only been the designer of some of the most enduring products in the field of furniture for home and office, they have pioneered innovative approaches to design for over 70 years, attracting some of the best and most legendary designers known to the field today,” said MMA Executive Director Judith Hayner. The exhibit can be seen in St. Paul through January 17, 2010.

December 01, 2009

Modern materials.

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Anyone who’s seen the movie The Graduate is familiar with the scene when Mr. McGuire says to Benjamin, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word … Plastics.” And while this suggestion is dated today (it was even a bit dated when the movie was made in 1967), the truth is that plastics were big business – a “wonder material” that emerged after WWII. Charles and Ray Eames, who started working with it for chair production, immediately recognized the possibilities of plastics. The design duo teamed up with Zenith Plastics and built a prototype for the 1948 MoMA “International Competition for Low-Cost Furniture Design.” Their goal was to create a molded compound curve chair that could be mass-produced at a reasonable price. To accomplish this goal they experimented with Zenith’s hydraulic dies that were used for building boats, and fiberglass-reinforced plastic that Zenith had used to make radar domes during the war. The resulting chair was offered for sale by the Herman Miller® Furniture Company in 1950. The collection grew and has been in production ever since, with one major change: Eames® Molded Plastic chairs are now made from eco-friendly recyclable polypropylene. Like all classics, this is a story that continues to evolve. (By the way, these classics are also on sale.) IMAGE: Sketches for the Eames Plastic Group.