What's in Store
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2012 2:31:00 PM
A man walks into a record store. Early Michael Jackson blasts from a turntable, bouncing off the brick walls. People stand around chatting and grooving. One beckons with a pair of headphones:“Here, buddy, take some vinyl for a spin. Oh, just one thing. Listen all you want, but nothing’s for sale.” The man looks perplexed. But he gets excited as he flips through a bin of dog eared albums—vintagecha-cha, R&B, funk. Without realizing it, he’s become part of site-specific performance art created, as a lark, by architects known for some of the most high-concept houses and cultural institutions in the Pacific Northwest.
Welcome to the Seattle storefront reinvented by Olson Kundig Architects as an“experimental workplace.” At one of the firm’s Thursday beer-and-crit nights last year, talk turned to how many local stores had gone dark, including an 1,800-square-foot one right downstairs. Why not lease it and do something artsy and interactive? And fun.“Transcending the typical lobby gallery,” principal Kirsten Murray says, the space is a catalyst for “design investigations” ranging from architectural installations to extreme dance.
The first artist in residence, Mary Ann Peters, spent a month painting an abstracted landscape mural for "Jim Olson: Architecture for Art" at Washington State University. For display right on-site, Mark Von Rosenstiel later constructed a robotic sculpture that made drawings in response to changes in light. The store frontal so served as a workshop for Studio Matthews when it was developing “Dear Seattle,” a Seattle Design Festival interactive program that allowed participants to write in with love letters and suggestions. An architecture firm is “something that a lot of these organizations don’t have access to,” principal Alan Maskin says. “We ask our collaborators what they can do in our space that they couldn’t do elsewhere.”
Seattle Art Museum adjunct curator Sandra Jackson-Dumont, whose brainchild was the record store, had already organized a similar installation for the museum’s “Theaster Gates: The Listening Room.” As before, she lassoed a couple of primo music collections and invited guest DJs—moonlighting software designers, chefs, bus drivers— to come in a few nights a week. The store front satellite was more physically interactive, however, allowing participants to move elements around. “We had not realized that vinyl records are the musical equivalent of talking about religion or politics,” Maskin says. “People are passionate.”
The storefront project has furthermore brought teamwork at Olson Kundig to a new level, as all 94 staffers take turns coordinating the programs, designing the space, scavenging the materials, and pulling all-nighters for the build-out. “It helps us to think about design in a context that’s broader, to engage an idea around social practice,” Murray says. And all this on no budget. Designers and contractors work pro bono, improvising furniture out of scrap lumber and donated hardware.
For the record store, they transformed prefab trusses into rolling bins. For a mushroom farm, modeling software determined the most efficient way to cut down reclaimed plywood to build the frame of a structure for growing. The frame was wrapped in a sheet of heat-sensitive plastic that, after the quick application of a torch, became taut to form a cocoon through which visitors could walk. Vertical ribs supported shelves for the growing bags—filled with grounds donated by neighborhood coffee joints.
Collaboration between architect and artist sometimes extends beyond the four walls. Haruko Nishimura used her month to choreograph a dance for her Degenerate Art Ensemble, and that piece led to Maskin designing a crucial prop for the ensemble’s participation in an adaptation of Einstein on the Beach, the Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opera, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Dubbed the Concorde for its “nose” that points down like the airplane’s, this hinged, rolling table adapts to the needs of the artists, who even “play” it with small mallets as if it were a musical instrument. “We literally designed the table over tea at the storefront, just sketched it out one day,” Maskin recalls. He’s also designing kinetic stage sets for the ensemble’s appearance in the Next 50, Seattle’s commemoration of the 1962 World’s Fair.
The current installation pays homage to great hardware stores in general and one local institution in particular, Hardwick’s. (Tagline: “Rust & Dust Since 1932.”) Crowd-sourcing through Facebook, Olson Kundig invited anyone to e-mail a photo of a favorite piece of hardware, and hundreds of those images are now plastered across the walls. “We find that we are tapping into a fetish, something that brings out stories and provides a way for people to engage,” Murray says. “With all the storefront projects, we’re interested in who comes out of the woodwork.” For anyone curious about how to develop a line of hardware, there’s also a display featuring the new Tom Kundig collection for 12th Avenue Iron.
Not planning to renew the lease indefinitely, Olson Kundig is noodling about the next step once this “interesting opportunity of economics,” as Murray calls it, runs its course, perhaps by the end of the year. The storefront idea might then migrate online. But what would make the architects happiest is for other firms to replicate the experiment, transforming empty spaces everywhere into fertile ground for art and oyster mushrooms alike.