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'Material Design' takes centerstage at the Dallas Design Symposium

'Material Design' takes centerstage at the Dallas Design Symposium

The Dallas Design Symposium

 Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas.

We are talking about materiality increasingly often today, but it always seems to be within the walls of our individual disciplines: Materiality in Architecture, Product and Industrial design, Art and Sculpture, and Material Science. While these conversations have traction and depth, don't we wish we could talk about materiality more holistically? And across the boundaries of these disciplines?

Recently, the Dallas Architecture Forum took a substantial step in that direction and set up precisely such a conversation–bringing together Architect Tom Kundig and Sculptor Brad Oldham at the Dallas Design Symposium. Titled "Material Design," the symposium was unique for its strategic and stimulating pairing of Tom and Brad, who, though they operate in different professional realms, share the same 'maker's' mindset to materials and the design and fabrication of their projects.

In an engaging session consisting of presentations by the duo, moderated dialogues, and interaction with the audience, it became evident that both Tom and Brad turn to their choice of materials to frame an appropriate response to the physical and cultural context of their projects. Also clear, was the fact that both rely on materiality to express values or concepts that they feel strongly about.

 Tom and Brad speak in moderated conversations at the Dallas Design Symposium, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

Tom and Brad speak in moderated conversations at the Dallas Design Symposium, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.

Here are key takeaways from Tom and Brad's presentations and conversations, as well as a summary of the common ground they share.

Tom Kundig: Principal and Owner at prestigious, Seattle-based design practice Olson Kundig

As Tom spoke to a captivated audience, one visual from his work stood out clearly–being emblematic of his design and Olson Kundig's philosophy at large. At the Chicken Point Cabin, in Idaho, a massive window wall opens up entirely, to the lake, forest, and to fresh air. More importantly, Tom showed us, the six-ton glass and window wall could be opened easily by a four-year-old, simply enabled by the existence of a hand-cranked lever-like mechanical contraption. In other projects by Tom, there are similar kinetic elements, which give users operability and control of their spaces, in a fascinating way. Created in collaboration with Olson Kundig's resident 'gizmologist' Phil Turner, these mechanisms impact users in a physical, tactile and emotional way.

Moving further along with this interest in interaction with users and human touch, as well as his understanding of materials and form, was Tom's creation of a collection of steel accessories and hardware. The 'Tom Kundig Collection' is elegant, ergonomic, lithe and warm at once, and shows us the best that steel has to offer. Through it, Tom designs entirely for the human scale and sets up intimate interactions between users and these objects, creating what he calls the "handshake of the building". In addition to these bespoke mechanisms and hardware, Tom shared, many of Olson Kundig's projects show the hand of craftsmen and makers. At Olson Kundig, the intent is to expose the imperfections, and show the trails and marks of making and craftsmanship. This surely makes for memorable surfaces and textures, imbued with meaning, in Olson Kundig's architecture, interiors and products.

Tom also shared his commitment to working with innovative and local materials.
For the Tacoma Art Museum's Haub Galleries,  an expansion of the existing museum undertaken by Olson Kundig,  the facade was clad with 'Richlite'–a locally-produced material that is made from recycled paper, organic fiber and phenolic resin. Richlite is created locally, by a company based in Tacoma, and with its earthy color and texture, references the city’s history of shipping, logging, and railroading. An interesting and innovative choice of materials here, therefore, responded not only to the goals of sustainability but also to a broader cultural context.

Brad Oldham: Sculptor, Co-Owner at Brad Oldham Sculpture, Dallas with Christy Coltrin.

Shifting gears from architecture, Brad shared with the audience multiple images, videos, and stories from the conceptualization and fabrication of his beautiful sculptures, installed across the United States and beyond. An excellent insight into his process and 'maker's' mindset came as he narrated the making of one of his most well-known works–'The Traveling Man' in Deep Ellum, Dallas. The three-part series of sculptures, the largest of which is over 38 feet tall, tested Brad's mastery of stainless steel. Intense collaboration with engineers to achieve structural stability, and many months of the painstaking assembly of both the skin and bones of these sculptures, resulted in glistening, elegant and yet extremely robust sculptures. 

While possessing elegant and nuanced shapes, these sculptures were designed for life–prepared to combat wind-shear and any wear and tear. For this to happen, Brad worked tirelessly to select varying gauges of materials, and design a structure that would be lighter on top, and heavier at the bottom. The sculptures, clustered around the DART station in Deep Ellum, have now become emblematic of this entrepreneurial and constantly evolving hub in the city.

Both for 'The Traveling Man' sculptures, as well as 'Skater Bird'–a striking feature of the Dallas skyline, Brad employed steel, and it's many finishes-stainless and mirror-finish steel–to create playful, pleasurable, reflective and meaningful forms that are now indispensable parts of the city.

Common Ground–Brad Oldham and Tom Kundig

Interestingly, both Brad and Tom have looked to materials as being symbolic of projects and their contexts. For Brad, in the 30-foot tall sculpture 'Combination,' created for the town of Midlothian, the materials chosen were steel I-beams and concrete–both sourced from the two leading industries of this town (cement manufacturing and steel production). The strong, clean-lines of the interwoven steel beams in the sculpture are representative of the strength and collaboration of the Midlothian community. Such material choices, along with the form, Brad shared, have often emerged from Brad and Christy's immense collaboration with communities such as Midlothian's, local leaders and even high-schoolers.


Tom, on the other hand, shared that the choice of material for the exterior of his buildings is purposely meant to be gruff, or rugged–intended for aging and weathering. The interiors, on the other hand, are molded as being soft, in comparison, with the feeling of warmth and comfort. At The Pierre, a residential project by Olson Kundig in the San Juan Islands in Washington, the owner’s affection for a rock outcropping on her property shaped the design of the house. The Pierre (the French word for stone) responds to the materiality of this site–with its rough materials, green roof, and a cover of foliage–and almost disappears into the landscape successfully.

Both Brad and Tom, it seemed, are comfortable designing across multiple scales and investing in creating smaller products or objects–Brad in table-top versions of his sculptures and Tom in his collection of hardware and accessories, as well as smaller architectural projects and residential works. Each sees the opportunity to impact more people in this way and be strategic with material and formal choices.

Each, it felt evident, uses a selection of materials to serve a conceptual goal in their project. For Tom, a range of honest and gruff materials helps bridge the divide between 'inside and outside'-a pursuit in many of Olson Kundig's projects, set in exquisite landscapes.

For Brad, material choices are made to best fit the narrative and needs of the project. For "The Birth of the City"–A commission in Dallas, Brad worked with brass–an appropriate medium to tell the story of Dallas – to create four massive, sculpted panels. The material weathers beautifully, with its patina, and continues to look beautiful for centuries. Covered with an anti-graffiti coating, Brad created a perfect blend of material properties with the selection of brass, which matches both the projects current and future needs.

Often such innovative material choices, Tom said "are made possible through the risk-taking of clients, in the commissioning of the project, almost like art."

Having heard both Brad and Tom speak at the Symposium, we were enlightened as to common ground that materiality has in their two disciplines. With more interdisciplinary conversations like this, one can imagine us all moving rapidly towards rich integrated design practices like Olson Kundig's, armed with a holistic understanding of materiality on all fronts!


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