Tectonic Shift

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

The High Line, Manhattan.

By tackling some of the most daunting problems of the city, landscape architects are rising to new prominence.

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Elizabeth Padjen: The last time ArchitectureBoston devoted an entire issue to landscape architecture was in 2003; our roundtable discussion was titled “Burying Olmsted.” At that time, much of the buzz in the profession was focused on what might be called the artful landscape: landscape cum art installation. But the participants in that roundtable also mentioned Millennium Park in West Roxbury — where soil from the Big Dig was used to cap an old landfill — as an example of cutting-edge thinking about ecological landscapes, and they bemoaned the lack of attention such projects were receiving. It’s astonishing to see how the profession has changed in just seven years — not only in terms of the kinds of projects that are gaining wide recognition, but also in terms of a new focus and a new energy. Terms such as landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism, and agricultural urbanism are now commonplace and are even leaking into the public lexicon. One of our editorial board members recently stated, “Landscape is suddenly the most relevant player.” Let’s start by talking about this new excitement. Where does it come from?

David Gamble: More and more, the public recognizes the fragility of the environment — look at the recent floods in Nashville and the oil spill in the Gulf. Part of the landscape profession’s rise to the top is due to the general recognition by the public that landscapes are living organisms and that we need to think very carefully about how we inhabit our environment. This increase in consciousness has helped landscape architecture play a much larger role in the public’s eye than it might have otherwise.

Laura Solano: Landscape architects are especially skilled in understanding systems, and that’s why we are deeply involved in this search for an ecologically responsible life. It’s easy to say that this focus has suddenly boiled up, but in fact, it’s been a long time coming. Frederick Law Olmsted, in the 19th century, understood systems perfectly; his talents were multivalent: he was a civil engineer, a surveyor, and an author, as well as a landscape architect. In the early to mid-20th century, Jens Jensen and Aldo Leopold were writing about these issues, but there wasn’t an audience. And then Ian McHarg blew the doors open in 1969 by introducing the idea of ecological planning.

Wendi Goldsmith: Olmsted espoused the merit of Central Park long before other people ever imagined today’s development pressures. Yet he rallied people behind a vision and was very clear about doing it for reasons of air quality, exercise, civic interaction, and creating a shared space that would reinforce community. His design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace was intended to solve some very practical stormwater flooding management problems. Both projects place landscape architecture at the foundation of what we now call sustainable community design.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: The public has long understood that landscape architects work with living elements. But a recent and significant shift is that we are starting to realize that cities are also living organisms, so the systematic thinking that has been part of the landscape discipline is now being translated to new strategies for the urban condition as well.

Jill Desimini: And of course, landscape architects bring an understanding of people and the designed experience. That means they are skilled at making spaces that work for their inhabitants that also address the complexities of urban, ecological, and infrastructural systems.


Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto.

Simcoe and Rees WaveDecks, Toronto, part of a series of three multifunctional public walkways along the waterfront. Designer: West 8 + DTAH. Photos © West 8 urban design & landscape architecture.

Architecture and Landscape Architecture

Elizabeth Padjen: The tectonic plates of the design professions seem to be shifting. I wonder if the rise of landscape architecture means that something has changed in the ligatures that tie the professions together or if it’s evidence of fundamental differences in the ways that the disciplines respond to the challenges of the world today.

David Gamble: It’s partly because of the vacuum created by the departure of the architects. Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and about relationships to key topographic and environmental conditions or special places in cities in which the landscape is really what’s most valued. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory by engaging themselves directly in those issues.

Jill Desimini: We like to think of projects as functioning in many ways — socially, economically, environmentally — apart from how they look. Of course, many architects do, too. But, having been trained in both architecture and landscape architecture, I would say there is a real difference in the complexity of the landscape medium and the ways in which landscape architects think about how various systems might come together. A good example is the project by Stoss for the Lower Don River in Toronto. A traditional urban-design approach might have considered the river as an entity to be squeezed into an urban fabric. Instead, Stoss asked, What does this kind of river need in order to function? The designers weren’t trying to adapt it to the city fabric and then figure out how to deal with the flooding that comes later. The challenge became how to structure the city and the neighborhood around the river. If you give the river the kind of mouth that it needs, if you understand that you’ll have fluctuating water levels, then you start to think in terms of different types of land use and you can start to develop a set of performance criteria both for the river and for the neighborhood and open spaces. Various elements start to work on multiple levels but also together in a unified, sustainable whole.

Laura Solano: The example of designing for fluctuating water levels underscores an important distinction between architecture and landscape architecture, which is that architecture usually doesn’t have to deal with something that is inherent to landscape: change, which is the driver for all natural systems, for better or worse. The arc of time and change are fundamentally different factors in the landscape design process.

The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. Jill Desimini

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Something that makes landscape architecture particularly resonant right now is its verb-like quality, in comparison with some earlier, more architecture-oriented urban models, like New Urbanism — all very intelligent, but really about organizing a city or town around a more static structure. Contemporary landscape architecture is much more interested in the systems and the forces and the flows, so it is a more active approach toward designing landscapes and urban systems. As we start to re-recognize that we are connected to the larger ecological world, we realize we need a model that can respond to an ever-changing world, not just one in crisis.

Wendi Goldsmith: I think that’s right. The whole green design movement started with a focus on energy systems within the building: insulation and the efficiency of HVAC systems. And then, bit by bit, it grew to include water use, glazing, building positioning, which then evolved into new ideas about things like light and lighting, water conservation and reuse, and integrating graywater management with building plumbing. Fairly quickly, sustainable design started to bleed into the landscape and to encompass infrastructure, including power generation, and people began to understand that it’s not just about the building and what goes on inside it: We need to look at what goes on outside, on site, and what goes on beyond the site. Now we’re thinking about buildings in relation to the grid, to watersheds, and to water supplies. What I am observing is a new relationship, maybe eventually a new field, where science and engineering and landscape design all merge. Our society is just beginning to recognize the value in such an approach.


The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Connecticut Water Treatment Facility in New Haven, Connecticut, contributes to a larger ecological and open-space system. Steven Holl Architects. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Urban Design and Landscape Architecture

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape typologies have evolved to a fair degree, and landscape architects today feel that they can take on a much larger territory than was their traditional purview: designs for entire regions or decommissioned airports or large post-industrial sites or whole infrastructure projects. That’s by necessity, because landscape systems don’t end at the property line. I always have a hard time making the distinction between landscape architecture and urban design, probably because I’ve been trained in both fields, but I think that is one area where they are different: It’s very hard to put a circle around what defines a landscape.

Elizabeth Padjen: Is the landscape architect encroaching on the traditional turf of the urban designer? Do you envision the end of urban design as a discipline, perhaps being absorbed by landscape architecture?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That could be a very politically dangerous idea to agree or disagree with, depending on your perspective. Clearly, both disciplines will continue to evolve. I just finished teaching what turned out to be a very exciting studio. It was called an urban design project, but it addressed landscape, ecology, and environmental dynamics. The project site was on a floodplain with a daily tidal fluctuation of about six feet; we also projected an additional rising water level of six feet over 100 years. So the students had to think simultaneously about accommodating fluctuating water levels and about creating urbanism. Typically, when we think of zoning, we think of it in a horizontal way, or as vertical envelopes of height limits. But the most critical aspect of this project was the first 10 feet of the city. The challenge was to design that sectional relationship intelligently, to foster a vibrant urban life on a ground plain that must accommodate so much natural variation.

Architects haven’t been thinking about larger-scale connections and relationships to topographic and environmental conditions. Landscape architects have found a way to take over much of that territory. David Gamble AIA, AICP

David Gamble: The design professions in general have done themselves a disservice in trying to delineate distinct territories and in believing that a project needs to begin with the urban planner, then go to the urban designer, then the architect, then the landscape architect, and so on. That type of linear thinking is one reason why we haven’t been able to foster strong interdisciplinary collaborations. Major design competitions around the world now tend to be dominated by teams including very diverse disciplines, such as landscape architects, planners, economists, and historic preservation architects, because there is so much interdisciplinary discussion that needs to occur when you look at complex urban areas. I do think that the architecture profession today has much greater respect for a landscape architect’s sense of process than it did a generation ago. The work I’m doing in China now as an architect is entirely in the service of a landscape-architecture firm that is planning large regions of the country. It’s a scenario that stems in part from the client’s intuitive understanding of the nature of their ecosystems and the desire to work with their natural settings, which requires the landscape architect’s understanding of geography and place.

Laura Solano: And that’s not an unusual scenario anymore. Clients are unbelievably sophisticated now, and they do their homework in terms of the composition of the teams they hire. In my office, we are the prime for about 80 percent of our work, big and small. Many of our teams have 12 or 15 consultants, often representing narrow areas of expertise: planners, architects, historians, ecologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, and biologists. Strong collaborations offer tremendous educational opportunities.


Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan.

Teardrop Park at Battery Park City, Manhattan, incorporates organic soils and uses graywater and stormwater for irrigation. Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Photo by Paul Warchol.

Landscape Urbanism

Elizabeth Padjen: Landscape urbanism is at least partly responsible for the profession’s new energy. What exactly does it mean?

Laura Solano: Charles Waldheim, who is now the chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard, coined the term. He has said: “Landscape urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently underway, in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.”

Elizabeth Padjen: That’s a shot across the bow. What are some examples?

Jill Desimini: I’d like to respond first by saying that at the core of landscape urbanism is the idea that looking at, understanding, and designing urban processes will lead to making a new kind of city that is capable both of self-regenerating and of changing the way we experience the place we live. The emphasis in landscape urbanism should be on the urbanism. With that in mind, I would point to Toronto, which has hired a number of landscape architects as leads for very big projects that are changing that city, especially the waterfront. These include West 8’s reconfiguration of the central waterfront, work by Field Operations on Lake Ontario Park, and the design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates for the Lower Don Lands as a new metropolitan precinct. Landscape architects are also working on large projects in other cities. New York’s Freshkills Park project — the transformation of 2,200 acres of landfill on Staten Island into a new public park and urban habitat by Field Operations — is another example of an innovative approach to revitalizing and repurposing a piece of the urban fabric. The key now is to focus even more on the design of the city itself. Landscape urbanism positions landscape and landscape methods as a driver for urban infrastructural change.

David Gamble: Part of the momentum also comes from the shifting economics of cities. More and more cities over the last generation have been looking to old industrial sites or waterfronts as places to grow; large parks become the catalysts that drive economic redevelopment.

Elizabeth Padjen: But the idea of landscape, particularly in the form of public parks and open spaces, as a catalyst for development isn’t new. You can even find it codified in the 16th-century Spanish Laws of the Indies that was the basis for town planning in the Spanish colonies: put the square in the middle of the town and build out around it. What’s different?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Landscape urbanism takes another approach — more profound in some ways — and looks at a larger force, a river, for example, as a generator of urban form and urban typology.

Jill Desimini: David is right that many cities are revitalizing industrial sites, and a lot of them are on waterfronts and thus have an ecological component. The difference is that landscape urbanism starts with looking at these sites in terms of the environmental systems that can serve as generators for the project.

Laura Solano: It’s about healing: taking derelict or brownfield sites and making them useful. We take a piece of land that nobody cares about any more, and turn it into something that people can identify as a place that has personal meaning and community value.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I think it’s important to not conflate landscape and parks. It’s true that the idea of building a public park that is a catalyst for development is an old trick. But only part of landscape is parks. Part of it is plazas. Part of it is open space. And part of it is the system of stormwater management that gets built into our streets, into our yards, into our housing units. What is exciting about landscape urbanism is that it can define new types of space that not only accommodate ecological systems, but also define ways that we as individuals can relate to landscape and to ourselves in different ways.

Wendi Goldsmith: Not long ago, the words “landscape urbanism” would have sounded like an oxymoron. We worked on a project recently with Laura’s firm and with the architect Steve Holl that is a perfect example of this change in thinking. This project involves brownfields restoration, a large public-works facility including a major green-roof project, the preservation of some public open space, and programming that includes a significant public education and events component — all while making very tangible contributions to natural habitats in the south-central Connecticut region. It completely merges architecture and engineering and landscape architecture. I can’t think of any earlier examples in the US with the same level of interdisciplinary entanglement. The hydrology of the site accommodates these major functional components, but reverts the site back to its pre-development “water budget” in terms of its hydrological performance. So there’s this incredible melding of function and beauty and education that also transforms a stigmatized landscape into something that sets the stage for a new pattern of development in the region.


The Schools

David Gamble: A number of design schools have been very strategic about raising the profile of landscape architecture within the school, which is reverberating within the field itself. More landscape-architecture programs are opening up, in part because some leaders in the profession are finding ways to excite a new generation of students who want to shape the physical environment. They’re raising the profile of the profession from within the academic community.

Elizabeth Padjen: Conversely, the schools must also be responding to a market interest.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: All of us who are in academia know that it’s the students who are really driving the sustainability agenda. No question about it. And that generation’s interest in the environment is one of the really big pushes behind recognizing, first of all, that our world isn’t static and, second, that we need to find a different way of working with it instead of against it.

Laura Solano: One of my students gave a presentation on a recent project in Korea that turned 600 acres of landfill into a park. The park ended up as a reflection of the trash pile: it was essentially a pyramid with the top cut off. This student’s discussion centered around what might have happened instead if a landscape architect had been involved from the beginning: there would have been a grading plan for placing trash, there would have been systems to promote decomposition, and the nearby wetlands would have been engineered to support a river watershed. These kinds of issues capture the attention of students; they know that there are huge problems to solve, and they know the answers lie in innovation.


Rose Kennedy Greenway

Elizabeth Padjen: Let’s say that, instead of having just been completed, the Greenway project is just now in the concept phase and the initial planning has been undertaken by a team of landscape urbanists. What are some of the substantive changes we’d be seeing?

Shauna Gillies-Smith: One obvious answer is that there would be a very clear, probably somewhat artful but potentially also didactic, approach to stormwater, so that one would actually see how water is moved and treated. We would probably also see some form of urban agriculture — not necessarily community gardens, but perhaps some form of urban foraging.

David Gamble: I suspect that the engineering for the tunnels would be done in the service of a much larger vision of connectivity and continuity. Whatever you think about whether or not there should be development along the Greenway, there is still a very painful sense that it is not as robust in its role as it should be.

It is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Most people think of landscape as the backyard garden or the national parks. Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA

Jill Desimini: It could perform in so many different ways. It could even have a greater social or economic agenda. Right now, it’s very neutral, and there’s nothing very neutral about a landscape-urbanist vision.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: Thinking of it as a landscape in isolation — what you would do to decorate the top of the tunnel — is fundamentally not a landscape-urbanist approach. Thinking of the whole tunnel and the buildings along each edge in conjunction with the landscape, ecology, and the social program is much more appropriate to a landscape-urbanist approach.

Laura Solano: There have been so many disastrous tries at linking architecture and landscape along the Greenway; it suffers for a lack of integration. But I’m convinced that, over time, it’s going to be redone, because we know it’s not right. The Greenway Conservancy is doing some useful and valuable things, like organic maintenance and developing a tree farm to supply trees for the Greenway, but management can’t fix the things that are inherently wrong with it.

Wendi Goldsmith: This is a case where some of the most important concerns were put last on the list. Lots of people other than landscape architects, let alone landscape urbanists, were calling the shots. And so, many other aspects of the project crystallized before there was actually anything resembling a final program for how the Greenway would operate, or how it would look and function.

David Gamble: The Greenway has served a purpose of sorts. All across the country, cities are facing similar problems of deteriorating highways and infrastructure and are recognizing the value of trying, even at a smaller scale, to take advantage of new opportunities to reconnect their cities. Other cities will learn some lessons from what happened in Boston and try to do it in a more synthetic way.

Elizabeth Padjen: If we were to re-do the Greenway now, I suspect we would keep part of the superstructure of the old Artery and rework it as an artifact or walkway.

Laura Solano: I agree with you. There was something sublime about driving up over the city streets.

Shauna Gillies-Smith: That sublime quality is one of the appeals of New York’s High Line, along with a nostalgia for the big old industrial superstructure as you’re floating through the city. And the elements are beautiful: the furniture is beautiful, the planking is clever and smart, and the planting is rich and a strong contrast to the more controlled environment. There’s no question that the High Line would have influenced thinking about the opportunities for the Greenway.


Burying Olmsted, Again

Shauna Gillies-Smith: I want to re-visit the idea of burying Olmsted, because it is important to recognize the significance of the constructed landscape. Part of the interest for me in the High Line isn’t so much the aesthetic of it, although it’s an amazing place, but that it calls into question what landscape is, and it calls into question the naturalization of landscape. When most people think of landscape, they usually think of the backyard garden or the national-park backgrounds in TV ads for SUVs. But by recognizing that what we are creating in both our green spaces and our hard spaces is a constructed landscape, we are held to a different standard. Our roads are landscape: they are designed landscapes. Our sidewalks, our traffic medians, our rooftops are designed landscapes. We learn to ignore them. But there is a lot of economic and design investment in all of those elements. The importance of burying Olmsted is that we need to recognize that our landscape is completely constructed, and that consequently, both our landscape and our work as designers must be held accountable.

Top: The High Line, the transformation of a 1.45-mile-long elevated freight rail line into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. Designers: Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo by M. Altamura.

Design Biennial Boston 2010

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

Allandale House by William O’Brien Jr.

pinkcomma gallery, Boston—April 30–June 10, 2010

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Mark Pasnik and Chris Grimley are two men on a mission. As the directors of pinkcomma gallery and self-proclaimed guides to Boston’s “design underground,” they are dedicated to showcasing a new generation of talented architects and designers in the city. In more than a dozen small and provocative shows since the gallery’s opening in 2007, they have demonstrated that the design culture of Boston is vibrant and energized beyond the walls of the area architecture schools.

Their ambitious and most recent initiative is the first Design Biennial, curated with Michael Kubo, featuring a juried selection of five emerging practices. Highlights of the exhibition include the serenely beautiful geometric study of an A-frame house by William O’Brien Jr., a spatially and materially ingenious back-lot house by Touloukian Touloukian, and a playful proposal to “graft” a community center onto the roof of a supermarket by Carla Ceruzzi and Ryan Murphy of C&MP. Dan Hisel’s Heavy/Light House makes visible the poetic potential of abandoned infrastructure and Gretchen Schneider’s “Making Time Visible” project, which draws the footprint of Scollay Square onto City Hall Plaza, creates a simultaneous understanding of past and present city structure.

A snapshot of the preoccupations of this generation of Boston architects at this moment in time reveals an interest in “smart design” enabled by digital technology, an innovative exploration of craft and the sensual and tactile qualities of building, and a reflection on history concurrent with an enthusiasm for the future. The exhibition presents images from different architects side-by-side, making it difficult to grasp a coherent view of each author’s work. But the pleasure of unexpected visual connections between projects is worth the experiment, as is the introduction of a welcome new event on the city’s design calendar.

Above: Allandale House by William O’Brien Jr.

Recycling 2.0

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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Who can argue with recycling? It’s sustainable, noble even. Yet, for most of us, the act of recycling is exactly like the act of disposing — except the bin colors are different. “The recycling” has come to mean a class of privileged rubbish, and recycling itself has come to represent only half of an idea: diverting trash from landfills. But a deeper understanding of sustainability — and a corresponding shift in our values — is now bringing attention to the other half of the idea: reuse. The design community — architects, industrial designers, fashion designers, landscape architects — has embraced the concept as a catalyst for creativity. The following six essays are reports from the design world illustrating small examples of this very big idea. They demonstrate that new attitudes about reuse influence not only what we recycle but how. Together, they suggest that we may be entering a new era of creative transformation.


The re-working of old clothes is hardly a new concept. Museum collections are full of 19th-century dresses that have been reconstructed multiple times to update them according to the latest fashion. Today, with the wealth of consumer goods at our fingertips and cutting-edge designers such as Thakoon at Target, we no longer have to worry about recycling our best garment. Indeed, the notion of “sustainable” seems out of place in a fashion system that is based on planned obsolescence, yet the trend for “new” garments using old materials continues to gain currency. Vogue now has a green issue and the Spring/Summer 2010 New York Fashion Week witnessed concurrent “Green Shows” for the first time, featuring eco-conscious designers.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

“Lapel dress” by Junky Styling features recycled men’s suit jackets. Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Highlights from the Green Shows included the work of Susan Cianciolo, a New York City-based multimedia artist and designer who has been at the forefront of the re-purposed clothing movement since the mid-1990s. Cianciolo’s first collection in 1995 used recycled clothing and discarded scraps of fabric from the Chinatown factories, remade into edgy pieces with a deconstructed aesthetic. Cianciolo’s signature frayed hems and evident seaming reflect a deep-rooted commitment to the handmade, as do her do-it-yourself clothing kits. Since the conscious radicalism of her first RUN collection, Cianciolo has remained true to her mission. She still pulls clothing from her grandmother’s closet to screenprint and re-construct, breathing new life into a garment imbued with memories.

The design firm Alabama Chanin also links the present to the past, not only in the use of reclaimed textiles, but also in the reinvigoration of the Southern tradition of quiltmaking. Historically, American quilters used every scrap of fabric they could find, from flour sacks to the unraveled threads from red tobacco pouches. Founder Natalie Chanin continues in this vein, resurrecting the ubiquitous 20th-century garment — the cotton T-shirt — and turning it into fancifully embroidered and appliquéed skirts, dresses, and tops. Although the South’s once-vibrant cotton industry has long passed, the company also now sources cotton yardage that is “grown to sewn in the United States.”

Chanin is one of a number of contemporary designers who have published do-it-yourself books, testimony to the active and growing DIY movement. While some craftspeople feel that websites such as are a threat to the livelihood of academically trained designers, there are many who have embraced it, including the London-based design firm Junky Styling. Founded in 1997 by Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, the designers transform vintage clothes into dramatic silhouettes. Junky Styling cunningly retains many of the details of the original garment — the closures, the cuffs, the collars — to create fashions that have a streetwise edge to them. With a nod to their English heritage, one can see connections to the doyenne of alternative design, Vivienne Westwood, as well as the punk look of the late 1970s, an earlier incarnation of the DIY aesthetic.

Junky Styling’s obvious use of vintage clothing differs from the design sensibility of Toronto-based Preloved, which finds inspiration in the garment’s textile. Founder Julia Greive started the business as a vintage clothing shop but changed her focus when head designer Peter Friesen came on board. Friesen skillfully deconstructs the original garment and completely transforms it, using sophisticated construction and inventive seaming. Each piece is comprised of two to five used garments that have been purchased in bulk from rag houses. Like Alabama Chanin, the design firm is eco-friendly to the core, hiring only local cutters and sewers. Preloved also exemplifies the future of remade fashion: an affordable, ready-to-wear line offering the customer a one-of-akind garment. It’s a prospect undreamed of without the imaginative reuse of old clothes.


Despite strong demand for sustainable products and materials in the United States, the amount of waste produced by the building industry remains staggering. Approximately 100 million tons per year — almost 40 percent of the entire municipal solid-waste stream — come from construction and demolition. While most of this waste could be recovered, material reuse remains limited, particularly at the commercial scale. In fact, LEED credits for material reuse are among the least sought after, with only 5 to 9 percent of all LEED certified projects having successfully received those credits.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

The Portola Valley (California) Town Center, by Siegel & Strain Architects with Goring & Straja Architects. Materials from previously deconstructed buildings on the site were reworked and integrated in the new buildings. Photo by César Rubio.

A new tool may help to change that. The Design for Reuse Primer seeks to more clearly understand the obstacles impeding reuse and provide the design and construction industry with knowledge and tools that can help alleviate the barriers. Scheduled for release in mid-2010 as a Web-based resource, the Primer also aims to bridge the communication and knowledge gaps among the various players involved in the reuse process. Thus it is targeted to a broad audience, including designers, contractors, clients, and municipalities. The primary feature of the Primer will be a series of case studies that serve as guides to the reuse process. They will not only showcase the possibilities for reuse but also serve as models that readers can adapt to their own projects.

The Primer was developed by the San Francisco nonprofit Public Architecture, working with deconstruction and material reuse expert Brad Guy and various government agencies, and supported by a grant from the US Green Building Council. The research team has identified a diverse range of projects varying in size, location, type, budget, scope, and design intent for inclusion as case studies.

In addition to the case studies, the project website will provide a directory of resources connecting people to additional tools that can facilitate material reuse. The website is meant to be interactive, allowing users to contribute knowledge and engage in dialogue and allowing the project to continue to grow as a productive resource. Building codes, perceived environmental health and safety concerns, scheduling and storage constraints, the inertia of familiar methodologies — there are many challenges limiting the role of reuse in the design and construction industries. Yet increasing rates of material reuse can have profound positive environmental implications, affecting everything from energy consumption to landfill waste. The Design for Reuse Primer aims to stimulate the development of new systems and infrastructure to make reuse a more common component of a sustainable building strategy.


For as long as people have built, we have un-built, too. A thousand years ago, Europeans removed the physical traces of departed conquerors by repurposing Roman bricks for new construction. Viking shipbuilders reused choice timber in new vessels. The United States, colonized to supply its bounty of raw materials to Western Europe, has less experience with the concept of reuse. My father tells of moving to an old farmhouse in northern Vermont in the 1950s and finding in the barn a ball of string measuring three feet in diameter. And next to it, a shoebox that was filled with bits of string and labeled “String Too Short To Save.”

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Photo courtesy Boston Building Resources.

Today, the practice of reusing building materials is flourishing in a renaissance driven by environmental considerations as powerful as the economic motivations of the past. For Boston Building Resources (the new name, effective this spring, for the Building Materials Resource Center and the Boston Building Materials Co-op) and its Reuse Center, the financial advantages historically associated with salvage are on an equal footing with landfill diversion and embodied energy reduction. Aiming to make a positive community impact through the supply of economically accessible building materials, the Reuse Center offers a membership discount program for individuals with low to moderate incomes and for nonprofit organizations.

It was the oil crisis of the ’70s that compelled architect John Rowse to start sharing his expertise in building science and construction methods with his neighbors. In 1978, he founded the Boston Building Materials Co-op to provide homeowners with both an affordable source of insulation and training in weatherization techniques. Despite the subsequent drop in oil prices and dissipation of environmental awareness, the cooperative continued to thrive. Workshop space was added to enable members to make window repairs without investing in expensive tools, and in 1993 the Reuse Center was launched in two tractor-trailer containers on the site.

Word spread among local contractors and the trailers quickly filled with doors, windows, fixtures, and other materials diverted from landfills. Showrooms contributed new products such as lighting fixtures that were slow to sell. The less-than-ideal conditions of uninsulated trailers in blazing heat did not deter homeowners from doggedly sifting through the growing collection.

Recognizing the growing popularity of building material reuse, the staff eventually replaced their six trailers with the warehouse building that houses the Reuse Center today. In 2008, approximately 800 doors, 400 windows, and 50 kitchen-cabinet sets found new homes via the clean and orderly aisles of the Reuse Center. Boston Building Resources also sold more than 500 composters produced by the Massachusetts EPA and 250 rain barrels constructed of 55-gallon plastic containers that had been previously used for food storage. The unquestionable success of the organization demonstrates a demand for secondhand materials in good condition — and proof that more designers, contractors, and clients are following the advice of director Matthew St. Onge: “Think reuse before new.”

For more information, including donation guidelines, visit: For a directory of North American reuse centers, salvage yards, and deconstruction specialists, visit:


It may take a sociologist, or perhaps a psychologist, to one day explain the cultural puzzlement that is best described as the Modern Revival. Other architectural revivals have allowed a decent interval of at least a century to pass before dusting off pre-used forms and devices. But the current fascination with all things midcentury has barely skipped a generation. It’s the design equivalent of boomers and their kids all knowing the words to “Satisfaction.”

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

Photo courtesy Machine Age.

This fascination is especially evident in the growing interest in midcentury furniture. Although many of these designs have been in continual production, Dwell magazine (founded in 2000) and the national retailer Design Within Reach (founded in 1999) introduced names such as Breuer, Nelson, and Eames to a new, younger audience, while simultaneously demonstrating how their furniture could fit a 21st-century lifestyle.

They have also given momentum to what might sound like an oxymoron: vintage Modern. Jane Prentiss of Skinner, the venerable Boston auction house, first noticed the trend around 1990, when many of her clients — boomer professionals who were collecting fine arts and antiques — began to buy the original midcentury furniture they remembered from their childhoods for their own teenage and 20-something children. “Because they themselves enjoyed collecting,” she remembers, “they wanted to find something that their children would like, as a way of connecting with them.” Prentiss established Skinner’s 20th Century Design department at that time, which now runs at least two auctions a year (the next is March 27).

Retailer Normand Mainville noticed the interest, too, opening Machine Age in Boston’s Fort Point Channel area in 1991 to sell vintage Modern furniture; a large part of his business then was providing period props for the movie industry. Today, many of his customers are “visual people” — artists, architects, photographers; some are serious collectors, while others are young people just starting out. And competition has blossomed, both locally and nationally (not to mention regular listings on Craigslist).

So why the interest in used furniture? Why would someone buy an old Eames chair when they could buy a nice fresh new one? “Presence,” Mainville answers. His customers appreciate the authenticity and history of the furniture, as well as the sense that these pieces are often unique and more personal.

Cost can be a factor, too. While rare or unusual pieces can command impressive prices (such as the 1973 George Nakashima table that Prentiss recently sold for $213,000), some are less expensive than their new counterparts, and frequently less expensive than the goods sold by mass-market furniture retailers.

Prentiss casts the trend against a larger social context. Much of the furniture fits today’s informal lifestyles; young people especially embrace it as “theirs.” Buyers of all ages are attracted to the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the rarity of some materials such as woods that are no longer available. And, she notes, buying previously owned furniture is inherently sustainable.

As concerns about sustainability permeate our culture and influence our values, it’s hard not to wonder if vintage Modern furniture will serve as gateway antiques, introducing a new generation to a marketplace that currently bemoans the graying of its customer base. Prentiss notes that her department has brought new buyers to Skinner, who often branch out to other interests, most notably Native American and ethnographic objects, vintage jewelry, and American folk art.

Can New England antique furniture be far behind? Designed and handcrafted by local makers using local materials without oil-based synthetics or noxious off-gassing, recycled across generations, and often available at prices far less than any new furniture, these pieces embody the very essence of sustainable values. Buying a New Hampshire Chippendale tiger-maple desk might soon seem like a very modern idea.


In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart popularized the concept of managed product lifecycles, changing how we think about the things we buy. Cradle to Cradle proposes a future where commerce achieves both economic prosperity and environmental responsibility by closing material loops. So-called “service systems” supply consumers with televisions, computers, and home appliances — by leasing in lieu of selling — and shift the burdens of maintenance and disposal back to the service provider. Goods that might otherwise be discarded are instead “remanufactured” — refurbished, reused, or recycled into new products. While conceptually appealing, in practice these systems sometimes struggle to find their feet.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Photo by © Alexei Novikov.

Service systems are common in business-to-business (B2B) transactions where tax deductions on rental fees are often more appealing than acquiring depreciating assets like copiers and printers. Similar systems have struggled in household markets, where end-users value the concept of ownership and aren’t afforded the same tax advantages. Electrolux tried renting washing machines to homeowners in Sweden, charging on a per-wash-cycle basis; the units were reclaimed, refurbished, and resold at the end of the trial. It failed, as household consumers could buy comparable products at similar cost through various credit plans, allowing them to keep the product after the payments ended.

The “car sharing” company, Zipcar, has shown, however, that it is possible to reverse consumer sentiment. It capitalizes on the hassle and expense of owning a car in the city, turning nonownership into a desirable lifestyle choice, making it hip to Zip.

In Japan, where consumers pay high fees to dispose of appliances, manufacturers developed cooperative reclamation and recycling infrastructures in response to tightening legislation. Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre went beyond recycling, by using the disassembly process as a diagnostic for new products. It assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process.

Caterpillar and Xerox have led industry efforts to “design for loops.” Caterpillar’s highly profitable Remanufacturing Division inspects, cleans, rebuilds, repairs, recycles, and resells end-of-life machinery parts. To reclaim profitable volumes of material, it charges customers a deposit that as much as doubles the price of the part. The financial incentive of returning the product creates a reclamation rate of 93 percent, supporting the division’s $1 billion annual revenue.

Xerox has also been very successful in remanufacturing, claiming certain photocopiers have seven lives, with six diversions from landfill. Its B2B rental of reprographic equipment creates a controlled distribution of products, where Xerox can easily take back a unit at the end of its service contract. The company’s innovation is to design products specifically for disassembly and reuse of parts. Caterpillar and Xerox have both sought external expertise in remanufacturing, but found limited supporting research in business and design schools.

Despite some successes, the state of the service-system approach to commerce shows that, while altruistic and environmental motivations have created some convincing marketing stories, good intentions haven’t had enough leverage to warp the prevailing cradle-to-grave business paradigms into closed loops. The success of existing models has hinged on financial incentives, legal penalties, and the coincidental, idyllic conditions of niche markets to trigger innovative approaches to design and business. Perhaps both industry and government will take lessons from current leaders and propel mainstream business up the learning curve of a new economy. Until then, Cradle to Cradle’s concept of a self-sustaining industrial cycle will remain in its infancy.


Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

Bette Midler with the rapper 50 Cent. Prompted by a cleanup effort in her own neighborhood, Midler founded the New York Restoration Project to redevelop “under-resourced” parks and community gardens in New York City. Last year, rapper 50 Cent funded NYRP’s renovation of a community garden in his childhood neighborhood in Queens. Photo by Johnny Nunez/ WireImage.

What do 50 Cent, Bette Midler, Michael Pollan, and Mel King have in common?

A documented love for the transformative power of gardens.

Gardens offer one of the most elemental forms of reuse. Dead leaves and discarded coffee grounds become compost that help wrinkled, dry seeds sprout to shiny green life. Community gardens also recharge neighborhoods, transforming vacant lots and neglected parcels into well-tended places. The City of Boston has 150 community gardens, nearly all of them on properties that were once abandoned.

The practice of reusing vacant urban land for gardens began in the United States during the economic depression of 1893. The mayor of Detroit — a city particularly hard hit by the downfall of the railroad industry — asked owners of vacant land at the city’s periphery to allow the unemployed to grow potatoes. Other cities, including Boston, soon created similar “allotment” gardens of their own. As Sam Bass Warner outlines in To Dwell is To Garden, the presence of urban gardens ebbed and flowed from allotment gardens to schoolyard gardens to the “victory” gardens of WWI and WWII, and all were top-down, government-sponsored forms of philanthropy.

Today’s bottom-up, community-based approach began in the 1970s, “the child of new politics and abandoned city land,” in Warner’s words. The new politics grew from Civil Rights-era neighborhood activism, further fueled by the first Earth Day and then an energy crisis. The vacant land was a byproduct of the midcentury suburban exodus; even Boston’s population shrank by 20 percent in two decades, leaving behind hundreds of empty properties. In 1974, as a state representative, Boston activist Mel King sponsored legislation to allow gardeners to use vacant public land at no cost; in 1976, Mayor Kevin White channeled federal community-development block grant dollars into the creation of 20 gardens. Unimpressed by government management and wanting to be part of the planning process, a handful of individuals from different neighborhoods founded Boston Urban Gardeners (now the Boston Natural Areas Network) — a citizen-based advocacy coalition. Neighborhoods established gardens at an extraordinary rate: by 1982, there were 120 in Boston. In the midst of profound racial tensions and the busing crisis, boarded-up buildings and urban renewal, community gardens offered a place for people of any age or ethnicity to declare a hopeful attitude toward their city through the most humble of means, while providing affordable food and flowers in return. They still do.

What’s new now? Waiting lists to join Boston gardens have tripled in the past few years. There’s a hipness to 21st-century urban gardening. The graying ’70s activists, recent immigrants, and well-intentioned college students have been joined by locavores and Michael Pollan devotees, Martha Stewart/Patti Moreno do-it-yourself types, and Alice Waters wannabes. In the Great Recession of our day, those seeking cheaper alternatives to grocery-store produce have again taken up neighborhood gardening, as have (apparently) multi-millionaire rappers. In 2010, the community garden is once more a source of neighborhood renewal and a dynamic example of true common ground.

What else is different now? Green thumb or not, popular attitudes toward city living have changed. In part due to efforts like community gardens, urban neighborhoods are again a destination.

Arts & Minds (Part 3 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 3, 2009


Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Susan Williams: creative director of Swans Island Blankets

Photo by Sarah Szwajkos.

Photo by Sarah Szwajkos.

Swans Island Blankets is a company based in Northport, Maine that produces handwoven blankets from flocks of local sheep. All the dyeing and weaving is done in an old house, and sheep pastured on a small island off the coast supply thick wool for winter blankets. The designs — single colors, subtle color blocks, and stripes — rely for their effectiveness on the natural shades of the wool and on vegetable dyes. Susan Williams, one of the owners and the creative director, has built an international clientele for their products.

Deborah Weisgall: How have you combined old-fashioned technology with modern marketing?

Susan Williams: I wanted to apply the aesthetic of the product to the company as a whole. There is a great story behind the company — John and Carolyn Grace left law careers in Cambridge to pursue a more satisfying life weaving classic blankets on Swans Island. We’ve moved the operation to the mainland, closer to where we live. The core issue is to introduce the blankets to a broader market without wrecking their integrity. I’ve captured the story on our website and in our printed materials; it’s no baloney when someone understands what “timeless beauty” means. Our aesthetic has substantially helped the company’s growth, which is part of the reason why we receive so much media coverage — we operate on a minuscule marketing budget.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you set goals for growth?

Susan Williams: Our goals for growth are more or less driven by our financial and human resources. There’s been some trial and error and postponing of great products — we produced some coats a couple of years ago that proved too labor-intensive and expensive. We quickly learned what we could accomplish while maintaining the highest standards, given the current scale of our business. We have four looms. Last March, when Michelle Obama wanted to give one of our throws to the prime minister of Ireland, we were lucky that we had a green one already on the loom.

We like to think of ourselves as the Slow Food of manufacturing, which probably sets us apart from other business models. We also offer a blanket hospital for cleaning and repairs. And this summer we introduced a line of yarns for hand-knitting, in colors that are consistent with our aesthetic.

Our aesthetic has substantially helped the company’s growth, which is part of the reason why we receive so much media coverage — we operate on a minuscule marketing budget.

Deborah Weisgall: How would you describe the satisfactions of the business?

Susan Williams: They come from knowing that I am contributing to making products that are genuinely exquisite, practical, and simple. Our customers come from all over the world; they are unimaginably varied.

Deborah Weisgall: What is Swans Island’s impact on the community?

Susan Williams: Obviously, we employ people — and it fits into this place because there are a lot of interesting and talented people running small businesses here. There seems to be a deep understanding and desire for our standard of quality — not only locally, but globally.

Photo courtesy Swan Islands Blankets.

Arts & Minds (Part 2 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 27, 2009

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Photo by Alex Budnitz.

Jill Kneerim: director and co-founder of Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson

Jill Kneerim is a founding partner, along with John Taylor “Ike” Williams, and a director of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson. The agency is based in Boston and has offices in Washington and New York. One of the most prestigious in publishing, Kneerim & Williams’ authors include former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, best-selling novelists Brad Meltzer and Sue Miller, and scholars Stephen J. Greenblatt, Caroline Elkins, Joseph Ellis, Dr. Susan Love, and Ned Hallowell. This year, the agency celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Deborah Weisgall: When you began, New York was the center of the publishing industry. Though Boston had two illustrious publishers, Houghton Mifflin and Little, Brown, pretty much every literary agent was in New York.

Jill Kneerim: When we first began, a lot of the writers said to us, Isn’t it a disadvantage for you to be in Boston, since New York is the hub of the publishing industry? I answered that an agent is only as good as her clients, and, if you’re good, everybody will pay attention. Now that question never arises. And communication has become much easier as well.

Deborah Weisgall: How much is Kneerim & Williams an outgrowth of the Boston intellectual community?

Jill Kneerim: The Boston area has the greatest concentration of colleges and universities of any city in the world, so it’s a natural that we start looking for writers in our own backyard. One of our specialties — taking academics into public life — grows out of my long-standing interest in making accessible the work of people who do not normally write for a broad audience. First of all, I look for people who write well. Many academics haven’t written for the general reader and sometimes could use advice about how to cast their ideas to make them appealing to that audience. I find that there are many people who are ready to try that, especially those who are mid-career and older, who already have tenure. It’s a daring young scholar who can afford to try that kind of writing. People in the academic world have exciting ideas, and when they are good writers, it’s a marvelous trip to be on with them. What’s at the core of speaking to a wider public is knowing how to tell a story.

All art bridges art and commerce, unless you’re living alone in a cave. There are so many ways these days in which artists and writers have to think about filthy commerce. We should stop resisting and learn that it’s part of the game.

Because I’m in Boston, I tend to have a lot of clients in the academic world. Deborah Grosvenor, who heads up our Washington office, has a list skewed towards people from the national press corps. She has more journalists than I do, and they’re writing policy books. We both do history, but I’m more likely to have an academic historian, while she has a journalist. I also think that being in Boston gives me an advantage because New York is so dominant in the book-writing business that it’s easy to forget that there’s any other place — and that people can look at the world differently from the way they do in New York.

Deborah Weisgall: How do you reconcile art and commerce?

Jill Kneerim: All art bridges art and commerce, unless you’re living alone in a cave. There are so many ways these days in which artists and writers have to think about filthy commerce. We should stop resisting and learn that it’s part of the game. And there’s a lot of fun in getting every kind of client out into the book world. With a journalist, I’ll have more of a chance to debate what the subject is going to be. Academics already have their specialties. I have one author who’s been working on his book for 10 years. First, he had to spend a couple of years mastering a complex foreign language in order to conduct interviews in that language. Now he has a body of material that nobody else in the world possesses. Caroline Elkins, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, spent seven years gathering evidence. What I do is find someone whose ideas spark interest that would fire up a reader like me, who’s not a specialist. Some subjects are too narrow — size is important.

I’m on the commerce side, but I adore being part of the link between writers — who, frankly, have been my heroes all my life. There is no one more exciting or important than a writer. I love being mixed up with writers and making a difference.

Photos by Alex Budnitz.

Industrial Strength

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 20, 2009

When creativity is your stock in trade, there is strength in numbers.

Greater Boston is home to the second largest industrial-design community in the country. Largely invisible to the public, industrial designers (also known as product designers) are responsible for the design of mass-produced products from consumer goods to computers and high-tech equipment. Above: Zarafina Tea Maker, designed for Jarden. Design: Continuum; West Newton, Massachusetts. Photo by Sal Graceffa.

Greater Boston is home to the second largest industrial-design community in the country. Largely invisible to the public, industrial designers (also known as product designers) are responsible for the design of mass-produced products from consumer goods to computers and high-tech equipment. Above: Zarafina Tea Maker, designed for Jarden. Design: Continuum; West Newton, Massachusetts. Photo by Sal Graceffa.

Elizabeth Padjen: I’ve come to think of the Creative Economy as the purloined economy — something that’s been hidden in plain view. It’s been with us for a long time but hasn’t really been considered a cohesive economic sector until recently. As a result, there seems to be a lot of confusion about definitions — everyone seems to have a different opinion. There’s the cultural-tourism piece, which has to some degree hijacked much of the public understanding of the Creative Economy in this state. There’s the “applied art” definition — putting creativity and the arts to some functional purpose. That would include architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, product designers. But it also includes advertising, film, videogames, and media — the reach of this sector into all aspects of our lives is remarkable. And of course there is an enormous population of what might be called “embedded creatives” — the people who are tallied up as working in the financial or life-sciences sector, but are writers or designers on staff. What accounts for this confusion? What exactly is the Creative Economy?

Beth Siegel: The concept is relatively new. Even a decade ago, people tended to look at the importance of the arts and culture in an economy in terms of economic-impact studies — such as reports comparing the presence of cultural institutions to a sports stadium. In the late ’90s, Mt. Auburn Associates was commissioned by The New England Council and New England Foundation for the Arts to look at the cultural economy of the entire region. We believed it was a sector that should be examined as an industry, just as we look at biotech or the software industries. Somehow that led to the terminology “creative economy.” We defined the Creative Economy as having three elements: creative industries, a creative workforce, and creative communities. We started to look at industries in which creative content defines competitiveness — much the same way people have defined technology industries broadly to include biotech and computers and software, because technology is the common competitive element of those industries.

The idea of innovation and creativity and entrepreneurship as a core part of the Massachusetts economy is not new. Michael Dukakis was promoting this back in the 1970s. What is new is that we’re looking at a set of industries where the creative content is the defining element. That is where we get some blurriness in thinking about the word “creativity.” But there’s really no right or wrong definition.

Karl Baehr: The common element among all the various definitions of the Creative Economy is not only the presence of innovation but also the power of ideas. Our economy is getting lighter: we’re going from steel to software; we’re seeing physical GDP decrease; patent activity has increased 75 percent from 10 years ago. Innovation and the ability to monetize ideas are at the heart of just about all of these definitions.

Anita Walker: Something else that distinguishes this industry is that it embraces the nonprofit sector, which other industries typically do not. So our symphonies and our theaters are part of an industry that also includes a commercial or profit-making sector.

The common element among all the various definitions of the Creative Economy is not only the presence of innovation but also the power of ideas. Innovation and the ability to monetize ideas are at the heart of all of these definitions. Karl Baehr PhD

Elizabeth Padjen: My impression is that people initially thought of the Creative Economy as comprising only the nonprofits, the cultural institutions. The recent push has been to make them understand that there is also a for-profit component. Is that dichotomy still there?

Beth Siegel: When we began our work, we realized that the old divide between nonprofit and commercial really didn’t make sense anymore. There are too many hybrids — such as museums running retail shops — and the sectors have merged. For example, we tend to think of the media industry as for-profit, but it includes National Geographic and NPR, which are nonprofits. The focus is the product, not whether it’s delivered by a for-profit or nonprofit.

Karl Baehr: The business functions are essentially the same whether it’s a for-profit or a nonprofit entity. Some of the mechanics and strategies are different, of course, but you still have to operate effectively.

Anita Walker: The nonprofits enthusiastically embraced this broader notion of the Creative Economy because they understood the value of being perceived as a significant part of the economy by state legislators and those who fund their work. Being seen as a real economic engine rather than just a nicety has made an enormous difference over the last several years.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: We’ve been lucky in the Berkshires to have a long tradition of art and culture. Everybody there has come to realize, especially over the last 40 or 50 years, that our nonprofit cultural organizations contribute incredibly to our economic vitality, and also to fostering the creative communities. But not everyone is aware of the role that the for-profit creative businesses play. It’s still really important to bring these two sectors together in people’s minds. For years and years, state government has been geared toward a different kind of industry, and a lot of politicians and policy-makers still don’t understand what the for-profit creative industry contributes. There’s a lot of work to be done.

I’ve recently become aware of the importance of homebased businesses to the Creative Economy and the economy as a whole. My parents started a home-based business, Country Curtains [now a mail-order company with retail shops in 12 states]; I confess I had to be convinced that it is in fact part of the Creative Economy. The Creative Economy doesn’t necessarily develop products only for the most sophisticated people. It also produces things that mainstream people feel comfortable with and love, things that are sold at a very affordable price. We really have to embrace everybody. Tattoo artists. Doily makers. Anybody who can make a living by doing something that is creative.

Main Streets with cultural institutions and artist live/work spaces have intrinsic value as vibrant places to live. But they also have an economic value in that they make a community that is attractive to talented people and, therefore, to employers — some of whom might not themselves be part of the Creative Economy. Anita Walker

Jason Schupbach: We’ve seen a sea change in just the last year around the way this state addresses the Creative Economy. We already had one of the most advanced Creative Economy policies in the country supporting the nonprofit sector through the work of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Now we are also developing a complementary policy around the for-profit creative industries, because they often do have different needs. That’s what resulted in the creation of my job. I have counterparts in the Office of Business Development who focus on the manufacturing, life sciences, IT, clean energy, and defense industry sectors. By creating my job, Governor Patrick has said the creative-based businesses, such as entertainment — which includes film, TV, videogames, music, and publishing — design, digital media, and advertising businesses, are every bit as important to the state’s economic growth as those other industries. We want to make sure that the for-profit creative industries are aware of the resources we have for them right now, and we want to understand what we should be doing in the future to develop these parts of the economy.

Beate Becker: I believe the more important debate is the question of creativity versus innovation, and why the Creative Economy is different from an Innovation Economy. I really want to stress that, when we’re talking about the Creative Economy, the creativity is about creative content. For example, engineers are creative, but they’re not producing creative content. Creative content is based in culture or the senses: song, drawing, theater. The economist Richard Florida has brought attention to the notion of a “creative class,” but his class is so inclusive that he’s talking more about a knowledge-based class. He includes accountants and lawyers, who certainly use their minds, but are not necessarily creative workers. They’re different from actors or graphic designers.

Elizabeth Padjen: Along with the idea of a creative class, we have to give credit to Richard Florida for popularizing the understanding that creativity has a physical component — that some places nurture creativity better than others.

Anita Walker: Our understanding of what we call “creative communities” is already expanding. Main Streets with cultural institutions and artist live/work spaces have intrinsic value as vibrant places to live. But they also have an economic value in that they make a community that is attractive to talented people and, therefore, to the companies who want to employ them, companies that will bring jobs and wealth to a community. And of course some of those companies might not themselves be part of the Creative Economy sector.

Elizabeth Padjen: Some cities have been quick to understand this. New Bedford, for example, has been getting great press in the last year as a community that is trying to develop its creative sector as a way of defining itself. Matt, what were the roots of that initiative?

Matthew Morrissey: About three years ago, we were pitching a foreign company that was considering New Bedford for a new manufacturing facility that would employ more than 600 people. We were on the short list and had developed a package of incentives that made us as competitive as any other place in the world, really. Halfway into the presentation, the site-location consultant stood up and said, “Wait a second. I get all of this, but I’m originally from Newton, and I can’t imagine building a workforce in the city of New Bedford.” We had it all, but we were saddled with an outdated perception of the city. And ultimately, we lost out.

So we had to do our homework. The mayor and I sat down and asked, What is it about that experience that encapsulates the challenge facing New Bedford? We don’t sugarcoat the reality of a city like New Bedford, but we wanted to figure out how we as a city could use our assets to better tell our story. What came forward was the sense of place.

The idea of the Creative Economy works pretty naturally for New Bedford. For 10 years now, AHA! [Art, History & Architecture, a cultural organization] has been promoting the possibilities of New Bedford to the scores of people who come to its free Downtown Cultural Nights on a regular basis. And when people sense possibility, you inspire their imagination. It is a very important part of retaining folks who are more educated and more prone to civic engagement on their block, in their neighborhood, and at other levels of government. If you can tell that story to a large enough population, eventually you hit a couple of investors, a couple of site locators, and CEOs.

The direct economic impact of businesses in this sector, however we define it, is real. We have 48,000 jobs and 2,300 businesses in the city, and about 10 percent of that can be attributed, in a broad sense, to the Creative Economy. The Creative Economy isn’t going to become our largest employer. But we know that it can be an enormously important, if not the most important, inducer of job creation in the city of New Bedford.

Anita Walker: This has important implications for public policy: cities like New Bedford, Pittsfield, and Worcester — and, of course, Boston — have recognized that they want the Creative Economy to be part of their city plan and have named individuals who are part of city government to coordinate these efforts. They understand that it’s about business development, but it’s also about community development. You really need a holistic approach.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: Something that we’re grappling with in the Berkshires is the fact that there is no leadership. In cities, you have a mayor who sets an agenda and pushes for it; you can go talk to this one person. But in the Berkshires, we have two cities and 31 towns, and the towns usually have volunteer leadership. There might be one overworked, underpaid town manager, aided by salt-of-theearth elected people who are doing their jobs for nothing. You have to try to raise their awareness about the assets that they often don’t even know they have.

One of the additional challenges that the Berkshires faces is that there’s so much traffic across the borders with Connecticut and New York, in terms of where people live and work, but also in terms of business relationships. We need to find resources that will support this reality. If, for example, we get a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, we can’t use it to support a Connecticut enterprise.

Beate Becker: That is an enormous challenge for New England in general; there are many cross-border opportunities. A maritime trail, for instance, doesn’t stop at the Massachusetts borders. Nor do the clients or employees of a design firm. How do you find something effective that’s more of an overlay, that crosses towns and states without political jurisdiction? And though we don’t have a real answer for that, I think that Massachusetts has started to pursue an effective model, focusing on industries themselves as the overlay. The film industry, for example, cuts across jurisdictions, as does the design industry.

Jason Schupbach: Some regional organizations are stepping into this role. Berkshire Creative is certainly one, and the Creative Economy Association of the North Shore has also emerged as a real leader.

Karl Baehr: I think New England has other challenges. I came to Boston from Santa Fe, which is one of only a handful of UNESCO-designated Creative Cities. I sometimes think people here have to overcome feeling bad about monetizing their creativity. But there are also regional differences that parallel some of the differences Beate mentioned earlier between innovation and creativity. A famous example is Xerox Corporation, back in the beginnings of Silicon Valley in the ’70s. Xerox hired a bunch of high-bohemian, high-tech kids from Berkeley and Stanford. These kids considered themselves artists. It was actually Xerox that invented the mouse, the scanner, the fax machine, the graphical user interface, all that stuff that we’ve attributed to Apple. But the reason Xerox didn’t monetize it was completely cultural — a disconnect between West Coast high-bohemians and East Coast boardroom suits and ties. Xerox would never sell anything called a mouse.

But there’s a corollary to the Xerox story: as we consider what a developed Creative Economy could mean, we should also include its influence on creative thinking in other sectors as well. Can you imagine what the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] would be like if we had a creative thinker in there anywhere? It would be a radically different organization.

When I listen to President Obama talk about green jobs and high-tech as a priority, I wonder why the Creative Economy isn’t being mentioned in that same context. Carole Walton

Beate Becker: I recently visited Switzerland, which is pursuing some very exciting initiatives. The Swiss are actively bringing together schools of art and design with schools of technology, developing joint curricula and joint laboratories, with some extraordinary results. I’m really concerned that we’re not doing enough of that here. Yes, there’s the MIT Media Lab, but that’s one little node. There’s tremendous potential, particularly in the Boston area, for technology companies and design companies to do much more collaboration, both in classroom laboratory settings and in commercial settings.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: We need to take advantage of the naturally collaborative tendency of younger people: I see it in my own children and the people I work with. There are no barriers. There are no secrets. People aren’t possessive about their ideas. They share openly. These young people have a new view, and I think it’s going to have an enormous, positive influence.

Carole Walton: We can try to support that tendency by providing programs, places, resources — whatever it takes — to encourage cross-pollination. The BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority] is currently exploring the development of an incubator building for people working in the creative sector.

Jason Schupbach: Metro Boston has the advantage of having so many creative people in a relatively small area. We’re seeing a lot of “bump” or “spark” events that get all the creative people in a room to see what happens. Real collaborations and business deals are coming out of these meetings.

Elizabeth Padjen: One of the problems we often hear is that the creative people tend not to be joiners. Or they join organizations that were conceived of years ago that don’t recognize the sorts of blurry borders we are discussing here. If we have architects who are also doing textile design and Web design and God knows what else, there’s no God-Knows-What-Else Association for them.

Beate Becker: DIGMA [Design Industry Group of Massachusetts] addresses exactly that problem. It’s an association that’s been heavily supported by the state, with seed funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and the Boston Foundation — a significant investment in what they see as an emerging design cluster. DIGMA’s goal is to bring creative people together to create a common identity and voice, people who are unified by the fact they are all designers despite their individual skills and expertise.

Jason Schupbach: DIGMA is especially valuable because of the exposure it provides for the industry. Most people have no idea of the size or range of the design industry in Massachusetts or how many companies are right here doing amazing work. How many people know that Greater Boston is home to the second-largest product-design community in the country? Look at a firm like Continuum, which is based in West Newton, Massachusetts, with offices in Seoul, Milan, and Los Angeles. They have a billion-dollar product-design wall, with three or four products they designed that have made a billion dollars each.

Massachusetts is actively promoting entertainment-based industries, which the state Office of Business Development defines as film, TV, digital media, videogames, music, and publishing. Local institutional resources, such as WGBH, WBUR, MIT Media Lab, Emerson College, Berklee College of Music, and Mass College of Art and Design — among many others — have fostered a creative community that is at the forefront of new entertainment media. Above: Arthur. Creator: Marc Brown Studios; West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Image courtesy WGBH.

Massachusetts is actively promoting entertainment-based industries, which the state Office of Business Development defines as film, TV, digital media, videogames, music, and publishing. Local institutional resources, such as WGBH, WBUR, MIT Media Lab, Emerson College, Berklee College of Music, and Mass College of Art and Design — among many others — have fostered a creative community that is at the forefront of new entertainment media. Above: Arthur. Creator: Marc Brown Studios; West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Image courtesy WGBH.

Beate Becker: Visibility is a very important thing. Here’s one simple thing that could be done by the state: Terminal E at Logan Airport, the international terminal, is featuring an exhibition called “Science Swiss.” It consists of 25 panels of beautiful photographs and stories of scientists in Switzerland doing incredible work — everything from entomology to geology to genome projects. I walked down there and thought, Wow, this is beautiful graphic design, beautiful photography, beautifully written. All sorts of creative skills employed in the presentation of the stories of these scientists. And I said to myself, Why are the Swiss advertising in Boston’s Logan Airport? Why isn’t Massachusetts advertising Massachusetts creativity and industries in Massachusetts airports? We can make better use of existing resources to promote our Creative Economy.

Matthew Morrissey: There is another kind of visibility that also has enormous value, which comes through the film industry. There’s the promotional aspect, of course — tourists see Boston in a movie and want to visit. But just as important is the promotional aspect for the residents. New Bedford has had 15 shoots in the last 24 months — all of them small, for indies and cable. But the value for us isn’t so much in the money spent by the crews. It’s in the impossible-tomeasure pride the whole community feels when someone says you’re valuable enough to film. When you’re dealing with Gateway Cities that have been in a virtual depression for 50 years, you can’t overestimate the energy that is created. Film provides a validation — you’re cool! — that in itself promotes the Creative Economy.

Carole Walton: One of the things that we’ve done with the Create Boston program is to identify the creative industries in Boston that show significant growth potential. For the last three years, I’ve been focusing on the videogame industry, increasing awareness of Boston as a digital-media hub and laying the foundation for its continued growth. People are now viewing Boston as a videogame hub; there are currently about 76 companies located in and around Boston. We created the first game-industry steering committee, pulling in video companies from around the state, and convened focus groups to learn more about the challenges facing the industry. They told us that they needed a way to better communicate with each other and asked if we could develop a website. We applied for and received a grant from MCC to do just that.

When I listen to President Obama talk about green jobs and high-tech as a priority, I wonder why the Creative Economy isn’t being mentioned in that same context. A lot of it has to do with us not marketing ourselves properly, as an industry and as a place. Boston needs to re-brand itself as the fabulous, creative epicenter that we truly are.

Karl Baehr: If Boston’s really going to be a creative city, we’ve got to understand what’s important to these people who aren’t joiners. As a city, we need to be creative comprehensively. Not just in terms of infrastructure like roads and WiFi. We need to be creative with bureaucracy. We need to create an environment that we can market. Boston is one of the greatest cities for entrepreneurship in the country. The creative minds are here, but they leave. Why is that? Because we have yet to create this genuine creative environment that these folks are looking for. They’re looking for stimulation. They’re looking for individuality. They’re looking for openness. They’re looking for something beyond a job, something beyond even a career. It’s cultural.

Jason Schupbach: I would like to debunk the myth, though, that all creative people are outsiders. I think that’s almost completely false. If anything, they’re very interested in being part of a community of people who have similar interests. One reason why international companies are starting videogame companies here in Massachusetts is because we have the fourth largest gaming community here, and they want to be part of that community and connect with the talent that’s already here. It’s a highly networked community where everybody knows each other. That is what people are really looking for when they’re looking to be part of a creative industry.

Carole Walton: It’s important to remember that the whole gameindustry influx here was not organic. It was part of a definite strategic plan. All of a sudden Boston is seen as the premier location for videogame events, but that didn’t just happen overnight.

Elizabeth Padjen: What do people who are starting Creative Economy businesses want most? What do they ask for?

Carole Walton: They’re looking for affordable space. They’re looking for funding. They’re looking for an opportunity to be with other folks in creative industries who think the same way they do.

Jason Schupbach: The BRA has been really innovative on that front — it’s one of the few entities in the country that actually started a fund specifically to support Creative Economy businesses.

The connection between affordable, interesting space and the Creative Economy shouldn’t be overlooked. One linkage that would create enormous opportunity would be to lift the current $50-million limit on the historic-preservation tax credit. Matthew Morrissey

Carole Walton: We also have Marine Industrial Park, which is owned by the BRA, and right now we’re creating a cluster of creative businesses there. So we can give them space at an affordable price and get them all together in that environment.

Matthew Morrissey: The connection between affordable, interesting space and the Creative Economy shouldn’t be overlooked. One thing that the current state administration does very well is to understand linkages, and one linkage that would create enormous opportunity for the Creative Economy in cities outside Boston such as New Bedford would be to lift the current $50- million limit on the historic-preservation tax credit. When you look at the seven states that have uncapped historic-preservation tax credits, you see an enormous spike in investment capital. When you dig deeper, you discover that the Creative Economy is fueling a huge part of the demand for space in historic buildings — businesses and nonprofit offices, residences for the people who work in them, and services for the residents and businesses. I think we would see similarly enormous spikes here in terms of redevelopment of old mill buildings. I’m working on a 300,000-square-foot mill project right now that would house a printing and digital-media firm, a high-tech firm, and artist live/work space. About 200 jobs, many of them in the Creative Economy, would be brought in or created as a result. But holding all three of those interests together over a period of two or three tranches of funding under the current historic tax credit program might be too hard. No one’s fault — that’s the system. But if the cap were lifted now, that building would be filled.

Elizabeth Padjen: Except for Gateway Cities like New Bedford — the former mill cities of Massachusetts — this region is not known for affordable space or affordable housing. How can we be competitive relative to other regions of the country?

Beate Becker: If we’re debunking myths, I want to debunk the one that people leave because of affordability. Where do all these creatives go? They go to New York and San Francisco, which are not exactly havens of affordable real estate.

If you ask people what they need and why they move, the answer is jobs. Work is the real issue. It’s not just about educating creative people and getting them in a room together to generate a lot of ideas. If there is no market for those ideas, for those companies or products, then they can’t continue. That’s an issue that we’re especially seeing now, with creative industries taking a big hit in this economy. If people aren’t buying those services and those goods, it’s a problem. So it’s not just about growing the Creative Economy itself, it’s about growing the demand for the Creative Economy.

You do that in part by developing awareness of the added value that design can bring to an industry. Introduce designers to healthcare people and raise the issue of return on investment. What’s the value of design to healthcare? Ask Apple the value of design, or Procter & Gamble. That billion-dollar wall at Continuum? Continuum developed the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble. Getting the other industries here — healthcare, financial, bioscience, high-tech — to employ creatives is what will keep people here. We’ve got the talent. We need the work.

Massachusetts is considered a hub of footwear design. Brands with local presence include Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Clark, Stride Rite, and Saucony — as well as many smaller companies. The footwear industry employs many in-house designers, as well as independent product designers and footwear design consultants, who often also design for well-known fashion labels. Above: Puma Hawaii XT. Design: Puma; Westford, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Puma.

Massachusetts is considered a hub of footwear design. Brands with local presence include Reebok, New Balance, Puma, Clark, Stride Rite, and Saucony — as well as many smaller companies. The footwear industry employs many in-house designers, as well as independent product designers and footwear design consultants, who often also design for well-known fashion labels. Above: Puma Hawaii XT. Design: Puma; Westford, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Puma.

Elizabeth Padjen: And in fact, if you look at the websites of many local product-design firms, in addition to what you might expect — household goods, electronic devices, consumer goods — you will find an astonishing number of sophisticated medical devices, which is no accident.

Beth Siegel: That’s right. There are some fascinating crossovers, such as a company in the Berkshires that used to do computerized special effects for the movie industry that now employs 100 people doing medical simulations for the life-science industry.

Anita Walker: I also want to do a debunk. Every state worries about the brain drain. The fact of the matter is, young people move. One of the distinguishing features of the Creative Economy is that it’s highly mobile. It’s not agriculture, which is stuck in the ground; or fishing, which is stuck in the ocean; or oil wells, which are under the ground. You have to accept the mobility factor and work with it.

Nancy Fitzpatrick: I concur with Anita. I cringe every time I hear the president of Berkshire Community College say that we need to keep our young people in the Berkshires after they graduate, because I as an employer do not want to hire somebody to work at the front desk of Porches who’s never been anywhere else, who can’t get him- or herself down to New York and back. I think it’s great that new people come and young people go; they might come back and they might not. Mobility is something that we need to learn to value; we don’t necessarily want to keep people where they grew up. That’s almost un-American.

Elizabeth Padjen: In this economy, a number of people are launching businesses on their own, but what do they really know about entrepreneurship? It may even be worse for creative people, who often seem to believe that being creative and being successful in business is oxymoronic. On the other hand, the Creative Economy seems to present an opportunity to create a different business model — to work in very fluid ways that are outside traditional corporate structures. Karl, your students come to Emerson because they have a love for some kind of creative endeavor. How do they respond to the idea of entrepreneurship? How can we encourage creative people to think about the opportunities that they have in the business world?

Karl Baehr: The fundamental problem is that rule number one of business — “it’s business, not personal” — does not apply to an entrepreneur. It’s very personal. It’s not their business education that compels them to put their life savings into a business and work 15 hours a day, 12 days a week to make a go of it. What motivates them is the passion for an idea. And the moment that inherently right-brained, artistic, emotional element enters into the equation is when an entrepreneur can get off track. So you have to do the reverse: artists can already envision the house that they want to build, but you have to teach them how to use a hammer and nail, and when it’s appropriate to use a screwdriver, and what the pliers do. Those nuts and bolts — the law, management, learning how to network and partner, communication, finance — are all essential. Artist-entrepreneurs come to realize that, in order to make their vision become real, they need to learn these things, just as they need to learn how to use Pro Tools software if they’re musicians or a paintbrush if they’re illustrators. It’s the same creative passion; it’s just a different tool. And that makes it less foreign to our students. Our program is full, because our students realize that there is this thing called business out there that they need to understand.

This economy is a great time to be an entrepreneur, to be in charge of your own destiny. It’s especially true of those who are part of the Creative Economy. What better way to make your way in the world than by doing what you love and creating something, whether it is software or art or music? And understanding enough about how to navigate the waters of business allows you to do that. “Brain lateralization” is the technical term: it’s making the right brain work with the left brain, and learning how to shut off the right brain just long enough to say, Wait a minute, I’m injecting too much of my emotion into this; I need to think a little more critically. Because the passion can blind you.

Anita Walker: We can’t disconnect the Creative Economy from K-12 education. If we relegate children to rote memorization and high-stakes testing, they’re not going to be ready for the Creative Economy of the future. Increasingly we’re seeing art and music squeezed out of the curriculum in favor of high-accountability subjects. These kids will need to be both critical and creative thinkers, to be comfortable with ambiguity and with tackling a problem that doesn’t have a right answer and has never been solved before.

Jason Schupbach: Another important piece of the youth workforce-development picture is validation — helping parents understand that if their kids are interested in videogame development, for example, they can have a job in it someday. Sometimes people don’t know that these are real and, in many instances, high-paying [jobs]. Economic-development folks can create the jobs but we need people to fill them. We have some empty jobs locally in the Creative Economy even now. We can’t staff every firm that wants to come here.

Elizabeth Padjen: John Maeda, the new president of Rhode Island School of Design, said that one of his great challenges is dealing with the parents’ reaction to a kid who wants to go to art school.

Beth Siegel: It would really fill a gap if all the art, music, communication, and design schools got together and asked, “How can we help people understand the occupational opportunities?” — and then took that show on the road to high schools. Because, I can tell you, high-school counselors are not telling these kids about the career potential of these creative disciplines.

Arts & Minds (Part 1 of 4)

Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on August 19, 2009


Profiles in the Creative Economy: An economy isn’t about policy; it’s about people.

I spoke to four people who solve old problems with new methods, who discover old solutions to new problems. They are combining interests and information in innovative ways. In doing so, they are building new communities. None of this work happens in solitude. It all requires a critical mass of resources: intellectual, technical, economic, and artistic. While the reach of these enterprises is international, they are rooted in local communities that encourage cross-fertilization between different kinds of expertise, that find new paths for knowledge and intuition. Art and commerce are once again becoming more comfortable with each other. In this new atmosphere we are seeing the results of a convergence of these two basic human impulses. It is a whole new world.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: principal of Fabric Works, Thistle Threads, and Redefined, Inc.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen combines an undergraduate interest in anthropology and archaeology, an undergraduate degree and doctorate in materials science and engineering — work on optical devices and high-tech fibers — with a lifelong passion for needlework and a knowledge of historical embroidery. She operates three companies simultaneously: Fabric Works is an engineering consulting company focusing on product design; she has designed textiles for use by the military, and this year collaborated with Polartec to launch a heated jacket. Redefined, Inc. uses current technology to manufacture “sewing cards,” Victorian perforated papers used for crossstitch designs, which became too expensive to produce at the end of the 19th century. In her capacity as the founder of Thistle Threads, she designs reproduction threads and teaches historical embroidery techniques. She has served as a textile consultant to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is currently working with Plimoth Plantation.

Deborah Weisgall: You seem to combine your interests seamlessly, as it were: your scientific background, your interest in handwork, your historical knowledge. Expertise in one field flows into the other. How did this come about?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: My lives converged when I was asked to solve a problem of integrating situational awareness systems, which combine GPS, location of squad members, information about terrain, and physiological monitors into an electronic map, a “heads-up display” that can enhance a soldier’s ability to negotiate the surroundings, possibly using the field of electronic textiles. The natural solution was to route the cables through the fabrics they wore, instead of using plastic cables, which would be snag hazards. This is when I discovered the work going on in the not-yet-named field of electronic textiles. It was a natural for me, as I had optics, materials, systems, and high-tech textile experience. It was my knowledge of Victorian-era millinery that gave us the idea of making textile-based USB cables in a ribbon format; this led to my first manufacturing partners.

Because electronic textiles fuses two very disparate fields, everyone involved was at some disadvantage. As both an engineer and embroiderer, I could understand both technology bases. The engineers respected my ability to thread a needle, and people involved with the textile world trusted me because I could speak their language. I was stunned that when we met with the Army, my colleague would bring up my historic embroidery business as a technical qualification.

I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist.

And my technological edge has allowed me to distinguish my historical research because few art historians would approach the problems in the way an engineer would. I can sometimes clear my head and look at objects from the standpoint of “how and who” because I have both hands-on experience and the technological means to translate that experience into a new analytical technique.

In product development, you look for short-run manufacturing facilities that can make complex metal threads; I do the same thing — work with artisan manufacturers — in the historic threads area. Often the technique or calculations I do for one area can be immediately translated to the other. It’s important to understand product design and the economics of manufacturing. In the historic embroidery or restoration fields, the people who need new threads usually aren’t prepared to help the manufacturer develop a market that can justify the effort involved in making such a thread. I have founded several outlets for that kind of development, though, so I can help engineer the product and market it for hobbyists. Then I turn around and introduce some of them to the e-textiles field.

Deborah Weisgall: You proceed from the premise that art and science and commerce can coexist and reinforce each other.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Photo by Genie Posnett.

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I’ve realized that to make true progress when you don’t have a great number of resources at your disposal, you have to make art, science, and business coexist. I don’t see them as antithetical to each other. Let me give you an example: When I have to grapple with the problems of scaling-up and capitalizing a new thread, I start thinking about the inventory costs associated with the range of materials that go into making that thread. Weeks later, I see a piece of complex historic embroidery with as many as eight variants of complex composite threads — threads we have trouble making today — in about 10 color combinations each. Now, historians attribute this embroidery to 12-year-old girls. Knowing that these threads were made of expensive components, I start thinking about a 17th-century mercer [dealer in textiles] and his need to turn over inventory by selling to 12-year-old girls. Something just doesn’t jive. I think, maybe it wasn’t a girl, but a professional. Then I think about manufacturing on demand, and whether a small number of raw materials could be turned into such a large variety by using the spinning-wheel technologies they had available to them. Then I wonder again if we could use such techniques today to reduce the need for a range of reproduction materials by teaching hobbyists to make their own variants from simple components. And that leads me to make short runs of e-textiles threads to try out concepts for antennas in a costefficient manner. So commerce educates history, which, in turn, educates technology development. It’s synergistic, and usually it revolves around the reality of current and past economics.

Deborah Weisgall: How important to the success of your enterprises is the community in which you live — not so much the neighborhood, but the intellectual community?

Tricia Wilson Nguyen: I couldn’t be doing what I am doing if I didn’t live in such an entrepreneurial high-tech area that is also at a nexus of textile history. Many of my clients or producers are remnants of the textile industry in Massachusetts. Living close to them allows me to raise a family while keeping my engineering skills sharp. Also, the two most important collections in the US of the type of embroidery I research are within three hours of home, and England is only an airplane ride away. I often doubleup on business trips; I see a historic collection and research primary sources at libraries when I travel to teach embroidery or visit clients and manufacturing partners. When my husband and I were deciding where to live — we have the dual PhD problem — there were only five places that could support our fields. We chose Boston because we’d both gone to MIT. This fall, I’m guest lecturing at the Media Lab there — talking about 17th-century embroidery to an engineering group. I couldn’t do that type of cross-disciplinary work in most cities. Deborah Weisgall: You have taken what has been considered “women’s work” — though it was not in Tudor England — and added to it a technological dimension. How has that influenced your career? Tricia Wilson Nguyen: Certainly having a PhD from a hardcore engineering discipline has given me a level of credibility when discussing textiles and embroidery — something that has been debased and relegated to “women’s work” in the last 200 years. I try never to apologize for my feminine side. As a young woman, I made it in some of the toughest male-dominated situations: MIT, a PhD program, and leading a grueling military development program. I have my war wounds, and know how to turn someone who makes a snarky comment into an enthusiastic listener by adding just the right amount of serious tech talk. And often the men take my expertise in handwork more seriously than the women.

Photo (top) by Ted Curtin.