"I must confess, this workshop will take me way out of my comfort zone, " I sheepishly admitted to Tejo Remy, Dutch contemporary designer and partner at Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen, over coffee just before his workshop began. "That's the point," he said, "it's out of everybody's comfort zone!" The event, organized by Drexel's University's Mike Glaser, Program Director for the institution's new Product Design program, was led by Remy, who is known for his unique approach to furniture design using reclaimed and commonly-found materials. His works are carried by the famous Dutch distributor Droog design, and have become coveted pieces of high design. HIs latest work is currently on view at Industry Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Chest of drawers entitled "You Can't Lay Down Your Memory".
"Accidental Carpet" recycled blanket rug by Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen.
The 20 workshop participants, (12 students from a number of institutions along with 8 design professionals) put their everyday lives aside for 4 days in order to get a first-hand experience of Tejo's latest passion: the "impromolding" process, or improvisational molding using concrete as a medium.
Concrete chair by Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen. Image courtesy of Industry Gallery in Washington D.C.
I had the pleasure of being one of those participants, and learned to make strange pillow-like molds, bend reinforcement bar and wrestle with waist-high concrete mixers. The resulting concrete pieces were a remarkable testament to the power of getting one's hands dirty in an effort to explore unconventional materials and try something new, and included a flying quilt, a lounge chair and a space-aged teddy bear. They were all exhibited on the last day of the event in conjunction with a public lecture.
Monday: Learning to respect the material
"The material will tell you what it wants to do," was the advice that came from Tejo at the workshop's launch. He gave a brief slide-show introduction, and encouraged the workshop participants to dive in and start playing around with hand-made molds to get a feel for the process. Rather than using a more conventional design approach of sketching, planning and carefully strategizing an outcome, we were encouraged to experiment and get our first molds poured as soon as possible in order to gain a visceral understanding of the nature of the material. Concrete, Tejo warned us, will pull and flow and submit to gravity in ways that no other material will, and it was best to get a feel for it before getting too set on a particular design. The approach represented a "design doing" attitude, in contrast to the "design thinking" methods that have been the center of so much recent dialog.
Concrete in its liquid state.
Learning about the material through trial and error.
We used sand, wood, sewn plastic tarp, balloons, milk containers, nails, staples, sewing machines and whatever else was at hand to make the molds for our first creations. Throughout the process, from pouring, setting the mold, and removing parts we had to learn to contend with the awkward mass that is molten concrete. Pitching in to help one another craft structures and mix concrete was also part of the experience, and we ended the day with the satisfaction of having a number of pieces in process, their mud-like volumes settling into oddly-shaped containers and left alone to dry overnight. The next morning brought the joy of the first unveilings, complete with pleasant surprises and fantastic failures. We lined our creations up on the floor for immediate inspection and marveled at the details that emerged. "Look at how it flowed into the wrinkles here," said one participant. "I didn't expect it to look so pear-shaped," said another, who learned how gravity will pull and stretch the shape of the mold under the sheer weight of the molten concrete. The group that created and filled a mold of an upholstered pillow was pleasantly surprised to see that the pattern of the plastic tarp remained on the surface of the concrete, providing the illusion of being a fabric weave. We were all humbled by our discoveries, and embarked on the second day's activities with a new found respect for the challenges and potential beauty our material.
Experimental casting from the first day of the workshop.
Once we set our experiments aside, it was time to get serious and plan out the work that would be part of the show at the end of the workshop. For our final pieces, we were reminded of a recent article about Remy and Veenhuizen from The Washington Post (Saturday, March 27, 2010) which lists Robinson Crusoe as their "anti-Ikea hero and model". Remy is quoted as saying, "Everything around you can be used in a different way, to create your homemade paradise." Our challenge for the workshop was to think like Robinson Crusoe, that is, to envision ourselves stranded on a desert island with only a given set of tools and materials on which to rely (including the carefully chosen resources that Remy and Glaser had obtained before the workshop began). What was the essential item we could not live without, and how could we use concrete to recreate its essence? Our ragtag group of concrete novices would have just two and a half days to create a series of pieces worthy for exhibition to a crowd of design lovers and Tejo Remy fans. The heavy and clumsy nature of concrete led us to form loose affiliations and group structures so that every piece could benefit from collaborative effort, and given the limited amount of time we had to fulfill our challenge, we set to work immediately.
Workshop participants work in groups to manage the awkward weight of the concrete.
Once we all had decided on our concepts, the last days of the workshop turned into a blur of activity. We knew we all had a lot to learn about mold-making for concrete, but we had just two days to work out as many issues as possible and produce a finished piece. Five o'clock on Wednesday was the deadline for our final pour, and all our molds, jigs and pouring structures had to be in place by that time. We fretted over the mix ratio of concrete to water, as our first experiments proved this to be critical to the success and speed of the setting of the mold, and we worked furiously to put final details and reinforcements into place. As five o'clock rolled around, we took the plunge and start mixing, and as early evening turned into night, we poured the final globs of concrete into our molds. With sore muscles and the satisfaction of a hard day's work, we set our tools aside and crossed our fingers for success during the mold enveiling that would take place the following afternoon.
Thursday: The show
On the fourth and final day of the workshop, we could all say with confidence that we knew a great deal more than we did before about using concrete as a creative medium, a skill most of us never envisioned having before signing on for this challenge. Though our pieces were quietly setting in their molds, the day would include a carefully orchestrated series of tasks, from cleaning the cement residue in our workspace to planning the show layout and gathering the resources needed to move over a half a ton of finished concrete pieces from the studio to the gallery space.
By early afternoon, the moment of truth arrived, and after much anticipation, we began dismantling our elaborate structures and enclosures to reveal the final dried and solid pieces. We held our breaths to see which would crumble, have air bubbles, show unintended wrinkles, or any other series of unexpected and poorly-timed disasters. Luckily, most of the work was intact and there were just as many pleasant surprises and happy accidents as there were mistakes. The pieces included a pillow-like cylindrical lamp, a bulbous recliner lounge, a space-aged teddy bear and a crater-laden column. The piece that stole the show was a stunning, 5-foot long undulating quilt-like structure, poured into a long mold made of sewn tarp and laid to dry on a curved surface so that the resulting piece looked as if it were rising on its own in mid air. Created by real life partners, Jamie and Amy Montgomery, the work showed a fine attention to detail, a sensitivity to the nature of the concrete, and the desire to take full advantage of the lessons learned during the first day's experiments. An enormous beast of a mold, the floppy pillow of molten concrete required the help of half the workshop participants to wrestle into place.
Concrete quilt, as featured in the show.
Detail from the concrete quilt.
"Bulge" lounge, created during the Tejo Remy workshop, and featured in the workshop show.
Through another herculean group effort, the pieces were safely transported to the gallery space and the show was arranged just in time for the first gallery visitors to enter the space. The show was a hit, and the reception was followed by Tejo Remy's lecture, which helped to contextualize the impromolding process as part of his trajectory of studio exploration.
Though it's clear that none of us truly knew what we'd signed on for at the start of the workshop, we all emerged transformed, with the pride of accomplishment and the satisfaction of solid one-of-a-kind artifacts to remind us how hard we'd worked to get to that final moment. Whether or not we will ever work with concrete again, we each walked away with a new perspective on the process of object-making and design. In just 4 days' time, Tejo and his concrete taught us that:
- humble materials can surprise you with their beauty
- a great material decides what it will be
- form can be a reflection of a dynamic process
- courage and a leap of faith are the best design tools of all
For me, as a design professional who employs tried and true creative methods and processes, working outside my comfort zone proved to be a refreshing way to jump start my creative momentum. Reflecting on the week's work, I considered how strange it was to be working with concrete, a material that Tejo admits is usually the domain only of building contractors and construction workers. "Even though they can get it at any hardware store down the street, most people think it's a material for builders, and not something they're allowed to play around with, a 'Don't try this at home' kind of thing," he remarked. "I would like them to come away from this workshop thinking, 'Go ahead. Do try this at home,' so that they we question and try to appropriate every kind of material."
Carla Diana is a senior product designer at Smart Design where she works on a range of products from domestic robots to sentient kitchen appliances. She also maintains her own creative practice to explore the shifting roles of physical forms and digital spaces.