"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.