It's always easy to remember those moments when something deprives you of the shelter of your comfy preconceptions, and one in particular happened to me when I was at art school, talking to a lecturer. Rudy Leenders was teaching Advanced Sculpture at St. Martins, and he was a guy I frequently sought out since he always challenged me to think really hard about what I was doing. Suddenly, in the midst of my tortuous justification for whatever I was working on, he threw up his hands and turned to me and said, “I don't believe you guys — here we are — don't you get it? The 60s just happened! Free thought, free love, the whole counterculture explosion, and it turns out you guys are so effing moral!”
He was so right. My classmates and I had all been indoctrinated with such worthy propaganda — form followed function; truth to materials; art was a process; organic was superior to synthetic — and so forth and so on. As far as he was concerned, all of it was dubious since it all violated the first rule of art: there are no rules, and once you realized that, there were no other rules.
My generation grew up with Bauhaus; our art teachers were all products of their own education in pre- and post-war Britain, and the Bauhaus ethic in our art education was pervasive. The reason I bring this up is because I could easily say that everything about the Wave Wall we here at Atomic Design created for the James River Assembly of God was a perfect embodiment of form following function, but it would be a lie. It began one morning when I drew two pencil lines on a sketchpad — at the top, a sine wave and another below it with the peaks and valleys interchanged. It was form first, and function was nowhere in consideration. Though it turned out to be perfectly functional, the idea started right there with my taking two lines for a walk, which, incidentally, is how the painter Paul Klee described what he did, and he actually was a member of the Bauhaus — go figure.
I love how repetition of a simple form quickly leads to a gratifying visual complexity. Among my influences are wallpaper design and Islamic tiles — you can't get much more superficial than that! Okay, that's a long way to explain how what started simple quickly became complex, and how even the process of taking the simplest idea into the real world can be an incredibly complex undertaking.
So there I was staring at this scrawl and thinking, “This is the answer, but does it actually work?” The first step was to get it into the computer, model it, and see if it turned out the way I thought it might. Mike Rhoads, a fellow member of our team at Atomic Design and a gifted designer in his own right, managed to figure out a way to illustrate the form in SketchUp so we could look at it, and yes, it seemed to be a winner. From that point, we were able to show it to the client, and instead of — as we imagined — going through a difficult explanation of what this thing really looked like, how it could work, and whether it was right for a church sanctuary, the Pastor, John Lindell, immediately got his head around it and exclaimed, “Yes I like it! Let's do it!”
Even before I drew two lines on a page, they had given me a few functional pointers. The church, a large curved auditorium in Ozark, MO with a wide Sanctuary stage, was built several years ago and conceived to incorporate some traditional elements into a more forward-thinking structure, so while the congregation was aware that it was undoubtedly a modern evangelical building, there was a baptistery, a stained glass window, and a choir to provide some religious resonance. They wanted a smooth transition between those traditional touchstones and a more modern auditorium concept, which reflected the multiple uses of the church. In other words, they needed to close off the more traditional “church” for the more performance-orientated events for which they were often using the space.
I knew once the client said yes, my form needed to become functional. I was a little scared by the prospect, knowing that to take my simple idea and make it something that would stand up to years of use, work perfectly, and be simple to operate was not an easy road and not inexpensive either. My fear was that once they knew what it would cost to do it properly, there'd be a fall back position where the budget would be cut, and no one would really be happy with the outcome. But then we put in a price, and it was approved at a level where we knew that we could go for the best result, and that is the outcome a designer dreams of but very rarely achieves.
The concept I'd come up with had become seven double-sided, 1' deep and 9' wide panels that could collapse when lifted and expand when lowered. So we had a viable form; it could concertina; we knew what it looked like — easy enough to mock it up and staple fabric panels between plywood forms, but that was just the scenic answer. We needed to approach it from a more architectural point of view. Luckily, at a trade show I'd recently attended, I'd seen a piece of double-sided awning track extrusion which would hold fabric that had a flexible plastic rod sewn or welded on its top edge and bottom, known as a “keder.” Now, if we could put it through a pipe bender, this way and that, it would work just fine. But no, of course it wouldn't — you couldn't bend the piece back and forward to any tolerance, and the bender crimped the slot so that the keder weld on the fabric wouldn't track through it reliably. At this point, I'd walked across the street from our offices in Lititz, PA to Tait Towers where Adam Davis was helping me with my enquiries. Adam has been there for some years now and has ably filled Michael Tait's very big shoes. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon's theatre program is proof that lightning can strike twice and another engineering genius is in place at Tait, not only fulfilling Michael's legacy but also carving out his own reputation as a consummate solver of problems and all-around nice guy.
I showed Adam the extrusion, and we both knew that it was the right answer. Our first attempt at reproducing it was to cut an inner groove on a ply form on the CNC router and complete it with a flat stock trim that could be bent around the curves and bolted in place. However, the result looked way too industrial and somehow vaguely heavy metal — definitely the wrong vibe. Plus the trim edges caused abrasions on the fabric, which now would not stand up to long-term use. I felt we had the right fabric, inherently fireproof with just enough stretch to be wrinkle-free when deployed so that was something I wasn't too keen to change. Adam suggested that we cut a two-part track out of solid aluminum to replicate the keder track. It was a huge investment in CNC time and a labor-intensive process, but there was little doubt it was the right answer. When we assembled the prototype, what had been a clunky, bolt-studded band was now transformed into a very sexy polished aluminum bead, snuggled between shiny soft silvery fabric panels. All that was left was to make lots of it and have Tait provide the motorized winch system to raise and lower our creation. The winches were the least of my worries. After all, it's the kind of thing that Tait Towers has a worldwide reputation for engineering.
Once the seven units were assembled, we went off to a local high school theatre with enough headroom to allow us to prep the units and set the limits. The trick was to allow the fabric to just reach a point where it would stretch out smooth but not be stressed. The thing I'd been stressing most about — how the fabric would look as it gathered when the frames concertina'd — turned out to be the least of our worries. The material folded beautifully into natural pleats as the frames were raised.
Finally, we shipped the panels to Ozark where we installed the units, began to play, and explore the potential of the look. The whole point of what I do is not just to design the form, but to design a form that will take light in lots of different and interesting ways. And here's where Jeff Cranfil and his company, SES, came into the picture. Actually, they'd been part of the initial process, since they recommended us to the client. Concurrently, while we had been building our panels, Cranfil had been installing curtain track and repositioning lights. Meanwhile, the church had employed a construction crew to prep the building ready for the install. Over the course of a few days, we installed the panels, ran the winches, and started to explore some lighting looks. By the second day of lighting, we knew that we'd done something very special. The pieces revealed themselves capable of many moods. Lit from 10' away with a few PARs, and they were soft and billowy. Lit obliquely top and bottom with moving lights, and they were vivid and exciting. We had done some tests early on in the process but nothing prepared me for how beautiful these panels looked when lit. Of course, a lot of that is down to Cranfil's talent and vision once he began to see what was working, but ultimately, it's all about the form, and I'll be honest — truth to my materials — I got very lucky!
I hadn't expected that something I consider amongst my best work would be in a church in Missouri, but I feel I'm in good company. After all, Le Corbusier, another icon of our 60s education, with a whole career as an architect, philosopher, and artist, is best known for a tiny church in a remote corner of France. Of course, I don't aspire to any such greatness, but it's a comforting thought.