BY BRIAN LIBBY
In recent years as the economy has boomed and busted, a lot of architects have had to reconsider their careers, with many leaving the profession for a variety of other jobs. Some designers, though, have retooled how they approach design to incorporate a greater array of skills, everything from the broad concept planning that prefigures architecture to the small details that can make a project sing.
It's in this latter category that we find Fieldwork Design & Architecture, a Portland firm that has gained notoriety for its combination of architectural design and craftsmanship. For example, the firm won three awards at last week's IIDA (International Interior Design Association) Design Excellence Awards for projects like their West Hills Residence, a branding wall for Nike, and in a consulting role on Hennebery Eddy's nod for a corporate client project.
Fieldwork Design's three leaders—architects Cornell Anderson and Tim Fouch and interior designer Tonia Hein—don't act as general contractors, like some combination design/build firms do. Instead, their architecture studio is attached to a workshop where an array of wood, steel and aluminum pieces are made. Some become furniture, while other pieces comprise architectural details from doors to accent walls. Besides the final pieces themselves that make it into Fieldwork's projects, the shop is also a place to explore prototypes and test ideas, as well as to always keep fresh the relationship between design and making.
A nine-person firm with five designers and four fabricators, Fieldwork reminds me a little bit of boat makers. I've never spent a lot of time on the water, but it seems to me when I look at the insides of sailboats and other craft that every inch of the interior has been thought about carefully, both in terms of its materials and especially in its maximization of space. With Fieldwork's portfolio there seems the possibility to really unify architecture and interiors in a compelling way.
Recently I sat down with Fieldwork's triumvirate to discuss their process and product.
Portland Architecture: How did the idea of combining architecture and fabrication come to you?
Hein: Our first big project that we started collaborating on was a project for [footwear company] Keen, because there was a lot of different interior design work and custom furniture and fabrication. Then the three of us had this vision to really offer this as a service.
Fouch: It made sense as a business particularly as architecture was starting to crumble [during the recession]. It seemed like another leg in the stool of the architecture profession that had gone missing. Number one, we love it and it’s informative to the design. Number two, there’s this other side to the business, where if architecture is a little lean we can focus on making things, and if we’re not making a lot of things we can focus on our architecture practice.
Your work often goes beyond custom furniture with details such as an accent wall Fieldwork did for Nike and your new Tender Loving Empire store on Hawthorne Boulevard. Could you talk about that genesis?
Hein: The idea with Nike was to come up with this kind of branded identity at different scales and levels, like a lobby staircase wall. We collaborated with Workplace Brand Design on the design and then did all the prototyping.
Fouch: Literally last night we were working on the drawings for some built-in furniture and displays at Tender Loving Empire, and you can see the piece is being worked on in the shop right now. The dialogue is immediate. We can say, ‘This looks like an interesting direction.' Let’s try it.’
Hein: Whereas in the traditional setting you’d send that shop drawing out and four weeks would go by. Now it’s within a day or within minutes we can mock it up.
Fouch: And the client gets excited because people are interested now in process and how things get done. They can actually see it happening and give feedback as well. They often have really good ideas. Everything is totally baked in all the way through.
Is it mostly wood that you work with, or a lot of other materials too?
Fouch: We have welding capability; there are steel fabrication saws back there too. We’ve been using a lot of wood, but it really depends on the project.
It’s refreshing to see you embracing traditional fabrication, but do you utilize things like 3D printing as well?
Fouch: I’d say we’re a little more low tech. We like using our hands. That’s not to say we couldn’t incorporate 3D printing. But we actually enjoy the physical making of things. The clients appreciate that as well.
Where did that interest come from? Were you building things in the garage as kids with your dads, or as teenagers in shop class?
Fouch: I grew up in Colorado across the street from this truck driver who also had a cabinetry shop. He’d go out trucking and then would be home for five days or something. My parents pushed me out the door and said, ‘You’re going to go to Steve’s house and work.’ So I kind of picked that up early on. I was always comfortable in a shop environment. But I also think all of us have had that experience too where we’re designing furniture and there has been that kind of missing link between designing and making has been a little frustrating.
How do your fabrication and design work influence each other? Could you talk about process a little bit?
Anderson: Most of our projects there’s an overlap between the design and fabrication. Some are very heavily fabrication and some are heavily architecture and interiors, but there’s always some sort of overlap. I think people come to us for that reason. In terms of process, we can work on details really until the last minute, versus being in a studio and handing it off somebody. There’s a direct connection between designing and making and figuring the details out.
Are there certain types of projects conducive to this? I’d imagine it would tend to be smaller-scale projects like residential or retail, but I’d suppose a large project could benefit from that too, right?
Fouch: So far it has lent itself to smaller projects, because they’re lower risk for clients. But I think we would like to be doing larger projects, and we have some in process now. I think the formula still applies on a bigger scale because we may be doing multiples [of furniture or other architectural details], but those multiples make it even more crucial that you go through prototyping, and have a super-disciplined approach to how things are built and how they look. It’s really a studio approach: it’s not like the architecture is developed, then the interiors happen and then the furniture. I think we can take whatever design vocabulary is developed in the architecture if that’s where it starts, and take it all the way through down to a little side table, or something on a table-top. That can all be thought about in approach, so all those design moments have value. I think what happens on a lot of larger projects is you have an architect that designs it, and maybe they do some of the interiors and someone else does some, and furnishings are ordered from somewhere else. We’re thinking about it a little differently, where it’s all part of the design process.
How does that apply itself in a project like the West Hills Residence, which you won an IIDA award for?
Anderson: It was kind of an in-between. We were the architect and interior designer and took on a typical role. But for instance, we did a custom wine cellar. One of our interns actually went back in the shop and built a mockup so we could test things out. You’ve got cabernet bottles and pinot bottles, which are different sizes.
Fouch: First-world problems.
With the tractor shed, besides the materiality I enjoyed the simplicity of form. It recalls the agricultural vocabulary but feels crisp. And I loved just the fact that somebody wanted architects to design a tractor shed. What was the story?
Fouch: The client was definitely someone interested in architecture. He’s educated in urban planning. He asked that his name be withheld, but it’s definitely an audience for architects. He’s savvy. But again, that’s not to say that your average farmer or agricultural landowner couldn’t be just as savvy. It’s the right client. And we have a great staff here. It’s taken a little time but I think we’ve attracted a great mix of people here who are interested in doing really good work but also in taking it all the way through.
Does the focus on crafting and making the details in any way lead you to a simple architectural language? Or is it more about adapting to the needs of each project? Are there any identifiable characteristics to Fieldwork’s work?
Anderson: We’re very interested in editing our work, so it becomes about the materials, and it becomes about the details that you interact with, the tactility of it, and engaging those senses.
Fouch: I guess if we don’t see a reason for something being in there we take it out. But then it’s putting money into having a beautiful cedar ceiling and wall versus a more complicated form.
Fouch: Being a small firm, we’ve been up against it big-time with budgets and timelines. So I think those force you to be very shrewd. If you have a move, you’d better make it worthwhile, and that’s going to be it.
Let's talk about some of your upcoming projects, like an ADU you're working on.
Fouch: Its' an ADU in Northeast Portland, super tiny. It’s on the property lines. They can’t increase the footprint of the two-car garage that was there. It will literally be a mother-in-law unit. There’s a murphy bed that stores in the wall. We’re thinking about how the furniture nests together. A bay window becomes a table. The Murphy bed goes up.
It reminds me of the inside of a sailboat.
Fouch: A lot of people have made that comparison to a boat. And we want it to feel special, because it’s very small. We don’t just want to throw some cabinets in there and say, ‘Good luck.’ We want it to feel very special.
And you're also doing a new store for record label and retailer Tender Loving Empire. Can you discuss that a little?
Fouch: It's in the old Noah’s Bagel space. It’s architecture, interior design, furniture. They had this very DIY, very Portland ethic. But I think it’s becoming more sophisticated. You can’t just salvage something, screw legs on it and it’s cool. You actually have to do something with it. So there’s a little recording studio, and a machine that will be embedded in the wall where you can cut your own record. And they want it fast. Which is why having the shop here is great. We can collapse schedules a little bit. When you’re fighting for days, it’s huge.