Woodshedding to Spark Inspiration
Recently, a large group of us at SERA sat down for lunch together and discussed what it takes to create valuable and innovative design. Two main threads emerged. First, thoughtful design takes time where true mindfulness can be engaged at a deep level; time where all of our knowledge and skills can be carefully applied to their fullest. Second, good design requires an abundance of personal energy, forged through a blend of open-minded inspiration, unabashed playfulness, and dogged persistence.
To this point about energy, every designer summons and sustains their creativity from different sources. Sometimes it’s through cultural or philanthropic engagement with their broader community, sometimes it stems from getting out into nature as an explorer or thrill-seeker, and sometimes it comes from delving into passion projects that parallel with our daily career duties.
My own little side venture with some fellow designer friends is called the WoodShed Collaborative, an open collective of designers spread across San Francisco and Portland, that experiments with ideas and installations on the scale of art, architecture and urbanism.
WoodShed comes from woodshedding which is a jazz term used to describe the practice of stealing away to hone your chops; this is the time and place where one can really develop their craft outside of gigging (performing). Our WoodShed is inspired by this act of sharpening one’s skills and teasing out new inspiration in a channel parallel to the mainstream of our careers. In the words of jazz scholar Paul Klemperer, “You…have to take your ax in hand, go to the woodshed, and chop that wood before you can light the fire.”
The WoodShed’s latest venture has been the design and construction of a project called Active Rest, a sidewalk installation conceived to help reinvigorate San Francisco’s Market Street. As the duality in the name implies, Active Rest strives to be multivalent, allowing any number of roles or activities to be played out simultaneously. Active Rest is part sculpture, climbing wall, performance backdrop, landmark or beacon, combined with veiled interiorized space for respite, reflection, and privacy. Inspired by the entrancing and sinuous strata evident in the geologic spectacles of the west, Active Rest is composed of hundreds of layers of strata that warp and curve to create exterior climbing and exploration surfaces along with enveloping interior spaces.
Beyond being able to support a multitude of activities, Active Rest is designed to be rapidly deployed (and just as easily disassembled and redeployed somewhere else if needed). The steel structural system does not require an attachment at the base, so no foundation necessary, and it is built in such a way as to allow for non-destructive reusability, making it ideal for a city looking to spice up a particular spot relatively quickly and inexpensively.
This past April, Active Rest emerged as a reality at San Francisco’s unique and thought-provoking Market Street Prototyping Festival giving any passerby the chance to stare, touch, climb on, or just chill out with our geoformic oddity. Our piece joined over 30 other selected installations, each one of them designed to help activate the city by getting citizens and visitors to interact and reinvigorate a mighty but neglected streetscape.
Organizers encouraged each team to leverage the use of rapid prototyping technology to test ideas and assist in the final development of the prototype itself. To this end, we fabricated Active Rest almost entirely using a pair of CNC mills, which swiftly and accurately cut 120 sheets of plywood into the 1,500 unique plywood pieces that form the body of the piece. Special software was used to layout the pieces onto sheets as tightly as possible to minimize waste.
Moving further, we envision a potential future where this type of rapid prototyping process could enable any city or other sponsor from around the world to download a digital kit of parts, send it to their own nearby fabricator, and deploy it using locally-sourced materials. Shipping of physical materials would be minimized considerably, further honing its economic and ecologic sustainability.
An especially fun part of this journey has been to see how our ideas forged out in the WoodShed have augmented my own design energy back here at SERA. And I’m not alone. Many of us are engaging in outside explorations and then reintroducing that experience back into the office. This hybridity between unconstrained creativity and mindful professional practice is creating ripe conditions so that our most vibrant, and hopefully innovative, ideas can emerge.