Up to Our Eyeballs in Crates

The sound of industry is eerily silent in our part of the world. The big boats and cranes that define the Port of Oakland are listless. And others up and down the West Coast are largely inactive due to a spate of work stoppages and contract negotiations. Container ships are stacking up in the harbor with no place to unload or fill up. It reminds me of the surreal spectacle of hundreds of enormous ships dead in the water off the coast of Singapore during the 2009 financial crisis. It’s not that bad, but this time it has hit home in a more personal and spatial way.

We have been trying to ship a completed sculpture to Singapore for over six weeks now. The correspondence with our shipping agent is nearly comical:

“Not sure what is going to happen.  ILWU/PMA announced a tentative agreement on Friday.  On that basis – the ILWU was hired for work on the weekend.  PMA had shut them out weekends and nights for the past two weeks.

On Sunday – the ILWU all took a break at the same time – prompting the terminals to fire all Union Labor.

The Union still has to vote on the contract.  If they accept – we should start seeing some improvement.  Not sure how quickly – but will keep you advised.  I suspect March 2 may be ambitious.  I’m beginning to think at least another week and maybe two.”

We have no real sense of when the crates might leave. They’re too big for planes and they could ship very soon. Or not. And so, we have six very large crates underfoot while we’re in the thick of building another project. Each morning, we perform an absurd ballet: we forklift crates into parking spaces outside or stack them here and then there and then move them back to their original location. It’s maddening. It derails our work and upsets our client’s plans. Grrrrr. And all the while, the unions bluster and management pretends at impassivity.

Stop parking your crate in my spot!

Stop parking your crate in my spot!

Oh, don't mind those two large boxes there. Or the two behind you. Or the one in the back. Oh, yeah. There's one outside as well.

Oh, don’t mind those two large boxes there. Or the two behind you. Or the one in the back. Oh, yeah. There’s one outside as well.

Sooner or later, we’ll still saddle-up and head across the waters to install this sculpture. We’ve become awfully fond of the piece and each day makes us a little more expectant. Let’s just hope this all breaks soon. Until then, here are some early model photos of what lies ahead:

View upon entering the room.

View upon entering the room.

Staring at the ceiling.

Staring at the ceiling.

View along the length.

View along the length.

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Back in Play

Even though we’re up to our gills in work, it feels like ages since we’ve installed a project. So before disappearing into the wormhole again, we wanted to post a couple of photos of a project that we just completed for a new Hong Kong residential tower. It’s our second collaboration with Swire Properties, the developers with whom we worked on the Frank O. Gehry building. It was a quick affair with a team of six, powered by Japanese energy drinks, Vietnamese pho, and a dizzying array of chocolate treats.

Matt up in the boom futzing.

Matt up in the boom futzing.

A view of the sculpture as it peels away from the balcony's glass balustrade.

A view of the sculpture as it peels away from the balcony’s glass balustrade.

Jenn and Matt preparations for the next lift.

Jenn and Matt make preparations for the next lift.

Happy Kaitlin makes some final adjustments with a dental tool.

Happy Kaitlin makes some final adjustments with a dental tool.

Jennifer commands the "Airman scissor tank."

Jennifer commands the “Airman scissor tank.”

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What’s Afoot at NWS

Hi, this is Emily. Since we haven’t posted in a while and I actually have some pretty cool things to share, I’m commandeering the blog today. Who am I and what do I do here? I spend my days managing how we engage with the outside world – talking to new clients, staying in touch with architects and designers, and organizing investigatory trips to distant lands. Generally, letting the world beyond our doors know that we exist. So, I’m excited to tell you about two recent events that put us in the public spotlight.

This month, we’re featured in the Art and Design issue of 7×7, a San Francisco-centric magazine. [Article PDF[Article Link] The photo editor, Jodi Nakatsuka, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Nik’s work and has been putting us under the noses of her editors, looking for the right time to showcase the work. The current feature article is great with lots of photos and some good background information. I’m not sure how I feel about the quotes. They kind of make Nik sound a bit full of himself. I mean, he has enough of an ego to keep this endeavor going, but he by no means thinks he’s an Art God. But who am I to critique positive publicity. We’re grateful to 7×7 and thrilled to have the work seen by people out in the public sphere.


On a broader public note, we took home some gold in New York last week! I’ve always got my eye out for competitions we can enter, but until recently I couldn’t find one we were suited for. I mean, what do we really do anyway? Sometimes Nik says he’s a designer. Other times he refers to himself as a sculptor or an engineer. Long story short, we’re in a pretty niche market. Architectural competitions say we don’t meet the criteria and interiors competitions don’t have a category that suits us. So I was thrilled to hear about the “Judges’ So Cool” category of the 33rd Annual Gold Key Awards sponsored by Boutique Design and Hotels magazines. The competition was part of a large hospitality design and trade event at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. I entered a recent project we did in Hong Kong thinking whether we won or not it would be great to have our work seen by the esteemed panel of judges.


When I learned we were finalists, I told Nik that the winners would be announced at a gala award event in New York. I had somewhat predicted Nik’s response, so when his eyes were on the ascending arc of the anticipated eye roll, I jumped right in with, “I know, not really your kind of thing so why don’t I go.” So I was off to a gala event and a few vacation days in New York. Nice perk. And if I could bring home an award, all the better. It was the last award of the evening and when they put images of our project up on the screen, the whole room oohed and ahhh-ed. I blushed under the dimmed lights and wished the rest of the team were there to hear it too.

As the winners were announced each recipient went on stage to accept their award and take a photo, but there were no acceptance speeches.

So, as long as I have the floor now, here’s what I would have said…

“The Artworks at Nikolas Weinstein Studios are 100% Nikolas but the figuring out, the making, the business, and all the rest is the group effort of Nikolas and a bunch of really committed, talented, unique, and hard-working people.  And even though he’s not here tonight, I’d like to thank Nikolas for always using the pronoun “we” when talking about his work and the studio.”

And also as long as I have the floor, I’ll let you know that we just got a small project in Russia (a new country for us), and will be installing artworks in Jakarta and Shenzhen soon. And this summer, we’ll install a very large piece in Singapore. So my plan for World Domination by Art is shaping up quite nicely.

Boutique Design article about Gold Key Awards is here.

Posted in Nan Fung Sha Tin, People | 2 Comments

Join Bag

Over the past several years our digital documentary archive has ballooned. Moore’s Law posits that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. Butter’s Law of photonics says that the amount of data pumped through optical fiber doubles every nine months. Our library’s growth rate is somewhere in between. We have added more than 32,000 photographs of building, thinking, failing, experimenting, and executing artworks in the last two years. Video chews through storage at an even more alarming rate.

And so, one sunny Tuesday afternoon I sat down with Emily and Arlen to assess the bloated video catalog. Half of us have no idea what we’re doing with a camera and the other half have too much else to do. Consequently, the real gems are scattered amidst an overwhelming amount of trash. As a test case, Arlen had run through footage from our fall installation in Hong Kong. He seemed a tad forlorn; the task of cobbling together compelling snippets was admittedly daunting. But he did perk up when he offered to show us one in particular: nothing more and nothing less than Steve Cipoletto, our very own diamond in the rough, caught at the beginning of an especially tough day on-site in Hong Kong.

I don’t think the clip needs more of a setup than a brief sampling from his wondrous professional resume before he joined our team: book binder, florist, master painting restoration and conservation assistant, bronze worker, teacher at the Santa Barbara Rock & Roll Academy, bar back, and typewriter technician as well as beloved grandson to Dominic Alfonso of Domco Business Machines in Jersey City, NJ. In this featured clip, Steve is caught at the beginning of an especially tough day on-site.

And if the spirit moves you, get to know Steve better still by watching the video of his singing cameo with Joey Ramone at the now defunct club Coney Island High. He makes his appearance at 1:38 in the timeline. Thereafter he stage dives.

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CCA Lecture

I will be giving a lecture on the evening of Wednesday, February 13, at the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts. Here is a link to the event.

I will mostly be speaking about the trouble we get ourselves into here at the shop. Although I repeatedly lull myself into believing that things will be relatively straightforward and manageable, our projects are spectacularly complex. There will be many examples of my unbridled optimism and my team’s ceaseless efforts to rescue me.

Among other things, I will be discussing some of our more recent work which includes a new installation in Hong Kong, continuing investigations into using glass as “fabric,” and the Weavilator AS2013.

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A Glimpse Into Our world

We just received the first transmission from our advance duo that is preparing to install a new artwork in Hong Kong. We typically send these probes to make sure that the site is  good to go before deploying the balance of our crew (seven more people to be exact).

I typically find myself waiting for this first communication with something akin to holding one’s breath. Considering that each piece that we build consumes thousands of hours and gestates over a period of some eighteen months, I am always a tad giddy and somewhat anxious during this limbo.

And it is in these moments of suspended expectation that I find my team’s unusual character particularly refreshing. Instead of some mundane assessment or an email detailing how exhausted they are after the flight around the world, I am certain to receive something far more colorful and idiosyncratic. In this case, it is dear Arlen who chimed in first by issuing the following salvo. For those of you who are less than hip and perhaps pushing on in years like myself,  his entrée of “tl;dr” means “too long; didn’t read” and is a delightfully cynical quip that almost augments the comedy of the hyper-technical summary that ensues:

Subject: Wheels down.

tl;dr: we have internet in spades. the hotel is nice.

Got a SIM. There’s a 7-11 in the Sha Tin MTR Station Mall. Super easy to get to, unlike certain countries that will not be mentioned. You do need to do the whole APN config thing, which I can help you with.

I’ve got 4G seems to be plenty fast. SMS to the US is ~$0.25/ea, phone calls appear to be $0.03/min to HK or US, which seems insane, but I could be reading this wrong.

Ari and I are sussing out reasonable places to eat and the hotel seems great so far. Steve, you’ll be glad to know the minibar is comped. Unclear on exactly how the laundry works, but there’s some amount of free laundry. The in-room wifi is super easy to set up on any number of devices. It’s a little late at night, but I’m pushing 17Mb/s symmetric with a 5ms ping (!). Pinging the shop shows a TTL of 52, 1% packet loss, 210ms ping. Not bad for trans-pacific.

We should set up an rsync to Pixie [shop server] to back up photos and such as we shoot them.

Thanks for lining up the hotel stuff, Jennifer.

MUJI, UNI QLO, H&M and other fine retailers with fewer capital letters are within spitting distance of the hotel, you might as well not bring nice clothing.

That’s about it, I’m gonna pass out. I’ll be up around 0700 HK time. Ari and I are going to have breakfast here and head to the site.


Welcome to my world and what makes it tick, and to those who make it tock.

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Handful of Salt Strikes Again

Our friends over at Handful of Salt have posted another little story about our work with the US Commerce Department (They ran one a while ago that can be seen here). I particularly liked their lead-in quote from Reagan, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” That was most certainly not our experience.

Their blog is about trying to redefine “craft” in a more modern and innovative way. This has always been a problem for those of us who feel saddled with the disparaging associations that some people have with this term. I stand accused as I sometimes associate glassblowers with a vagabond troupe of drug-addled slackers. Here’s to their mission (Handful of Salt, not the addled slackers). As always, Godspeed. Fight the good fight.

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Our dear Emily was recently contacted by a graduate student that interviewed me several months back as part of his thesis research. She read the forwarded transcript and was prompted to remark, “You know, as much as I’ve heard you speak over the past six years, this is probably the most interesting stuff you’ve said.” Of course, this registers as one of the finer back-handed compliments I’ve been served in quite some time. The cockles of my heart are duly warmed!

So without further ado, here is an excerpt from the interview:

This is an abridged transcript of a conversation between Nikolas Weinstein and Aaron Willette, a graduate student in the Masters of Science in Architecture, Digital Technologies, and Material Systems program at the University of Michigan on February 20, 2012.

Aaron Willette:  In your work does the tool become an active player in the design process? I’m personally interested in the idea of machines and software participating in the design process rather than just being a production tool.

Nikolas Weinstein:  We’re a top-down as well as bottom-up practice. By that I mean we usually don’t try and figure out what we can make for a space based on what we already know how to do. I’d say design is the principal driver. But at the same time it’s an iterative process where we’ll come up with an idea and then try and figure out how to make it; the technological constraints and possibilities push back and change the design and it keeps going back and forth.

Frei Otto is an obvious example of someone designing and doing a lot of monkeying around in the studio, trying things and letting the design evolve based on what he’s learned. That’s probably a pretty good description for how we work here. I obviously like technology a lot and we use it here a lot, but the technology is not really a part of the final piece. It allows the final artworks to be produced but it’s not a subject of the finished sculptures.

I’d say that here the way that the technology plays itself out is that the final pieces are expressions of the problems we find interesting. If we come up with or encounter a weird process or a cool mistake we’ll try to understand it better and play with it. To that extent the technology drives some of the design, but it’s really secondary. A very important element, but still secondary.

AW: Your studio is the only precedent we’ve been able to find for someone doing similar work with these [types] of technologies.

NW:   There’s a company called North Sail that does stuff like this and there are technical precedents in the auto industry for forming windshields with a type of pin mold.

AW:   At what level do you personally engage with the technology in the design process?

NW:   When we were a smaller shop and everyone was less competent, I was more principally involved throughout the whole project. Now that we have a strong team and they know my shtick, a lot of the projects are informed more by whom I have working for me than the technologies I’m interested in. The projects tend to develop around core competencies. If we’re strong at one point in a mechanical mode of thinking, the projects tend to develop around solutions that are mechanical. If we’re strong in coding, a lot of the solutions will tend to develop around that. We’re usually doing a couple of projects at once so the structure of the studio is probably more like a traditional professional arts studio where you’ll have a design director, like me who articulates the aesthetic intent and technical approach, and project managers, who help the project through logistics and completion.

AW:   Now that you’ve invested the time to develop and explore these digital processes, how often are you or your team working without them?

NW:   Most of the processes that we come up with are never completely controlled solutions and I’m not really interested in creating completely controlled solutions. As a designer, I don’t find the idea of developing an idea and then exactly producing it overly interesting. I’m not interested in making projects that are exactly rendered in the computer and then exactly expressed. For example, technologies like rapid prototyping don’t interest me beyond their use to make a component to work with. I tend to think of most of the projects we do as setting up a sculptural ecosystem along with the rules that govern that ecosystem.

It’s helpful to think of it like a closed terrarium where there are some basic laws of physics and a couple of different organisms that you lock up in a box. Once you’ve defined those parameters, you control the rules of the game but you don’t control what the outcome is. However, I’m not interested in it in the same way that Brian Eno or John Cage would be interested in it. I don’t find the idea of random play interesting in itself.

In 19th century literature, there was a school called Naturalism where you would choose your characters and consider their attributes – —the novel itself was putting those characters…. Click here to read the full transcript.


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Come in, Tokyo, Over?

Having successfully completed the first half of their mission in Hong Kong, our faithful documentarian, Michael Weber, and his crew touched down in Tokyo to photograph our first installation in Japan. The artwork is located in the lobby of the new K-Tower, designed and built by Kajima.

Along with the contact sheets that showed the images he had captured, he taunted us with stories of obscene and delectable culinary encounters and an awed reverence for Japan’s approach to nearly everything. Gosh, I miss Tokyo. May we all get back there sooner than possible.

Contact sheet from the just completed photo shoot of our sculpture for the Ilya K-Tower project, designed and built by Kajima.

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Uncle Sam Drops In to Say “Hi”

Shortly before quitting time on Monday, the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade from the United States Commerce Department dropped by to present us with an award for export achievement. Francisco Sanchez arrived with a gaggle of local staff. After a quick photo op, he gratefully removed his tie and we showed him around. Emily’s sister who was visiting for the week baked a squadron of most excellent cupcakes and I donned a clean white shirt. Clearly, the cupcakes account for his kind remarks about our studio as a nexus of innovation, “The Bay Area is on the forefront of American innovation. Nikolas Weinstein Studios is the perfect example of a small business using exports as a way to support good-paying jobs in America.” Hot diggity dog!

Under Secretary Francisco Sanchez presents Nikolas Weinstein with an award from Uncle Sam.

Of course, the events that led to this unlikely meeting were unplanned. This collision of commerce awards and art is confusing and deserves explanation. Tucked away behind a small door at the end of an endless hallway in the basement of some faceless concrete building in Washington, D.C., is an impossibly wonderful branch of our Byzantine government about which we knew nothing until a few years ago. Furthermore, we learned about it in San Francisco when Emily decided to attend an AIASF talk aimed at helping American architects navigate the surfeit of new work in China. We had just completed our project in Shanghai but she figured we had not gleaned all there was to know. The speaker was Stephan Crawford, Director of the US Commercial Service in San Francisco. After the event, they got to chatting. She found him to be refreshingly poised and intelligent despite the predominant associations most of us have with governmental functionaries (think DMV) and he was likely intrigued by our apparent professionalism notwithstanding our madcap venture (art as business? Hah!).

So Stephan came by the studio the following week and we have been working with him ever since. Unbeknownst to us and likely many of you, the government has a department charged with helping American companies develop work overseas. Unlike larger outfits that maintain internal departments for this purpose alone, small companies like ours are at a tremendous disadvantage. Of course, we don’t really have any competition to speak of since large glass sculptures that speak to architectural space is not a cutthroat market. In fact, nobody really knows that it even exists! My trips are largely educational; I travel to encourage people to imagine the possibility of this artwork. And trying to find those people in Tokyo and Oslo is daunting even if one speaks Japanese and Norwegian. And that is the Commerce Department’s forte: acting as a cultural liaison to identify and arrange meetings with potential clients in unfamiliar places. I often left meetings in Tokyo convinced that nobody was enthused only to be counseled by my Japanese fixer that people were terribly impressed. Cultural divides can be chasms.

And that’s why the Commerce Department has someone in each embassy who, in turn, has someone who learns the players in the local health care or construction market. And these people confound and surpass expectations. The higher-ups are often well-educated ex-commanders looking for exotic professional sojourns to pass their golden years.  And their charges are deceptively eccentric and usually delighted to be tasked with helping someone like me. Usually they get stuck with a rep for stents. By comparison, I am misconstrued as a glamorous celebrity creative whose meetings are in developers’ penthouse offices with views across the city.

With Emily doing work from the home front and the Commerce Department marshaling assistance overseas, more than 90% of our work is derived from exported art. And that brings us back to that award and the strange confluence of art and government. I cannot speak highly enough about this obscure little office at the end of that endless hallway. And no matter how much I encourage journalist friends to write something about this strange opportunity, it still is a tough sell. Even to the government itself. Every agent that I meet, in places as far-flung as Oslo and Delhi, laments that budgets keep shrinking.

For those who know me, I have few bones in my body that are political and I am nearly certain that the following argument will paint me naive. But this is all happening at a time when President Obama proclaims a National Export Initiative, which aims to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014. While our client demographic is inarguably focused on the very well-heeled that can afford complex art installations, our work nonetheless brings foreign money into the American economy and helps to employ the additional hands that are hired to produce these new projects.  This branch of the US Commerce Department has really helped our business grow and the people with whom I have worked are smart and capable. So, hats off, Uncle Sam. Thank you.

Nikolas shows the Under Secretary and his retinue where the sausage gets made.

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