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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From Atop the Peak

While our team was deftly installing the new artwork in Delhi earlier this month, we surreptitiously deployed our documentation probe to a small mountain overlooking the city of Hong Kong. In charge was Captain Michael Weber who brought along a crew to manage the equipment and conduct extracurricular field sampling of noodles.

Upon touchdown, the team mobilized to the primary site perched high upon the “Peak” that erupts amidst downtown Hong Kong. In Swire Properties’ portfolio for over one-hundred years, this historic site had been undeveloped until this new building designed by Frank O. Gehry was erected. Our sculpture was designed for the entry lobby.

Despite the monsoon season with its torrential afternoon rains, Captain Weber was able to capture several clear images of the site and its magnificent skyline backdrop. Although there is still some post-production work to be done on the images, we thought a brief sampling of the photographs coming in from the satellite feed was in order.

This is the view upon arrival at the lobby. In the distance, the Hong Kong harbor and skyline are visible.

Overview of Lobby.

This is a view from the lobby’s mezzanine.

View looking upward.

Photo Credits: Michael Weber Photography.

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Return to Base

That’s it! Our suitcases are packed and we’re headed home.

As we peruse the over five-thousand images from this latest installation in India, we thought we would send along just a couple of selections to let you know how things turned out.

There’s one photo of the final crew on the last day, but that team has had a constantly changing line-up. Dave came to help prep the site and visit the spice markets. Then TJ had to blow glass at a conference back in Ohio, so Mike came over. Then Iris arrived and Sam left. You get the idea. It was like a Broadway cast that had been afflicted with some horrid disease. Our carefully scheduled plans went out the window and the understudies became the show-stoppers. In the end, everyone smiled for the photo despite the spectacular amount of work and the infernal heat.

Goodnight! We’re coming home (Arlen, Iris, Steve, Sam, Jennifer, Josh, Nicole, Ari).

Then of course, there’s a trio of images that are only related to the extent that they feature 3D prints of sculptural elements from the installation. A little background will help explain how these prints are used. At the beginning of a project, we start by hand-sculpting a model of the installation. Once that’s done, this model is digitized and incorporated into a virtual computer model of the building and adjustments are made (e.g., vantages checked and contours refined). When we arrive onsite, we use this virtual computer model as a reference to sculpt the formless glass “fabric” in-situ. The basic shapes are defined by the locations and lengths of the hundreds of minuscule cables that suspend the flexible artwork. But to really finesse it, there is always tweaking that needs to be done.

And that’s when these physical 3D prints from the virtual computer model really help. The computer only gets you so far and, while it is great for logistics and big-picture relationships to the space, you really want a physical model to hold in your hands when you’re up in the air trying to understand how all the swirling tendrils of the artwork relate. This trio of photos show: a collection of 3D prints; Arlen wearing a 3D print as a hat in a moment of quiet desperation; and Josh referring to one of the prints while refining one of the pieces that float above the lobby bar.

A gaggle of 3D prints to use as references when sculpting onsite.

Arlen primps for the cocktail ball later that evening… and Nik thinks about re-imagining his life as a milliner.

Josh is caught in a hazy moment of contemplation, considering a model of the piece while he sits in the middle of the actual piece.

Somewhere near the end of the installation, we decided that we needed some perspective and respite. So we made the journey to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort with a short excursion to see the palace at Fatehpur Sikri. Upon our return, we buttoned-up the tool crate and did a final cleaning of the sculpture. Until we meet again, Dear India…

On a Sunday afternoon, the team escapes the site to visit a palace.

There is always room in the toolkit for a nice German vacuum cleaner. Iris does a quick “once-over” while the team packs things up.

A view from the balcony looking out and across the swirling madness. That’s Ari caught in the middle.

 Photos by Sam Prest

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Order Up!

109.7 degrees Fahrenheit. And that was inside. Ouch. Welcome to New Delhi.

Despite the extraordinary conditions, our team lifted the last piece of glass up and into the air late in the afternoon today. So, hats off.

Here are some pictures of what they hath wrought over the past two weeks. Two boom lifts, three scissor lifts, lots of scaffolding, over 40,000 custom glass tubes, and miles and miles of stainless steel aircraft cable. Oh yeah, and several walkie talkies.

These come in handy when one person is on the ground sighting the aesthetic lines of the sculpture and your partner is fifty feet down the length of the room and several stories up in the air. “Okay now lift it a little more… a little more. Stop. Okay, now to the left. Uh-huh. Yup. Great!” My voice was shot after the first day, so that’s when we got the walkie talkies.

And after a week of long days where you sweat so much that you might as well be swimming you’re so wet and you think that there is no way that all this work can happen, these devices provide a perceived measure of control and authority despite the exhaustion and a punch-list of items that appears to grow each night. Caught in this Sisyphean loop, barking out affirmatives – “Copy that. North five west twenty-three gets a pulley. Over.” – gives a welcome sense of accomplishment. And it’s fun too!

From here on in, they will lock down all the connections, do a once over, and then clean the artwork. We’ll check in again soon.

Iris up front in the boom. Colie in the scissor at midfield. Josh way down there in the distance.

Josh and Ari discuss their next move.

In India, dust is everywhere. Iris and her trusty vacuum fight against incredible odds.

The pair of pieces referred to as the “knot” over the bar.

Detail photograph of one of the long runs of glass.

Josh and his ride. Below, Ari tells him what is what.

Ari and his beloved walkie talkie trying to set things straight.


Looking through a tangle of glass from a boom lift.

Photos: Sam Prest

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Wheels Down Delhi

At long last, our intrepid installers are afoot! Numbering nine in all, they winged their way across the ocean to Delhi to begin work on our new installation. Out from under the watchful gaze of their oppressive commander, the team quickly took to song and drink. High above the Atlantic, Dave celebrated his birthday while his compatriots composed musical fables on their ukuleles – a shop tradition started long ago in Singapore on the Cosmopolitan project by our troubadours (check out the last link for a live performance of the hit single “Tritan” by Ari Metz played during a club engagement last year).

We’ll be checking in with them over the coming weeks to see how things are going. Suffice it to say that the San Francisco climes have been a terrible preparation for the weather of India. When they landed, it was 106 degrees. And that’s on the ground. Up in the boom lifts on site at forty feet , the air will closely approximate level nine of Dante’s Inferno. At this point, it is only fair to make full disclosure: this commander will eventually suffer these trials too. I am slated to head east before the new moon.

Dave & Ari tune up their ukeleles for the flight. God save their fellow passengers.

It was Dave's birthday on the flight over and Lufthansa was kind enough to bring celebratory libations!

Foregoing the burdensome facility requirements of gates, the team arrives en plein air.

Touchdown. Almost all members accounted for.

No. Oh, please tell me that these numbers are wrong.

And, as promised, here is that link to Ari’s nightclub act. The song, “Tritan,” was named after the logo emblazoned across the side of the shipping container used for the trans-Pacific journey to Singapore. The numbers in the lyrics refer to the unique digits of the security tags used to prove that there had been no tampering with the contents of the container during shipment. I would offer to the listener that Ari’s scatting during the bridge of the song alludes to the harrowing journey and the potential perils on the high seas. It was a long job and, as the song attests, our team fell in love. It is only too tragic that oceans now separate us.

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Pecha Kucha Talk

Last night, I gave a Pecha Kucha talk in San Francisco with a collective of local creative insurgents (one guy had come up with a collapsable origami kayak). This format was conceived to keep designers from running at the mouth. So, it’s twenty slides that automatically advance and are only shown for twenty seconds each. That’s six minutes and forty seconds total. And I like to talk. And talk.

So, I spent a good deal of time figuring exactly what to say and how to stay on schedule. Though I recall a small voice enjoining me to use good old paper, I made the spectacular mistake of transcribing my notes to an iPad. Of course, moments before I began, a wily dybbuk must have slipped into the machine and delightedly crossed wires. It quickly became out of synch with the military advance of slides and I was cast adrift before my peers. Hopefully the magnitude of carnage was amplified in mind and merely played as a fumble.

And on this clear and sunny morning the day after, with all the time in the world, I now gratefully submit to revisionism. Here it is, all clean and pretty:

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Going Neolithic Scaffolding Styley

As some of you may well know by now, we here at the studio like toys. And toys that can be driven and articulated hold a near and dear place in our collective heart. When installing sprawling artworks that range greatly in elevation, boom lifts hit the sweet spot and are hard to surpass in efficiency. Perhaps we went a little overboard in Shanghai with all the scissor lifts and booms, but this little video is nonetheless testament to their utility:

Alas, we shan’t be having those in India as access and complex schedules have made it impossible. And so we are going way back in the playbook to unearth the tried and true method of scaffolding. And to be fair, you can sometimes get great mileage from very simple technologies. In fact, while recently onsite in Hong Kong for the Gehry project, we noticed wild outcroppings of bamboo scaffolding ten stories up. These little organic and primitive platforms were a wonderful contrast to the torqued and twisting polish of Gehry’s new helical tower.

Arlen has spent the last two weeks designing exact scaffolding platforms and turrets to follow the contours of the artwork and peek up through circular openings in the design. Without the flexibility of driveable and articulating booms to get our team up and through the meandering sculpture, the team will work on shaping the glass from these aerial work surfaces. When I saw the preparatory cad work, I couldn’t help but remark at the mash-up of low and high tech:

And don’t fear, we still are going to have one boom lift just in case!

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