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Interview: Four Corners Looks at Design in Philadelphia

Four Corners is a contemporary period room — a lived-in loft that contains a hand-picked selection of furniture, lighting and objects conceived, designed, fabricated, and/or produced by designers and brands based in Philadelphia proper and its immediate surrounds. The exhibit is co-curated by Royce Epstein and Caroline Tiger, and runs through October 20.

The room acts as a visual dialogue between Philadelphia’s design giants such as Florence Knoll, Anne Tyng, and George Nakashima, and its new and emerging talents, including Jaime Salm of MIO Culture, Jesse Gerard of Carrot Grant, and Jeanine Hays of AphroChic. The loft tableau will contain 50 objects — furniture, lighting, textiles, wallpaper, toys, tabletop, electronics, and art — by just under 50 designers and artists. The objects’ stories are about heritage, craft,
manufacturing and innovation. The result is a look at Philadelphia’s design identity and answers to the question: What is Philadelphia design today? We spoke to co-curator Caroline Tiger about the exhibit, Philadelphia and design in general.

What, if anything, differentiates Philadelphia from other major cities when looking at the design that is produced there?
Like any other major city, Philadelphia's output is influenced by its own history and by different factors in the mix today. Design education has a significant presence here--there are seven design programs in the region and in the last five or so years, the climate in the city has become more supportive of entrepreneurial types who graduate and want to start their own small business. Because of our strong industrial past, there are really unique manufacturing resources available to these entrepreneurs. One of the designers in our show prototyped the aluminum version of his chair with the help of a metal fabricator that's been around since 1934 and the bamboo version of his chair at NextFab, a maker's "gym" with high-tech and prototyping equipment that opened in 2010. These two facilities represent two poles of production, and they're both accessible to a Philly design entrepreneur. At the same time there is a strong DIY design culture that echoes the region's incredible legacy of craftsmanship.

For the exhibit, how did you address the bridge between the historical and contemporary pieces?
Philadelphia has such a rich design history. In the 1800s, the city was a booming design and production powerhouse known as "the workshop of the world." In the 20th century, the region was home to huge talents like Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, George Nakashima, and Wharton Esherick. For the exhibit we had a lot of fun playing with these different threads from the past and juxtaposing them with contemporary themes. For example, we placed a chair by George Nakashima a few feet away from a free-form slab coffee table by Adam Rung, a really talented designer whose work is influenced by Nakashima. A chair made from upcycled skateboard decks completes that triumvirate and represents both Philadelphia's thriving skateboard culture and the large number of designers today who are working with reclaimed materials. The skateboard chair also brings in the gritty, in your face aspect of Philly that cannot be ignored. We had a lot of fun creating these juxtapositions of old and new, of influencer and influenced, of refined and rough, of mass-produced and hand-fabricated.

Did you encounter any unexpected surprises while putting together the exhibit?
We were surprised that the Tyng Toy, a modular modernist slot-together building toy by architect Anne Tyng, hadn't been exhibited since the 1940s when it was first designed. We both kind of fell in love with Anne Tyng. She was a pioneer for women in design. She graduated in the Harvard School of Design’s first co-ed class, and in 1949 she was the only woman in Pennsylvania to receive her architecture license. She was best known for her work with Louis Kahn. Her ideas about architecture and geometry influenced some of his most famous buildings, including the Trenton Bath House, but no one really knows about the product design she did early in her career. Bill Whitaker, the Collection Manager at the University of Pennsylvania's Architectural Archives was friends with Anne and was kind enough to lend us pieces of the toy from his personal collection.

For those who don't know, please describe the design and creative scene in Philly. Is it avant garde, a "sixth borough" of NYC or something else entirely?
I would say something else entirely. We are emphatically not the sixth borough! As my friend Hilary Jay, founder and executive director of DesignPhiladelphia, likes to point out, we are having our own dialogue about design that is entirely separate from the one going on in New York or, for that matter, L.A. or London or Copenhagen. I think there are a few really strong sectors here, like landscape architecture, technical innovation, and sustainable design, and the factors I spoke of above combined with how easy it is for a creative person to make a life here and to have room (both literally and figuratively) to explore and experiment mean that the other sectors are catching up. Someone at our panel pointed out that ten years ago it was hard to meet someone who wasn't a native Philadelphian but now it's hard to meet native Philadelphians. We're getting a lot of new blood and those people are interpreting and celebrating what they find here in interesting ways. They're bringing an optimism that negates Philly's inferiority complex. I think the best way to describe Philly's design and creative scene right now is "exploding."

[images by Ryan Collerd]
Posted October 19th, 2012 by Jean Lin

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