Profiles in design: Architectural adventurers Design with Company
By Sarah Wesseler
February 4, 2016
Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.
I met with architects Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks, founders of Design with Company, at their office in Chicago’s historic Monadnock Building, where we discussed urban myth-making, Midwestern culture, and design career pathways.
What kinds of projects do you typically work on?
Stewart: We’ve been transitioning from speculative work into built work, trying to maintain the sensibility that we uncovered in our earlier projects. This year we’ve done a series of temporary public projects that engage people in unexpected ways. We’ve done a temporary outdoor stage and a public plaza, and we just finished a pavilion that was part of Design Miami for Airbnb. And right now we’re working on a speculative farm neighborhood for a science gallery in Dublin and a Lego build for future cities.
The common thread is engaging the public in ways that are special but also accessible in ways that architecture isn’t always.
Can you elaborate? How do you think about accessibility in your work?
Allison: People could relate to the things that we built this year without necessarily having to know the backstory or the architectural justification. They’re playful and allow people room to imagine. One was a plaza that we called Porch Parade; it was a series of front porches that people could sit on and be neighborly or weave in and out of. They’re familiar elements but are put together in a different way.
Stewart: Also accessible as in — my mom, who knows nothing about architecture, came to a lecture that we recently gave. She would be the first one to get annoyed by archi-speak and tune it out. But after sitting through our lecture she really understood.
We try to appeal to a lot of different audiences and have a lot of layers to the work, so that you can get it right away but are also rewarded by spending some time with it, either by connecting with architectural references and ideas or popular cultural references and ideas.
You’re in a city full of famous architectural references. Does being in Chicago influence your work?
Allison: We think of the city of Chicago as a project, almost. A lot of our work tries to unpack some of the myths that underlie Chicago. We recently screened a movie called My Winnipeg as part of the biennial. It’s a faux documentary about Winnipeg, and in it they say that Winnipeg is one of the least mythologized cities in the world. We think that Chicago is probably the most mythologized city in the world.
Can you describe what you consider mythical and how the reality is different?
Allison: In one of our first projects we retold the history of Chicago by stringing together things that actually happened in a way that made them seem absurd. Like, the lakeshore of Chicago is completely constructed out of the ashes of the fire and buildings’ parts; that’s one of the historical things we think is mythlike. And for sewer reasons, the whole city was raised. The flow of the river was reversed.
Stewart: So we wrote this myth that used all these facts, and that mythological city became the context for the project. We created this fictional organization called the Chicago Institute for Land Generation, which turns stalled building projects into land paddies that would be shipped around the US.
I’m from Ohio, so Chicago was the nearest metropolis for me growing up. From a design perspective, how do you think Chicago relates to the Midwest more broadly?
Allison: We did a project at the Graham Foundation that gave us an opportunity to make something related to our research about the Midwest. It’s called the Midwest Culture Sampler.
Stewart: Our thesis was that because the Midwest has so much space and too few things for people to rally around, it looks to architecture to produce narratives of place through things like the world’s largest cow or the world’s only corn palace. It takes things from everyday life and makes them bigger than life to attract people and to give a place an identity.
I don’t know if that answers your question about how Chicago relates to the Midwest, but the Midwest is essential to our work.
Allison: We were teaching in Urbana-Champaign for about four years, and that’s where a lot of the research started. We were in this place where we had never been before, and as outsiders we saw it a little differently — not in a condescending way, but in a fascinated way.
Stewart: David Foster Wallace was from there too, and we got really into his writing and the way that he talks about place, and particularly that place. We wanted to find an architecture that was related to the way that he talked about space.
Allison: He wrote a really great piece about the Illinois State Fair and the idea that people in the Midwest need a place to come together because they’re so isolated.
Stewart: Yeah, and it’s a place where they celebrate the land. People go there to look at cows, to look at things that occupy their everyday life, but that becomes a rallying point.
What does innovation mean to you?
Stewart: That’s a really tough question, because that’s not really a word we use a lot to describe our work. We’re interested in the way that architecture connects to people, and I wouldn’t necessarily call that innovation.
In our work, usually we try to make the technology of its design and construction fall into the background. It might be innovative technically or formally, but that’s not what we want people to focus on; we want them to write their own stories about it. I’m sure that there’s probably innovation in that, but it’s tough for us to put it in those terms.
And we’re striving to work in so many different mediums… this year we’ve sewn giant pillows, we’ve constructed things with our hands, we’ve made things with Legos, we’ve made videos and animations.
When you start talking to clients about developing a project, how do you decide what medium to present it in? For example, when you said, “I want to make a pillow…”?
Allison: That one came out of a competition. Up until the last project we haven’t really worked with clients during the design phase; it’s more about us coming up with something and then proposing it.
Is that pretty common for young firms? Do most people you know start out with competitions and then move to client projects?
Stewart: It’s probably a mix.
Allison: A lot of our friends who have practices also teach. In that case they tend to have more of a research-based practice rather than a traditional client practice, maybe.
Stewart: I think in Europe the competition model is more prevalent because there’s more building related to winning a competition. Of the practices that we would align ourselves with, most probably don’t do as many competitions as we do.
Allison: Well, we do competitions for fun. I think a lot of practices will very seriously sit down and work on them for a month; whereas we’re maybe bored one day and say, “I wonder what competitions are out there? Let’s design something real quick.”
Questions or comments for Allison Newmeyer or Stewart Hicks? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is post 4 of 13 in the Profiles in Design series
- Profiles in design: Power player Cierine Nicolas / Sep 19, 2017
- Profiles in design: Chicago preservationist Bonnie McDonald / Jul 20, 2017
- Profiles in design: Acoustician Raj Patel / May 15, 2017
- Profiles in design: Sustainability specialist Tiffany Broyles Yost / May 4, 2017
- Profiles in design: Urban planner Margaret Newman / Feb 1, 2017
- Profiles in design: Arup Fellow Alisdair McGregor / Dec 7, 2016
- Profiles in design: Structural specialist Kristen Strobel / Nov 9, 2016
- Profiles in design: Newly minted mechanical engineer Geoffrey Iwasa / Nov 3, 2016
- Profiles in design: Lighting designer Toby Lewis / May 12, 2016
- Profiles in design: Architectural adventurers Design with Company / Feb 4, 2016
- Profiles in design: Technology consultant Dan Michaud / Jan 7, 2016
- Profiles in design: Plumbing engineer Sebastian Lopez / Nov 9, 2015
- Profiles in design: Structural engineer Matt Clark / Oct 1, 2015