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Brickwork and fabric forms

Features, Interiors | July 1, 2012 | By:

A transcontinental collaboration.

It takes two to tango. Or make babies. And tea is always better with two. But to collaborate on a design project—given the idiosyncrasies of two creative personalities, egos and visions—is, potentially, a recipe for disaster.

Not so with collaborators Ali Heshmati, architect/designer and principal of LEADinc, based in Husnes, Norway, and Nora Norby, president and designer of Banner Creations in Minneapolis, Minn. Their collaborations are a success even when divided by the Atlantic Ocean.

Their most recent collaboration is the design of Ambiènte Gallerie—an “environment for optimal health” owned by Dr. Kari Boudreau, a chiropractor. (Heshmati and Norby designed Dr. Kari’s, as she is affectionately called, first space more than a decade ago.) With a gala opening in May, Ambiènte fills approximately 335m2 of the first floor of an early 20th century Minneapolis warehouse whose brick and curving white walls also serve as a gallery for local art.

An open reception area is animated by bright green reception desks and paper lamps in plump organic shapes suspended from the beams of the original raw wood ceiling. This expansive area is filled by five large podlike rooms that are suspended from the ceiling and can individually or collectively be raised and lowered. These treatment or massage rooms, slightly hourglass in shape, are constructed from sheets of white polyester stretch fabric, attached at both the top and bottom to an ovoid metal armature. The pods suggest a 21st century rendition of a hoopskirt.

Solving issues of hardware and how the pods could be suspended from the ceiling in their semirigid state, and still be raised and lowered, proved to be challenging. With the input of engineers and others, the collaborative team pulled off the innovative but elegant design with grace and presence.

“Ali is creative, fun and open to new ideas,” says Norby. “He doesn’t take things at face value. Banner Creations works with other architects and it is more predictable. Ali is unexpected; he’s not your normal architect.”

Heshmati and Norby first met in the late 1990s when Ali was teaching at the University of Minnesota and having his students explore fabric as a building material. Fabric Architecture editor, Bruce Wright, introduced them. “Nora was a source of expertise and she became an invaluable resource for my coursework,” states Heshmati. When he received his first commission to work with Dr. Kari, he turned to Nora as a collaborator.

“The trust and respect—the major necessities of collaboration—were already in place with Nora. But I had to make sure Nora was up to this and willing to work with us,” explains Heshmati. “She was very enthused about the ideas and our design model and started on the research for the right material that day. I was quite impressed! And our professional relationship entered a new phase.”

For Heshmati and LEADinc, individual projects come before egos. Authorship is secondary to product quality and inviting expertise “outside our comfort zone is what we do naturally,” he says. “We knew with Nora’s expertise the project would achieve a higher level, so this was a no-brainer. Collaboration for us is not about diluting or compromising the hard edges as much as it is about charging the outcome with knowhow and abilities we do not possess when we approach uncharted territories.”

Heshmati and Norby have worked on several unrealized project designs, but the two interior spaces for Dr. Kari are the only ones completed to date. With Ambiènte Gallerie, the collaborative team did not want to repeat its previous strategy, making the design task even more difficult. Dr. Kari’s vision was the same, fusing art into the healing environment, but her expectations of the collaborative team “were drastically different,” recalls Heshmati. “Dr. Kari wanted to work on a larger scale and she expected us to top our last project. This is very tough for anyone…but like the fools we are, we have to challenge ourselves all the time.”

The existing warehouse space was different from Dr. Kari’s more generic, original space. It had “a very strong character, a great soul if you will,” says Heshmati. Speaking of the collaborative process, he calls Ambiènte Gallerie an example of integrative design “where there is a sort of calculus at work. Design calculus may sound like an oxymoron and counterintuitive. Every move we make and any material and color we use in an environment contributes a value by virtue of being there. This value can be positive or negative in regard to what one wants to achieve.”

With the Ambiènte Gallerie project, Heshmati and Norby had enough lead time to test their ideas against their thesis of design, materials and color and to discard ideas, which was at times difficult. “Here the permanence, history and presence of the existing building are celebrated and enhanced by light, flexibility, ephemerality and mobility of our installation. This we propose is a very sustainable approach to design because we can see the future reincarnations easily possible,” Heshmati states.

Contributing editor Mason Riddle writes frequently about design and art.

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