Canadian Architect


Soft Cell

An Ambitious Vancouver Design Firm Has Gone Global With An Inventive Approach To Lighting And Products.

September 1, 2008
by Canadian Architect





Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen have been tirelessly building their multidisciplinary design practice since they both graduated from Dalhousie University with Master of Architecture degrees in 2000. Picking up numerous design awards and recognition for their work over the past eight years, the Vancouver design team continues to impress the global design community with their series of ingenious product designs.

The work of Forsythe + MacAllen Design has already appeared in several books such as: Young Designers Americas; Great Spaces: Flexible Homes, a publication featuring their softwall and softhousing concepts amongst a collection of flexible space designs by various designers; and the popular Phaidon publication 10x10_2, a book featuring the work of 100 young architects selected by a group of respected architecture critics, practitioners and curators. In between busily working on their competition-winning entry for a 200-unit development in the northern Japanese city of Aomori and promoting themselves around the world, Forsythe and MacAllen have continued to achieve tremendous success with their experiments in the design and manufacture of glassware, modular walls, seating and lighting, all commercially available and all of which have received considerable acclaim. Through their commitment to craft, the two designers believe in understanding every stage of the manufacturing process.

Apart from the continued operation of their architectural design office, it is the couple’s separate product design arm and manufacturing company known as molo that has garnered the majority of the design duo’s success. molo emerged in 2003 when Forsythe and MacAllen partnered with long-time friend Robert Pasut. Working with factories and learning about the entire product development and manufacturing process has taught Forsythe and MacAllen about the pragmatics of good business while helping them to understand prefabricated construction techniques and efficient building systems that waste less energy and materials. molo’s first successful venture was float, a line of thermally resistant glassware made of borosilicate glass. The suspended bowl design of each piece creates a lens through which light can pass, projecting the colour of whatever liquid is in the receptacle onto the tabletop, creating a shimmering effect.

After the success of float, molo introduced its softwall product line, which allows for a flexible use of space through the innovative application of an expandable wall system. Comprised of a honeycomb structural system that uses 400 layers of white or black fire retardant-coated paper bound by natural wool felt ends, the cellular structure of softwall expands to widths that vary from 12 to 18 inches (depending on the model) and range in height from one to eight feet. The walls can also be made of a fire retardant-treated polyethylene non-woven textile that is tear-, UV-and water-resistant, and 100 percent recyclable. softwall is a lightweight, easily bendable, freestanding, flexible wall system that can be arranged into almost any shape. It can be compressed down to a couple of inches to be stored away when not needed–and as an added bonus to people with sensitive ears, the system dampens sound due to its air-filled cellular structure. The white walls have a soft translucent glow, whereas the black walls are opaque and absorb light. The black softwall creates an interesting optical effect–Forsythe describes this as “vertical fins that catch light with a sheen that shifts as you move along the wall, somewhat reminiscent of a blackened charcoal log.”

The limits of softwall are boundless. Using similar technology to softwall, softroom is an expandable room designed to create a private, fully enclosed space. Thinking on an even larger scale, softhousing seeks to address the issue of homelessness in a novel way. A non-profit project currently under development, the first instance of softhousing–entitled the First Step Softhouse–was conceived for installation in a former lodging house in New York City’s Bowery, and consists of several expandable single-occupancy rooms located within the shell of an existing building. Here also, the walls can be squeezed back to create an enlarged common area when not in use. Both softwall and soft-seating, a circular seating system, are held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Belonging to molo’s larger family of cellular structures is their dramatic and recently launched softlight collection, a series of sculptural lamps made from flexible honeycomb paper. These lights can be adjusted in a variety of shapes by stretching, pushing or pulling their elastic honeycomb structure. molo’s urchins–ranging in size from 11 to 21 inches–are the first generation of molo’s light prototypes and were first displayed in molo’s studio in Vancouver. In the studio, Forsythe and MacAllen removed the existing building’s dilapidated contents to expose its raw interior space, then painted it completely white to showcase the wares against a neutral backdrop. Only the most essential elements were added back in: lights, water, storage, and work surfaces. The newest line of lights are larger than the original urchin models. Entitled tom-tom and bomba, the largest of these lamps measures 37 x 33.5 inches.

Throughout 2008, Forsythe and MacAllen took their paper and textile inventions and participated in exhibitions across Europe, in cities such as London, Paris, Milan, and the Spanish city of Burgos. In Milan, the duo installed a series of softwalls which they began to artfully cut with scissors on site. Entitled Delicate Erosion: A Study in Light and Ephemeral Space, the temporary installation was on display at the Spazio Krizia during the month of April. Sometimes the process of deconstructing a design can provide new insights for a designer. molo, who have been installing their products in a variety of light conditions and environmental situations, recently exhibited their inventions alongside light fixtures and furniture by designer par excellence Ingo Maurer, and these experiments have generated subtle yet incredibly rich results. We can only wait and see what molo will come up with next. In the meantime, we should applaud their efforts in experimenting with flexible systems that convey a variety of light and spatial qualities.

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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