The Problem Solver

Design for design’s sake doesn’t interest Inna Alesina. In her ideal world, designs are functional; they serve a purpose and solve a problem. Just sitting around looking pretty doesn’t cut it.

“There’s no need for another decorative object in the design world,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand and a slight roll of her eyes. “For me, design starts with a problem. I’m looking for problems, and materials are one of our biggest problems. Typical furniture is made from wood, particleboard, plastic or metal. I’m looking for ways to use recycled paper and other stuff.”

That’s why when she looks at, say, discarded molded-paper egg cartons, she doesn’t just see trash. She sees building material. Compress enough of those together into a circular shape, add some funky colors, and you’ve got the Good Egg rocking stool/ottoman. (It can also serve as the base for a coffee table.)

Alesina’s designs have been featured in publications from The New York Times to I.D. magazine. She participated in Designboom shows from 2005 to 2007 and won several competitions there. She is currently an industrial design instructor at Maryland Institute College of Art.

“She’s one of the only designers I know who doesn’t have an ego about her products; she’s so much about the process and the materials,” says Melissa Easton, an industrial designer in New York whose creations have appeared in European stores as well as at large retail chains such as Target and Crate & Barrel. “She’s an educator as much as a designer.”

A native of Kharkov, Ukraine, Alesina has been working professionally since 1996 after graduating with a bachelor of fine arts in furniture-and-product design from Parsons School of Design in New York. She and her family immigrated to the United States as Jewish refugees in 1992. She now lives in Owings Mills and has a studio in her basement.

Her bread-and-butter comes from designing for companies as a consultant. She’s created a backpack cooler for Kelsyus and foam sandals for Waldies. She also worked for the Chinese firm Adesso designing products such as coat racks and desks. All was fine until one day they asked her to design a novelty lamp. “I had a major block. I could not come up with anything,” says Alesina, 39. “It’s a little light you’re going to plug in once and then it’s going to gather dust. It’s along the lines of gadgets and gimmicks that I’m just against. My brain doesn’t work that way.”

Her latest design, which is available on her Web site alesinadesign.com, is a wall shelf made from recycled paperboard mailing tubes that she cuts, colors and varnishes. The Truba shelf is designed to hold the small things that often end up as clutter— keys, sunglasses and the like. “I was just thinking of all the structural ways you can work with cardboard or paper,” she says. “The mailing tubes came across as a very structural material and they do not require digging for new sources of materials.”

In her work as an educator, Alesina continually urges her students to create designs that accomplish more than one task, like an umbrella that collects rainwater and filters it for drinking water, created by a 10-year-old boy at a Howard County design camp she teaches during the summer. “People think design is about how things look, but really you’re inventing things,” she says. “Anyone can design.” —Kristine Henry

Stuart HarshbargerMEDICAL DESIGN:

A Helping Hand

Last spring, Jesse Sullivan opened a door and changed his life. It wasn’t what was on the other side. It was the fact that he could open the door at all.

In 2001, he lost both his arms from the shoulder down after being electrocuted on the job as a high-power lineman. Thanks to what Stuart Harshbarger, director of Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, calls “engineering at the edge of science fiction,” Sullivan was the first person to test the first prototype of the next generation of prosthetics: a neurally controlled device that recalls brain signals and decodes and interprets them in real time.

For the first time in six years, Sullivan felt the pressure of the knob in his hand and experienced the sensation of fingers, palm and wrist working together. “He told us that he could feel his limb again, that wearing the arm felt like it was natural,” says Harshbarger of the results of Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009, a program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create a neurally controlled arm and hand ready for FDA approval and clinical trials by 2010.

Hopkins’ APL, which received $30.4 million from DARPA in 2006 for the project, coordinates the research by the consortium’s 250-plus engineers, researchers and technicians representing more than 30 international organizations. “It’s so exciting to see the convergence of so many disciplines coming together to work collaboratively on a nearly impossible task,” says Harshbarger, a biomedical engineer. “It’s unifying and humbling to be able to try to restore function to a person with a traumatic injury, disease, birth defects or injury from protecting the country.”

Hopkins represents the largest group of researchers, with a core of 30 scientists that can reach upward to 100, depending on undergraduate and graduate student participation. The goal is to turn its prototypes into a final product ready for the marketplace by 2010. The industry is already giving them a hand: Last year, the Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 team won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award.

Existing prosthetics typically use electronic sensors attached to the muscles on an amputee’s stump to open and shut a “Captain Hook-like” hand. The result gets the job done, but researchers, clinicians and users alike find these limbs bulky, mechanically heavy and not aesthetically pleasing. When Sullivan and a handful of other amputees tested the APL’s first prototype last spring at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the project’s research sites, Harshbarger marvels that “in a couple of hours, users were able to control eight joints very naturally.”

His team has since rolled out two newer versions for testing that have more than 25 joints designed to replicate near-human-like dexterity and strength. These wireless devices include 80-plus sensors, allowing the user to “feel” heat, cold, the pressure of objects and limb position. “When you think that the current state of the art is a glorified claw with a rubber glove to look like a hand, this is incredible,” says Harshbarger. —Sarah Achenbach


Spreading the Word

On a Thursday afternoon in March, one group of students in a classroom in the sleek glass Brown Center at Maryland Institute College of Art is pondering how to convince teen mothers in East Baltimore to breastfeed their babies while another group brainstorms strategies for keeping kids from joining gangs. Still another ponders ways to get more working smoke detectors into Baltimore’s rowhouses.

Yes, this is art school. And, yes, this is a graphic design class. These students are part of the MICA/JHU Design Coalition, an alliance that pairs Johns Hopkins University researchers who have public health messages to communicate with design students eager to create materials for the real world. The guru behind the class is the charismatic Bernard Canniffe, a Welshman who came to MICA in 2001 with plans to teach and write coffee-table books, and instead has become a well-known international figure in the cutting-edge field of socially conscious design.

At the start of each semester, a handful of Hopkins researchers— and, more recently, community activists, as well— present their research to the MICA students. The students divide into groups to tackle each project, taking on the responsibility of talking with community members, developing design proposals, managing the budget and making a final presentation. Those working on the breast-feeding project have visited health clinics and talked with nurses in East Baltimore, in the process learning that most young mothers in the community don’t breast-feed because it isn’t considered normal or even socially acceptable. Now their mission is to make breast-feeding cool by designing what can loosely be called hip-hop health materials.

In the seven years the coalition has existed, MICA students have designed an interactive exhibit on lead poisoning that traveled throughout the public elementary schools in East Baltimore, T-shirts to support an activist’s suit against the city for failing to reduce the yearly homicide rate below 175, an anti-gun violence program called “Steppin’ Up” and the design and logo for a bus that travels throughout Baltimore teaching kids how to avoid injuries.

“This is a completely unique class,” says Canniffe. “You have the beleaguered East Baltimore community. You have Hopkins, the 600-pound gorilla. And then you have a design department that’s willing to engage in all of these really difficult social problems.”

Canniffe, who is also the founder of Piece Studio, a socially based collaborative design studio in Baltimore that has created materials for Martha’s Place, a women’s drug rehab center, among others, has taken his message— and MICA design students— to Korea and Japan, where the design community is tackling the thorny challenge of how to retain an authentic sense of Korean-ness or Japanese-ness in an era of globalization.

This summer he’ll take a group of MICA’s female design students to Dubai to do similar work at a women’s university there. “It will be Hamp-den-meets-Dubai,” says Canniffe. “Our art students with their piercings and pink hair will be meeting with sophisticated Arab women wearing burqas, talking about how design can make a difference.” —Laura Wexler


Diva of D.I.Y.

It’s available in black only and doesn’t come in a cute caddy, but this really is a tool a woman can use.

What is this implement that has so stirred the imagination of celebrated designer Ellen Lupton that she devoted a whole page to it on her blog?

The Toilet Master.

Among the array of household plungers available at your local Home Depot, Lupton tells us that the Toilet Master, which is a flange— not a cup— plunger, is the one to use for toilets. And to drive the point home, she provides a handy diagram.

One might wonder why Lupton, who heads the graphic design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art, is bothering with something as prosaic as a plunger. But that, she says, is what design is all about.

“Design is art that people use,” Lupton says. “It can be about designing a traffic light, which is a technical, engineering kind of problem. It can be making your bed and arranging furniture. It can be interacting with people in your neighborhood. Even sex! It sounds cold-hearted, but if you’re busy, I think that becomes a design problem that has to do with scheduling and planning.”

Lupton shares her decidedly Everyman view of design on several Web sites, one of which (design-your-life.org) she hosts with her twin sister, Julia Lupton, an English professor at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to the fabled plunger, their topics have ranged from fashion to punctuation (the semicolon is a particular favorite) to how to turn cereal boxes into Purim baskets. The Lupton sisters ask in their manifesto: “How are people without formal design backgrounds using design in their lives: to make their workdays more rewarding, raise creative children in a consumer world, enhance the beauty and order of their environments, communicate, grow old in style?”

Raised in Baltimore, Lupton was living in New York when MICA wooed her back to her hometown in 1997. She works on her books and Web sites from a studio in the Bolton Hill home she shares with her husband, designer J. Abbott Miller, and their two children. Lupton and Miller sometimes collaborate, as they’re currently doing for an exhibition at the Nature Conservancy that will travel nationwide beginning in 2009. They’ve commissioned 10 designers to create products using sustainable materials. “Isaac Mizrahi is working with fish leather from Alaska,” says Lupton. “Maya Lin, hardwood from Maine; Kate Spade, padanus leaves from the Marshall Islands.”

With her tousled blond hair, cheery demeanor and casual clothes, the 44-year-old Lupton looks barely older than her students. As she passes one on campus, he fixes on the book she’s holding, “Graphic Design: The New Basics.”

“Is that the only copy?” he asks excitedly.

Indeed it is. Scheduled to come out in May, Lupton says she hopes it will become “the definitive design textbook for the next 10 years.” Though it’s pitched to professionals, she believes it’s accessible to a wider audience.

Accessibility is a term Lupton uses again and again. Her “D.I.Y.” design handbook and “D.I.Y.: Kids” were both written for the general public, and if you’re ever wondering how to make your own fliers, invitations, business cards or T-shirts, you’d do well to consult them. Lupton gives credit to her students, who helped her come up with the projects in the first DIY book; she co-wrote the kids’ book with her sister.

Lupton’s design fingerprint is everywhere, from the pages of The New York Times, where her illustrations often appear, to the halls of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, where she curates exhibitions, to something as simple as e-mail. “I like to format my messages nicely— the line breaks, the spacing,” she says. “I take great care with my e-mail.” —Lisa Simeone

Christian SirianoFASHION DESIGN:

‘Fierce’ New Force

Christian Siriano is on the brink of world domination. Fellow fashion designers, fashionistas, bloggers, talk show hosts and sketch comedians— he’s been lampooned by “Saturday Night Live”— all love the 22-year-old Annapolis native and fashion design phenom who won season 4 of “Project Runway” in March.

Victoria Beckham, guest judge for the show’s finale during New York’s latest Fashion Week, practically drooled over his high-concept, high-drama— and impeccably crafted— collection. Earlier in the season, designer Roberto Cavalli called him “a real talent,” and legions of “Runway” viewers voted him “fan favorite” for his off-the-charts self-confidence and for putting the catty in the catwalk with his snarky wit.

The youngest designer ever to be selected for “Project Runway,” Siriano beat out other designers— some twice his age— to win the top prize of $100,000 and a fire-red Saturn Astra. Between TV appearances, commissions (Beckham and “Project Runway” host and judge Heidi Klum are clients) and assisting L.A.-based designer Rosetta Getty with her line, Siriano is working on his own collection and getting buyers into the showroom.  “I’m trying to create something new in the fashion industry,” he explains. “It’s so hard to do that, because everything is a circulation of trends. My customer wants something that is fresh and young, and my goal is to create something edgy. Stores like H&M kill small designers. I can’t make a jacket and sell it for $30.”

Siriano’s training began while attending high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts (BSFA), graduating in 2004. Undaunted that the school did not offer fashion as a course of study, he readily convinced his teachers to let him pursue his desire for fashion design. “No other student got into it that intensely that early,” says Stephen Kent, head of the BSFA’s visual arts department. “In figure drawing class, he did some fashion work and in painting class, he painted dresses.”

Kent remembers Siriano’s first show: a collection of 20 dresses for his BSFA senior project. “His work was outrageous and creative, but the tailoring was really rough and awful,” he says with a laugh. “When I heard he was going to be on ‘Project Runway,’ I thought, ‘Good God,
I hope he learned how to sew.’”
Four years of studying fashion design at the American Intercontinental University of London and internships with Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen— two of his favorite designers— took care of that. Says Kent proudly, “We’ve never had an art star at the BSFA before.”
Bubbles Salon in the Annapolis Mall also figures prominently in the Siriano lore. His first job at 13 was as a Bubbles “shampoo technician,” but he quickly moved on to doing makeup and hair. He also did the salon’s costumes for the annual hair shows between Bubbles and D.C.-based Salon Cielo, leading his salon to victory for the past three years. “We’re not at all surprised that he won ‘Project Runway,’” says stylist Heather Cravens. “It was meant to be.”

Recently, he was in town to attend the BSFA’s annual fundraising event, Expressions, where he auctioned off two custom designs for $25,000 a pop. “When he came home at 3 in the morning, I asked him how it went,” recalls mom Joy Siriano, who still lives in Annapolis. “He said, ‘Everything’s fine, Mom,’ and went to bed.” She found out the next morning that her car had been towed in Baltimore. “Even though you’re a superstar,” she told her son,  “you still have to confess to your mom that you got her car towed.” —Sarah Achenbach


Great Adaptations

Most people being interviewed do their best to ignore the digital recorder as it comes out, but Chris Pfaeffle says, “Can I look at that?” Then he turns the recorder over in his hands, jots down the model number and vows to buy it later in the day. He confesses to being something of a technology addict, which seems fitting for an architect, someone who straddles the gulf between the arts and engineering.

Pfaeffle, 44, is the founder of the Baltimore design firm Parameter. And in a city where developers have refurbished and transformed a silver flatware facility, an old soap factory and a power plant, his latest project stands out as both an unusual and ambitious undertaking: With developer Patrick Turner, Pfaeffle is transforming an 80-year-old grain silo in Locust Point into more than 220 luxury condos in a way that preserves the bones of the industrial complex.

Projects that convert grain silos into residential space are not unheard of, but they are somewhat different from Pfaeffle’s Silo Point. In Akron, Ohio, a 1932 grain elevator was converted into a hotel, with eight floors of rooms right in the core of the cylinders. A project in Minneapolis added condominiums around an old mill building, but did not incorporate the cylinders the way Pfaeffle’s project does.

Pfaeffle’s natural talents and training seem to have ushered him to this point. He grew up in New York, where he says he was the class artist from about the third grade on. His mother was always interested in architecture and frequently pointed out notable buildings in the New York landscape. He studied architecture at the Pratt Institute and worked in the studio of Italian architect Vittorio Giorgini. Among the legendary architects, Pfaeffle admires Le Corbusier— who, coincidentally, admired the clean, utilitarian forms of grain silos.

Pfaeffle moved from New York to Baltimore 12 years ago and began working with the Baltimore firm Design Collective, where he found “a project languishing in the office called the Can Co.” In New York, renovations and adaptive-reuse projects are bread-and-butter for most architects since new construction is so rare, so the project was a natural fit for him.

Since serving as one of the lead architects on the Can Co. renovation, he’s worked on the renovation of the Canal Street Malt House into condominiums, a modern addition to a church in Hampden for Learning Inc., and a renovation of the McHenry Theater into offices, among other projects.

In designing Silo Point, Pfaeffle leaves the industrial and structural elements of the building exposed in some areas, or even highlights them. Windows at the ends of hallways frame a view of the silo cylinders just outside, for example. Visitors to the building’s lobby walk through a forest of concrete supports for the grain bin. A bridge from the parking ramp to the tower portion of the building cuts through the middle of the cavernous old grain bin, which Pfaeffle plans to illuminate to highlight the reinforced concrete and the vast empty space.

“I am attracted to things that are highly engineered yet also highly artistic and highly designed,” says Pfaeffle. “A bridge that only gets you from one side to the other, but is not beautiful to look at, is only doing half its job.” —Scott Carlson

Gutter Onlie magazineFASHION DESIGN:

Making a Scene

For years it seemed the Baltimore fashion scene was monolithically conservative and classic—all khaki and loafers, Talbots and Ann Taylor. Word was, if you wanted something of-the-moment, you had to go out of town to get it.

But in the past few years, that’s changed. Local boutiques have sprung up— doubledutch, Cupcake, 9th Life, aParaDox and Cloud 9, to name a few— and fashion shows are held several times a year at clubs, bars and warehouse spaces throughout the city. A slick online magazine, Gutter, showcases local designers and fashion photographers. And last September saw Charm City’s first annual Fashion Week.

Dare we say it? Baltimore has itself a homegrown fashion scene. It’s gritty and streetwise, but it’s also gorgeous, with designers such as April Camlin designing couture gowns that are sculptural and sexy, all folds and layers and luxurious fabric. Camlin, who is 24 and designs on a dress form on the landing of the stairs in her Mount Vernon apartment, is one of the forces behind Baltimore Fashion Week.

“There are other fashion shows in the city, but none focused on local designers, people working with no budget at all, just really on the fringe of that genre, and having a passion and creating,” says Camlin, who showcased the work of two dozen local designers during Fashion Week’s debut last year and hopes to feature more this year. “I want the whole world to see how talented the local designers are.”

Camlin is self-taught, as is fellow designer Lindsay Michael, who designs under the label Monster Lou. “I really like the idea of taking vintage styles and making them more colorful and current,” says Michael, who is 23 and has been designing clothes since she was 19. She participates in several fashion shows each year— her most recent was April 12 at The Bedrock— and sells her one-of-a-kind clothes on her Web site, monsterlou.com. Like Camlin, she describes Baltimore’s local fashion designers as fiercely independent. “You go to a local fashion show and everyone is doing something really different,” says Michael.

And while everyone agrees the local fashion scene is low-budget, it’s not just thrift store rehash, says Gutter editor J.M. Giordano, who is also a photographer. “It used to be that fashion was thrift-store driven here in Baltimore, but with these new boutiques it’s finally losing that image,” he says. “It’s getting a lot hipper.”

Giordano and co-editor Tom Doxanas started Gutter because “there were a lot of these awesome boutiques around and we wanted to give young photographers a chance to shoot some really wild stuff,” he says. “At the same time, I would go to CopyCat [warehouse] parties and they would have these awesome fashion shows and no one was writing about them. That was the germ of the idea. It came out from a frustration.”

Aside from showcasing up-and-coming designers and photographers, Gutter is on a mission to destroy the image of the Baltimore “hon,” which Giordano sees as stale and frozen— so far from representing the present and future of the city’s fashion and arts scene. “It’s nostalgic to people who don’t live in the city,” he says. “People who are living here don’t care about it. You’ll never see a beehive in this publication.” —Laura Wexler

Big Huge Games Inc.Video Game DESIGN:

Blast From the Past

Hovering over a fantastical world of steamy Victorian-inspired machines and ever-changing 3-D landscapes, Vinci Scout Flyer, the ultramodern helicopter of Big Huge Games’ real-time strategy game Rise of Legends, is so 1480s. That’s because this helicopter that can launch rockets and lift off like a space shuttle was actually inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch, “Aerial Screw” or “air gyroscope,”  circa 1483.

“We used a lot of sketchbook drawings from Leonardo da Vinci, particularly his military drawings,” says Dave Inscore, art director for PC game developer Big Huge Games. “We took that drawing of what we thought could be a helicopter and turned it into one of these scout copters in the game. If you look at the propeller, you have this [science fiction] helicopter with a very ‘da Vinci-esque’ wing that spins on the top.”

By looking to the past, Timonium-based Big Huge Games Inc. scores the big huge goal of making games people feel like they haven’t played 100 times before.

Big Huge Games was founded in 2000 by veteran gamers Inscore, Tim Train, Jason Coleman and Brian Reynolds with the motto: make great games and have a great place to work every day. To date, the company has developed six real-time strategy games. Each is inspired by history, from Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe in Rise of Nations: Thrones and Patriots to ancient Asian dynasties in Age of Empires III.

“Even if we’re doing a fantasy game or science fiction game, we definitely look to history to inform our discussions and decisions… to satisfy the demand for cooler graphics and more compelling game play,” says Train, the studio’s general manager, whose staff of 25 artists (many of whom are graduates of Maryland Institute College of Art) also are inspired by an art style called “steampunk,” which references the clothes and steam-powered machines of Victorian England. They use this Victorian blast from the past to create distinctive characters and otherworldly weapons gamers haven’t seen before by blending “the old” (propellers) with “the new” (rocket boosters).

And it’s a gaming strategy that’s been paying off. The company has racked up dozens of industry awards for its games and scored major critical acclaim from the video gaming press. In January, Big Huge Games was acquired by THQ, the leading worldwide developer and publisher of video games. Train says the company’s first game under THQ will likely hit the market in 2010.

Though it may not be all fun and games, working for Big Huge Games is as close as it gets. Its office is complete with a “Big Huge Bar,” ping pong table and video game consoles. “In the afternoon there are folks playing ping pong … people bring in doughnuts and talk about designs,” says Inscore. “I feel in some ways I go to work in a big treehouse every day.” —Erika Woodward

Post Typography designGRAPHIC DESIGN:

The Anti-Designers

For the design of splicetoday.com, a new Web site devoted to arts and culture, Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals, the creative forces behind Post Typography, did something few designers would dare: they programmed the site so that each and every registered user can create a logo for the home page. “We don’t have final control over it,” says Willen. “Other people can do whatever they want with it. The idea of sacrificing a little bit of control is key to the anti-design idea.”

The idea is typical of Willen and Strals’ design or “anti-design” philosophy. They founded Post Typography in 2001 determined to challenge traditional thinking about “perfect” design, which they believe can be sterile and inauthentic. Since then, they’ve become one of the city’s hottest firms. Recent print clients have included The New York Times, Business Week and Wired magazine, and the firm also has designed concert posters and coffee mugs, curated art shows, lectured at art schools and has been featured in national design and architectural publications such as Metropolis.

Both originally from small towns (Willen, 27, hails from Portales, N.M., and Strals, 29, from Thomson, Ga.), the two met and became business partners while studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2000. Ellen Lupton, head of the graduate design program at MICA, taught Strals and Willen and has had the opportunity to see Post Typography grow. “They’ve developed a solid and thoughtful client-based practice as well as producing more authored experimental work. Their work isn’t just funky, funny and raw— it’s extremely intelligent, too,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like it on the U.S. design scene.”

Post Typography’s funky yet smart designs often combine punk-style hand drawings with clean Helvetica (and other highly legible) fonts along with cool, old-school graphics and bold primary colors, a difficult balancing act. But underlying each project is a focused idea. “I think we make an effort to make our designs timeless in that we start with a smart idea and try to execute it in a beautiful way— not that we’re always successful,” Willen says with a laugh.

One idea that did work— very well— was for a recent cover of The New York Times’ Book Review. “We used the American flag as a jumping-off point because many of the books dealt with social change, revolution and political divide,” says Willen. “So our design used a flag with a multitude of separating stripes for an unraveling effect.”

The duo’s upcoming projects include complete design work for the U.S. Green Building Council, from its print advertising campaign to its giveaway messenger bag. They’ve already designed a travel coffee mug for the group’s annual conference emblazoned with a kitschy thought bubble containing the words, “I am not drinking from a disposable cup.”

“We don’t take ourselves very seriously,” says Willen. “We’re pretty laid-back. We try as much as possible to do only the work we want to do. Whatever projects seem interesting to us.” Or whatever anti-design possibility interests them next. —Molly O’Donnell


Sign Language

The fingerprints of Ashton Design are everywhere in Baltimore— from the new Harbor East complex to Brewers Hill to Phillips Seafood World Headquarters to Clipper Mill— but you probably don’t realize it. That’s because Ashton’s environmental graphics are designed to fit a building and its use so seamlessly that they look like part of the landscape, like they’ve always been there.

Ashton has been a forerunner in the field of environmental graphics since the late 1980s, when it designed the retro pennants, weather vanes, exterior signage and Coca-Cola billboard for Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Since then, the firm has designed sign- age for Boston’s Fenway Park and Atlanta’s Turner Field and is known as the innovator of themed design in sports stadiums.

“Signage creates a sense of place. If done right, it becomes a lasting part of the city’s landscape,” says Ronald Younts, design director for Ashton. As a rule, simplicity, clarity and timelessness characterize the firm’s lettered signs and exterior decoration. “Simple isn’t easy,” says David Ashton, founder and head designer of Ashton Design, whose Quaker upbringing instilled in him the importance of quiet observation, elegance and simplicity. “It’s so easy to make a project fussy and complex if you have a big budget.” 

When designing graphics for adaptive reuse projects, “We honor the personality of the previous architect,” says Younts. At Clipper Mill, for example, “there were a ton of great old machines at the millworks that we used for inspiration.” Stencils of machine parts decorate the signs and sides of buildings, and the sleek steel letters pay homage to the complex’s industrial history. 

Choosing materials that will last is another big part of Ashton’s design ethic. “We encourage our clients to use materials with integrity,” says Ashton. The Ashton design team balked at the idea of vinyl awnings at Fenway Park suggested by another firm, which would tear in the wind. Instead, they installed hand-painted, hand-sewn canvas awnings— “and they’ve lasted for five seasons now,” says Younts.

“We like to push the envelope,” says Ashton. “Sometimes we have crazy ideas that we aren’t sure anyone will like.” One such idea was recently implemented in the new Johns Hopkins University visitor center auditorium. Ashton created a design that featured quotes of famous graduates adorning the back of the auditorium seats— and interspersed several reading “Your quote here” among them. Says Younts: “Looking at those, you’ll think, ‘Hey, I want to go here!’ Which is the point, no?”

Of the firm’s 11 staff members, seven are graduates of Maryland Institute College of Art, and one can sense the hometown pride. “It’s really cool to drive around and see your own work in different places,” says Younts. “We live here, too. We want to be proud of our city.” —Elizabeth Heenan


Clean Plate

After his Joy America Café closed in early 2006, Spike Gjerde resolved that his next venture would be what he calls a “restaurant in the simplest way.” And yet the design of Woodberry Kitchen, the farm-to-table restaurant Gjerde and his partners, Amy Gjerde (who is also his wife) and Nelson Carey, owner of Grand Cru, opened in the Clipper Mill complex in November 2007, seems anything but simple. In fact, from its suspended flower-like glass lamps to its unorthodox menus, it’s one of the most highly designed restaurants to open in Baltimore in many a year.

In an organic meshing of form and function, nearly everything about Woodberry Kitchen, from the building design to the food, is a study in what it means to be “local.” The building, a former foundry long occupied by Poole and Hunt, was re-imagined under the direction of architect Chuck Patterson of SMG, chosen by Gjerde and his partners because “he didn’t want to do too much” to change the overall integrity of the building, says Gjerde.

In addition, in as many ways as were possible, materials from the original structure were reused and given new life. The wood-burning oven that dominates the downstairs dining room, for example, is built from a dismantled brick wall from another part of the building, and almost all of the wood in the restaurant— from stairsteps to the bar— is re-sawn 100-year-old heart pine from Clipper Mill.

Gjerde and partners also applied their “think local” principles to labor, hiring Struever Bros. as Woodberry Kitchen’s contractor, as well as employing a number of local artisans based in Clipper Mill. Gutierrez Studios did all the architectural metals, the storefront windows and the great, looming wall that holds the firewood for the oven, and Anthony Corradetti did the glasswork, including the white lamps, the red/amber globes over the bar and the small amber lights on each table. Gjerde also is conferring with Corradetti about designing special bowls for ice cream. “The cool thing when you work local,” he says, “is you can go back to them for more projects more easily.”

Woodberry Kitchen’s menu reflects the same carefully thought-out expression of what farm to table means graphically. Designed by local printer Mary Mashburn of Typecast Press, the typeface is rustic. Across the top of the menu is the restaurant’s mission statement emphasizing seasonal, sustainable and organic. The kitchen’s offerings are arranged in several categories including “Snacks,” “Suppers” and “Oysters,” and a list of local purveyors (the menu calls them “farm-to-table partnerships”) with familiar names like One Straw Farm and Reid’s Orchard filling the bottom right corner.

The gaping space on the menu between the lists of “Cold Plates” and “Supper” entrées, in a graphic way, denotes the seasonal lack of ingredients that won’t make an appearance until summer. “We have to be creative about sourcing ingredients,” explains Gjerde. “I mean creative in a way that hearkens back to a time with a different approach to food, a time when we didn’t have access to everything all the time.”

As for the food itself, dishes arrive looking more like they came from a home kitchen rather than the pages of a food industry magazine. No multi-layered towers of vegetables here, no squiggles of sauce. The Bacon and Egg Fried Rice, for example, is served sizzling in a cast-iron skillet not only for homey effect, but to keep the entrée warm at the table.

“More than anything I’ve ever done,” Gjerde reflects, “this [restaurant] is an expression of what we believe in. Not to say that Woodberry Kitchen is a concept. It’s sort of the anti-concept. There’s so little artifice.”—Mary K. Zajac

art for your kidsDesign POP

Cool Kid Art

Looking for some cool art for your kids’ rooms to replace those taped-up Pokemon and Hello Kitty posters? Then check out PrestoBingo’s limited-edition art prints for the little ones’ walls instead. A playful offshoot of Joyce Hesselberth’s and David Plunkert’s graphic design firm, Spur, PrestoBingo offers a brandless and “modernly witty” alternative design option for children’s spaces. Clever images such as a lion’s head surrounded by flower petals (Dandy Lion) make proper wall hangings for artistically inclined parents and their artsy kids.  “We plan on filling up the zoo and adding more creepy-crawly things, too,” says Hesselberth of the gaggle of animals, robots and aliens already available. Plunkert’s specialties are the robots and aliens, which he draws out by hand before perfecting them through graphic design software.  The robotic forms in his editorial work for clients like GQ, IBM and Nike make it easy to see how “silly sketches” during downtime transformed into playful robots with names like “Bob” and “Gus” for PrestoBingo.  “It’s an excuse to be silly and childish,” says Hesselberth.  “It’s our excuse to play.”  Prices range from $35 for prints to $250 for originals. 
410-235-7803, http://www.prestobingo.com. —Elizabeth Heenan

drinks at IXIA

Designer Drinks

“Christmas on the tongue” is how IXIA bartender Tom Cusack sums up his creative concoctions, some of the most highly designed alcoholic drinks in town. “Infusion jars,” stocked with fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and mixed with booze in clear glass jars behind the bar, allow the flavor of the fruit to infuse the alcohol in drinks like the Cherry Binger made with Mount Gay rum and bing cherries.  “So many bartenders will throw things into a glass and call it a drink,” says beverage director Brendan Dorr. “Not us.”

But IXIA also serves drinks you can “eat,” such as a glassless peach shot suspended in a lactate membrane, or the Bailey’s ice cream affogato, a ball of Bailey’s liqueur whipped into an ice cream texture with liquid nitrogen and topped with a hot bath of chai tea chocolate foam, paprika, honey and cinnamon.  “There are definitely theatrics involved,” says Cusack, referring to the smoking liquid nitrogen streaming over martini rims or a towering tuft of cotton candy gradually dissolved by alcohol in IXIA’s Real Magic Mojito.

Cusack credits his background in chemistry for keeping the liquid nitrogen— and his creative juices— flowing. “I had a drink literally come to me in a dream,” he says. “And we made it—it was the raspberry lemonade sorbet topped with smashed frozen lemon teardrops.”

Cusack says he enjoys working with ingredients that are known to stimulate the mind—and body. “Well, you know, within legal limits,” he adds.  518 N. Charles St., 410-727-1800. http://www.ixia-online.com — E.H.

Helios Furniture

Going to Seed

Last year, cabinetmaker Tom Benassi first laid eyes on a new product made from an unlikely source recycled sunflower hulls. A former BGE ecologist, Benassi
often uses sustainable materials both in his own work and as a construction
supervisor. But the 100-percent-green, sunflower hull board, Dakota Burl, caught his eye because of its grain: tightly packed, intricate clusters of blacks, tans and browns that resemble authentic burled wood— except the burls are made of the shells from sunflower seeds.

That was the beginning of Helios Furniture, a joint venture among Benassi, Tom Terranova of Marks-Thomas Architects in Federal Hill, Jim Shifrin, owner of B&W Fabricating in White Marsh, and investor Chris Baratta. Terranova designs the furniture and Benassi and Shifrin fabricate the one-of-a-kind pieces by hand. So far, the line features a sleek, mid-century coffee table, end table and sofa/entryway table, and a dining table is coming soon.

Dakota Burl “is used a lot in casework,” says Benassi. “But I don’t know of anyone making furniture, especially high-end pieces, out of it.” —S.A.
Helios Furniture, 410-409-7863, http://www.heliosfurniture.com


All Cracked Up

Last spring, a kitchen cabinet in Juliet Ames’ Lake Walker home fell off the wall and crashed to the floor. Sure, Ames was upset— the cabinet had housed the favorites of her vast plate collection— but instead of crying over spilt milk, so to speak, the consummate crafter took the shards into the basement, where she shaped and smoothed the edges with a glass grinder, wrapped them with copper tape that she soldered and hung the pieces on a wire. Voila! broken plate pendants. These days, Ames, a graduate of Towson University’s jewelry program, makes about 30 pendants, rings, brooches and earrings weekly, to sell at local craft shows and online. Sometimes she finds stacks of vintage plates left outside her front door. Other times she haunts the Salvation Army, Goodwill— even Anthropologie at the mall. She also encourages customers to bring their own plates to her. “The night before Jewish weddings, the mother of the bride and groom will often break a plate together,” she says. “The bride will ask me to make pendants from the shards of the plate for her bridesmaids. I love doing sentimental items.” $30 to $55, http://www.ibreakplates.com —L.W.

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