Resetting What Metal Means, One Facade at a Time

As Pure+FreeForm’s Geoffrey Hahn tells it, new technologies have created a new materials approach, one far more creative and collaborative.

Expensify, Portland, OR, ZGF/Photo Garrett Rowland

Inked, grooved, iridescent, veined—over the past two decades, metal materiality has evolved from the familiar, shiny, and often severe into something much more pliable, multifaceted, and, most promisingly, organic in look and feel. Ink injections have given it new tones and textures. Resins have granted the artificial material something akin to skin. Finishes have changed its ability to hold and cast light. With these innovations, architectural and decorative metal has become a space for play.

Correspondingly, the companies developing these techniques, such as Pure + FreeForm, have transitioned from vendors contracted during execution to key creative collaborators. It’s a role creative director Geoffrey Hahn played in projects such as David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Kengo Kuma’s Japanese Garden in Portland, and the Diner, Surface’s installation designed by the LAB at Rockwell Group that debuted at Milan Design Week 2018. Hahn and Pure + FreeForm sit at the forefront of a new materials movement that is opening doors to all kinds of possibilities.

REI Headquarters, Bellevue, WA, NBBJ/Image courtesy NBBJ

How did your involvement in materials begin?

I started working for Ralph Lauren in New York in their store development division after graduating from Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. I worked on historic buildings, interior design, and fixtures; things like that. I quickly became very interested in a lot of the vendors, especially surfaces.

In what might seem a paradoxical way, I became deeply engaged by the inherent, seemingly severe limitations of materiality and design. At that moment, due to the fact most manufacturers pushed generic or uninspired finishes into the market, there was this demand from designers and developers for site-specific features in their projects. But since manufacturing is really based on a system-centric model, meaning they are focused on the performance or patented details and not design, specialty or custom finishes were typically value engineered out. My business partner, Will Pilkington, and I saw the need for this design–specific approach that only a small, flexible company could do. Our focus was on bespoke work and relative affordability, becoming the architect’s, and by extension the project’s, champion.

And what does that mean, specifically?

It means we offer specific finishes for people concerned with design—things that are new to the market, that are contemporary but respect archetypes—to help give meaning to their spaces. So it’s not just beautiful design, but beautiful design with a purpose. We believe in materials that reflect tradition, texture, scale, purpose, and place. The tradition allows it to be timeless, but the new forms allow it to be interpreted in a fresh manner. Given that we live in an age influenced by the digital rather than the physical, the deeper sense of meaning, interaction, and experience you can have with materiality is our focus. What really matters to us, though, is the job’s relationship to its surroundings; offering something tangible and meaningful that transcends simple embellishment. There is so much design out there right now that being generic is dangerous. We need real signifiers that offer something important and tell the story of our culture and where we exist today.

25 Kent, Brooklyn, NY, Gensler/Photo Joe Brennan

What are some examples of that approach?

There was the awesome Diner installation in Milan for Surface. We used a finish from a collection we did with Marcel Wanders, which changed depending on the light source and the angle of interaction. A lot of people walked in and were like, “Why is there a texture reflecting off this metal that gives it depth? How is that achievable?” We saw people physically interact with the material and question their assumptions on its limitations.

Another example would be at the 25 Kent office building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We paired its modern variegated brick surface with a blackened steel that we injected with a pearlescent ink to create iridescence, variation, and a level of depth you might not expect. It’s a place-specific modulation of a familiar material that offers both long-term occupants and casual observers a contemporary interpretation of the office building now. And it underscores the advantages of our partnering with the initial design team—in this case led by Gensler—in order to create a project-specific finish. The building also serves as a local gathering, performing, and arts space, further blurring the boundary between commodity and community and the materiality signifies this. It’s subtle but intentional.

That seems like a lot of lead time for something that is, ultimately, put on at the very last minute, right?

We’re getting involved in the early stages of projects because the designers see the ability to do something totally new. A good example is the new REI headquarters we just completed in Bellevue, Washington. It’s a huge project and NBBJ wanted to give it an identity and personality through its unique massing, metal, and texture. The metal is a textured black steel offset by glinty rust and texture is added via corrugation. The point here is by working on real finishes and details upfront, we were able to present an appropriate and on-budget solution instead of trying to fit it in at the end, which never works. Design is most often successful through real collaboration. It will be an absolutely killer building when it opens.

These bigger projects are designed for a couple of years and then take three years to build, so we’re looking at things sometimes five, six years before they’re completed. For example, we were working on Hudson Yards in 2012 and our scope at 55 Hudson Yards and 20 Hudson Yards have just been completed this year.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, D.C., Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup /Image courtesy OTTO

Those last couple are rather big examples, but I’m interested to know about more subtle things you can do—maybe something in a smaller space.

Well, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s one of the most significant American buildings of the past decade—not only in terms of design, but of meaning. Every detail was taken super seriously. There was a lot of development on the facade’s beautiful precast aluminum extrusions that give it a rich color. But one of my favorite parts is the Contemplative Court, which we worked on with the architects David Adjaye and Davis Brody Bond. The Museum in its every part commemorates some of the most somber moments in our shared history, and this particular area is for meditation, for taking a break and concentrating on the now.

There’s this oculus that leads to the outside that also acts as a waterfall. So the idea was to create a material that had some type of reflectivity. Our response was applying a gloss surface to copper and infusing it with a strong green pearlescent ink. When the natural light from the oculus hits it, the space becomes quite relaxing and meditative. It’s one of those projects that conveys how making small differences can have a huge impact.

Japanese Gardens, Portland, OR, Kengo Kuma & Associates/Photo Jeremy Bitterman

How do you deal with the public perception of metal, which is often cast as something inhuman or industrial?

I was in San Francisco last week and there was a Warhol exhibit at SFMOMA. At some point he observed about his own art, “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.” The border that seams the material and the real has been another obsession of mine: there’s always this push and pull there, not just real versus natural but nature versus modern technology. European and Asian markets seem to have a broader comfort zone for artifice and artificial materials, whereas US designers often gravitate towards a kind of “truth” or reality. I’m not sure I know what a “true material” is, but this marks another border that I feel should be a constant part of the design conversation. Of course, we expect this dialogue to get livelier as some of our newer projects are published, since some of our new technologies and surfaces blow away anything we have done previously.

The Diner, Milan, Italy, LAB at Rockwell Group/Photo Michele de Candia for Surface

Beyond those new techniques, what’s next for Pure + FreeForm?

We’re starting an interiors division in the next couple of months. We’ve had a lot of really cool interiors jobs. The Expensify HQ with ZGF Architects won an Interior Design Award, a Frame award and numerous others for mid-size office interior work. We realized that even though we’re doing a lot of cool facade work, interiors are potentially even more interesting because they’re where people have interaction with the materiality, and therefore, they can be even more meaningful.

In exteriors, we are now dealing with subtleties of how light reacts, spreads, and diffuses off surfaces. These are physical textures, not optical, so the impact is really pretty amazing. This will hit the market early next year and will be a game changer.

We’re also creating things that are important in terms of sustainability, things that survive for the long term. That means we’re using single-skin material, which is atypical in the market because everyone’s using ACM (Aluminum Composite Material), which contains a lot of plastic and is difficult to recycle. It’s very processed. Our product is 100% recyclable and participates in the mindful MATERIALS library—a sourcing database of eco-friendly materials—which is really significant. We’re also offering one of the most unprocessed materials in our category and a finish with up to a 60-year life cycle. So we’re creating something that’s significant in terms of design, but it’s not just about the surface—it’s also about what happens over the life cycle of the product. The idea of just getting rid of stuff is not something we want to engage in. We believe in making things for the future.

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