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Molded gypsum shapes a Chicago Merchandise Mart space.
The Steelcase Worklife Center is one of the Chicago Merchandise Mart’s largest showrooms, spanning 45,000 square feet and encompassing four areas displaying the furniture manufacturers’ various brands. The company hired Los Angeles-based architect Joey Shimoda, who also designed the Steelcase center in Santa Monica, to create interiors that would unify the showroom with the common corridor bisecting it. After reading about a project by molded gypsum, concrete, and fiberglass fabricator Formglas in a magazine, he called the company and was on a plane to its Toronto headquarters the next day to discuss a series of geometric architectural elements he envisioned for the space.
“We knew that cast gypsum would be a good way to do this,” said Shimoda. Glass fiber reinforced gypsum (GRG) is a white, thin-cast alpha gypsum that is preferable to traditional plaster castings because of its light weight, high strength, and easy installation. The team began to work on three main architectural elements for the showroom. Because an undulating glass wall would separate the Center from the corridor, Shimoda wanted to draw visitors to the storefront with a row of totems—elliptical column covers in a pattern of stretched and compressed facets. The second element, called The Body, would be a veiled enclosure to shelter the showroom’s cafe, bar, and presentation room from the rest of the space. The third feature, born of necessity, was a screen over the return air louver for the Mart’s exhaust system, which necessitated a pattern with 70 percent perforation.
The team collaborated with Steelcase’s vice president of global design James Ludwig to create each element’s pattern. The goal was to create a large number of design possibilities by using one shape as a starting point and manipulating it to achieve multiple forms. Shimoda and the Formglas team produced computer files in Rhino and CATIA. Using a laser scan of the existing structural elements along with site measurements, they accounted for space constraints. The finished forms were divided into segments that would allow for them to be transported to the showroom and installed there.
Using the computer models, Formglas used a 5-axis CNC mill to manufacture molds for each shape. Each of the twelve column designs is approximately ten feet high and is constructed from eight pieces with a range of elliptical geometries supported by wood reinforcing ribs. Saw-tooth overlap joints allow the column cap and base to fit together smoothly; joints were caulked, sanded, and painted on site.
The Body feature wall went through several iterations. The first, a series of horizontal ribs with integrated LEDs, was not in Formglas’ scope of work, but they agreed to take on a modified design later in the project. The double-sided grille is created by a varied vertical diamond pattern, creating a semi-opaque enclosure around banquette seating.
The grille design is made up of horizontally intersecting curved ribs that create diamond-shaped openings. Formglas experimented with fusing individual components in the mold, allowing for a faster construction process and easier assembly. While the mechanical portion is open, additional sections are backed with drywall. The wall is painted grey, creating a functional design element that connects all of the Steelcase space, visible through its glass walls, along the corridor. In total Formglas fabricated approximately 1,000 parts for the space over the course of three months.
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