The Future of Shade
By Tom Lassiter
Challenges: How to get architects, who typically work with inflexible materials, to think of fabric as another problem-solving material in their toolkit. How to get building and landscape architects to consider shade and sun control in their initial plans, as integral solutions tend to be more elegant and beautiful than after- thought fixes.
Solution: Create an international contest for architects and landscape architects. Impose few restraints, other than using fabric, in providing a design for sun control.
Result: An outpouring of creativity from architects worldwide. Plus heightened awareness of the Sunbrella brand and its products.
“The Future of Shade,” now in its fourth year, is co-sponsored by Sunbrella and Architizer, an online community for architects. Right now, a panel of judges is considering entries in the 2016 contest.
“What Sunbrella very smartly has done is challenge architects to think about fabric,” says Marc Kushner, a New York architect and co-founder of Architizer. “Architects tend to think in terms of hard surfaces. Expanding the scope of architecture to include the soft actually expands the palette.”
The competition is another example of Glen Raven, creator of Sunbrella, patiently building brand awareness. Time and money spent on promotion now may not result in significant returns for years, but that’s OK with privately held Glen Raven. The company values a carefully developed market with great long-term potential over flash-in-the-pan profits.
Architects, says Sunbrella’s Gina Wicker, “are very different from our furniture- manufacturing customers. They don’t ever buy anything. They specify.”
The contest strategy, she explains, “was to grow the pie, to get the architectural community thinking about fabric. Once we get architects to understand the possibilities of working with a textile product and the challenges, they can determine how to proceed from there.”
Glen Raven understands that other fabric companies may benefit from greater awareness about incorporating sun control fabric structures into buildings from the outset, and not as an afterthought as is often the case. That’s fine, Wicker says. If the pie is larger, Glen Raven will enjoy its fair share through increased sales of Sunbrella fabric.
The importance of the building design to Sunbrella is evidenced by Wicker’s new position. She is now director of A & D (architecture and design) markets. Her previous post focused on marketing Sunbrella’s performance fabrics for upholstered furniture (indoor as well as outdoor) and the company’s marine products.
“‘The Future of Shade’ began as a wide-open competition with no ground rules,” she says. “Anything that created shade and had some attachment to an architectural structure was fair game.”
To Wicker’s surprise, the majority of entries had some sort of humanitarian element. The design community worldwide, she learned, is hyper-aware of strife, natural disasters, climate change, and the resulting human suffering.
More recent competitions were modified with categories for Building Shade, Wellness Garden, and Humanitarian.
“Designing for the betterment of society is the intent behind architecture,” says Amber Lafontaine, co-designer with Sophia Yi of the 2015 grand prizewinner in the Humanitarian category.
The Canadians’ winning design, called The Fold, is a system of temporary shelter components for use in refugee camps. The components may be configured to provide shelter for family groups of different sizes, and clustered together for related groups and communities.
“When architecture is matched with current events, it becomes relevant on a scale beyond just design,” Kushner says. “That’s one of the successes of this competition.”
The competition is also open to students of design and architecture, which Kushner says indicates a keen understanding of the profession.
“Architecture is pretty slow moving,” he says. “It takes a long time to design and construct a building, sometimes years. It makes a lot of sense to start speaking to architects when they are in school. The competition really engages younger talents to think about sun, to think about shade, and what Sunbrella can be doing for them in their designs and their design centers.”
Opening the door to the architectural community allowed information to flow in both directions. Sunbrella marketers and engineers saw designs in the first contest that required fabric specialty not in the Sunbrella lineup at that time.
“They needed a fabric that had a little bit of stretch,” Wicker says.
Glen Raven’s textile engineers went to work. “We now have Sunbrella Contour,” she says. “It’s a shade cell fabric, a knit. The contest pushes us to think differently about what our fabric solutions ought to be.”
The Wellness Garden category came about in response to the healthcare community’s recognition that fresh air and light are beneficial for patients undergoing treatment for a variety of ailments. Sun control is part of the prescription, because patients sometimes must avoid direct sunlight.
“Shade is a huge element in that market,” says Wicker.
Kushner calls the option of working with a fabric solution provocative for architects. “The typical solution would be to build something solid, permanent, heavy,” he says. “But there is this in-between solution that actually can do it better and more economically.”
Textiles offer playful qualities that are the opposite of those associated with glass, metal and concrete. Fabric moves in response to the slightest breeze, assuming ever-changing contours that entertain the eye.
“Introducing fabric into the equation frees us a little,” Kushner says. “We get to twist and turn and flutter and roll and scrunch up. Those are not things we normally get to play with in traditional materials of architecture.”
Most entries in the “Future of Shade” competition remain design concepts. Architects’ submissions, however, typically are extremely detailed and usually precise enough for construction.
Sunbrella built one fanciful design as an example of the possible. The design, called Twisty, won the grand prize in the 2013 contest. The designer is Kevin Chu of FABLAB Design in Hong Kong. Twisty was constructed and installed in Miami for Art Basel, a showcase of art, architecture and design. Twisty later was installed at the Long Island estate of a textile designer and collector, where it remains.
Sunbrella may use contest entries in its marketing and promotional activities, but the designs remain the intellectual property of the creators.
The third category in this year’s competition relates to a specific design challenge in Miami. Designs must address the issue of peak daytime sun at Paradise Plaza and the adjoining Paseo Ponti in the Miami Design District.
Grand prizewinners in each category will receive $10,000.
Jurors are a New York architect, a Miami architect, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Washington who focuses on healing/restorative gardens, Kushner, and a commercial market manager for Sunbrella.
Entries in the Building Shade category also will be considered by a panel representing the Miami Design District. If one is chosen for construction, it will receive a $25,000 commission.
Cash prizes have extra significance in the architecture world, Kushner says. “Architecture is hard, really hard,” he explains. A few thousand dollars and the notoriety that comes with winning an international design competition are sufficient to launch a career.
Glen Raven promotes the contest widely in the architectural community, and created an art museum-like exhibit for the trade shows of the American Institute of Architects and American Society of Landscape Architects.
“People were very surprised at our presentation,” Wicker says. “People who are officers in the organizations and educators thanked us for this sort of inspiration.”
As the pie grows and architects understand the benefits of fabric for sun control, Glen Raven is banking on reaping the benefits. The creativity and care that architects are devoting to “The Future of Shade” indicates that the Sunbrella message is taking hold.
“There are things you can do with fabric, and looks you can achieve with fabric, that you just can’t get with metal or glass,” Wicker says.
The 2015 competition received 190 submissions from 36 countries includingthe U.S., Canada, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Italy, China and Bolivia.