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October 22, 2017
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Twofold, a creation by Cornell University students Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann, on display at the Fort Point Channel. Photograph courtesy of Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann.

The park bench - the old staple of urban spaces - has been reinvented.

Together with 19 individual designers and teams from around the world, the Design Museum Boston is showing that everyday, outdoor city seating can creatively reflect a neighborhood and its people. It can include tables for eating and working, or different heights to accommodate children and adults; it can light up in darkness or give the effect of changing colours to passersby.

IDEO’s City Blocks bench sits along the
Fort Point Channel with its four-sided beacon.
Photograph by Dirk Ahlgrim.

The museum's Street Seats project began in September 2012 with an open call to designers around the world to create their own iconic bench for the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston, which is actively being developed and promoted as the city's Innovation District.

Co-founder and executive director of the museum Sam Aquillano explains that the idea for the project came from "a confluence of things," which included a US$50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to put design to use in the burgeoning waterfront neighborhood.

"One thing we did notice was that the area could use a lot of work from a livability standpoint for residents and people working there," he explains. "It's still industrial and still pretty raw, which is cool. You'd never want to lose that but with this whole idea of the Innovation District and more people moving there, we thought we'd like to play a role in helping to soften and make it more human."

Boston's mayor Thomas Menino has also been active for more than 10 years in developing the Fort Point Channel and the land surrounding it into a destination with, as Aquillano puts it, "a park-like atmosphere." He and his team realised that innovative and inviting seating could help achieve that mission.

You've got student teams, you've got professionals. IDEO is one of the largest and most successful design firms in the world. They're in there and then you've got kids from Western Washington University.

Fresh from researching, developing and curating Getting There: Design for Travel in the Modern Age, an exhibition presently on view at Boston's Logan Airport, Aquillano says he and his team were exhausted. They decided to turn to the design community, both local and international, to help out with their next project, which is the non-profit museum's largest one to date.

The Design Museum Boston got its start in 2009 when Aquillano and friend Derek Cascio, both practicing industrial designers at the time, realised that the design community in the city was growing. They also saw a disconnect between this group of creatives and the general public. "I started to notice that nobody was teaching the public about design or even talking to them about it in anyway," reflects Aquillano. "I thought a great way to do that would be to start a museum."

With the economic downturn, raising funds to establish a physical museum proved challenging. Soon, Aquillano and Cascio began to consider the pop-up trend; their museum would host events and exhibits in varied and continuously changing locations around Boston.

"I think the biggest part of our success has been that our approach is perfectly in line with the content," he explains. "Our slogan is 'Design is everywhere. So are we.' Design is all around us, so the museum should be all around us."

The latest location to be transformed into the Design Museum Boston is Fort Point, which is hosting the Street Seats exhibition now through October 6, 2013. After receiving 172 submissions from around the world, a team of 14 judges that included local journalists, artists, architects and even a renowned chef, got together to whittle down the field to 20 very diverse finalists - one has since dropped out - who would produce their proposed benches and exhibit them along the channel.

Not only do the benches differ in concept, design and materials used, but the finalists also range from university students to internationally renowned designers. "The judging was blind and it was just amazing to see," Aquillano says. "You've got student teams, you've got professionals. IDEO is one of the largest and most successful design firms in the world. They're in there and then you've got kids from Western Washington University."

"It was so cool to see their progress," he adds. "I was getting pictures from IDEO and they have this amazing equipment to design and construct their bench and then pictures of these students who were up at 3 a.m. sanding."

Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann
took inspiration from a chess table for
their seat, Twofold. Photograph courtesy
of Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann. 

One of the student teams comprises Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann, who are in the fifth year of their undergraduate architecture studies at Cornell University. The pair designed Twofold, a seat that combines a park bench with a chess table to provide a seat and table for children as well as seating for adults - fitting for Fort Point, home to the Boston Children's Museum.

MacDonald and Schumann say they've enjoyed the competition because it allowed them to see their idea come to life in a final product, which was funded with US$750 from the Design Museum Boston and built entirely by MacDonald and Schumann. "As architecture students, we're often building small models of big projects," MacDonald explains. "It was nice to work on this because you're working at a one-to-one scale and exactly what you design you're building, so that's been a really fun experience."

The two also note that it's rewarding to create something for public use, a sentiment echoed by the team from IDEO. The group of professionals created City Blocks, a bench that also offers different levels of seating and uses wood, glass and rubber. IDEO Design researcher Liza Rutenbeck explains that City Blocks takes inspiration from Fort Point's buildings, which are both old and new and of varying heights.

[Street Seats] is not just about these sculptural art pieces; it's something that we use every day and we're really contextualising it so it stops people in their tracks and they think, 'Whoa, what's with this bench?'

The bench is a collaboration of at least 10 designers from IDEO's Cambridge, Massachusetts office, each of whom brought a different skill set to the design. IDEO were drawn to the project, Rutenbeck says, because of the idea of connecting with the community. "This bench hopefully will be used and seen by everyone," she adds. "It's nice that it's public art and there's a group of us here who are just excited about that kind of work."

In addition to City Blocks, Twofold and the 17 other benches on display, visitors will find 19 beacons that convey information about each seat and the design competition as a whole. There is also a mobile app - the museum's first - so that people can view information and videos about the benches on their smartphones while touring the outdoor exhibit. The app even allows visitors to change the colour of light shining out of the beacons with the simple click of a button, just for a bit fun.

Still, Street Seats is more than a fun experience; as with all Design Museum exhibitions, Aquillano hopes to get the public thinking about design. "I wanted to help people understand and recognise when design is good, because normally when design is good it just happens, right?" he says of creating the museum. "I want people to stop and think about why it is good, what the impact of good design is and above all about practicality. That's Street Seats. It's not just about these sculptural art pieces; it's something that we use every day and we're really contextualising it so it stops people in their tracks and they think, 'Whoa, what's with this bench?'"

"It's a curiosity," he adds. "If we can promote that type of curiosity I think we will have done what we're supposed to."

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