Thom Faulders: Finding Depth in Surfaces

Thom Faulders appreciates contradictions, and his work exemplifies his ability to embrace the many sides of architecture—the conceptual and the built, the artistic and the practical, the fixed structure and the perceived space. One of his current projects, a thin, foliagelike, stainless-steel skin for AirSpace, a multifamily housing unit in Tokyo, demonstrates his ideas about the beauty in contrasts. "Surfaces can be a real opportunity," he says, "and for AirSpace, I was inspired by foam, or a sponge. As an exterior membrane for a building, the lightweight steel becomes a zone where artificial meets nature. It protects the occupants from the roadway while at the same time providing a fluid environment that changes when sunlight and weather interact with it."

Faulders says he really found his way to architecture by studying it, leaving it and becoming an artist, then returning and starting a company called Beige Design; he’s currently rebranding the company, but says he chose the name because his anything-but-bland designs contradict its neutrality. Looking for the differences in things, the contrasts, and elements about structures that continue to change is what most interests him about architecture. "We’re hardwired to recognize difference," he says, "and although there has to be some constant medium to contrast it to, finding that difference, designing it, is fun." As an installation artist, Faulders says his work was so heavily concept-based that he found he was boring himself and feeling isolated. Getting back to the "meatspace"—a term coined by hackers and techno geeks to refer to the real space we live in, as opposed to cyberspace—helped him find an outlet for concepts that had some practical uses, too. "My work still has strong concept-based and academic underpinnings," says Faulders, "but now it exists in ‘solid space.’ " Another contradiction? "Yes, but I’m always looking for a dynamic way to express myself."

In seeking to express and create dynamic designs, Faulders says he finds inspiration outside of architecture, in industries such as electronics, aeronautics, and athletic gear. The iPod in particular has inspired him lately. "It’s not just an artifact," he says. "It’s flexible, customizable, and practical."

Claiming to be neither a geek nor a romantic when it comes to design, Faulders says he appreciates innovators, particularly the fresh visions of students. He currently teaches at the California College of the Arts, in San Francisco and Oakland. "I enjoy thinkers who keep pushing the envelope," he says. "Students do that." His own projects attempt that push, including installations such as Particle Reflex, his 2001 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art piece that used plastic panels held in midair by bungee cords to form a giant volume, at once structured and yet changeable due to environmental stimuli. Whether in plastic, steel, or concrete, Faulder’s work is always seeking mutation. "I see materials as verbs," he says, "whether they have inherent, verblike qualities or become dynamic as I work with them." Faulders doesn’t see architecture as everlasting. "Forces change buildings in time," he says. "Everything changes. That’s what’s interesting."

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