PUSHING the Boundaries of Design

Emerging methods for keeping solid surface at the top of the wave of innovation

By Mario Romano

As a designer, I want to express design in the build environment outside of the limiting formats of many materials. I wasn’t interested in flatness or smooth surfaces; I wanted texture and line work to branch out, iterate and expand as intricately or as complex as I could imagine. To do this, I turned to solid surface and its ability to bond to itself virtually seamlessly.

In order to push the boundaries of design, we have to look “in the grandiose lines of nature,” as August Rodin said when asked where he found his inspiration. Nature is a supreme designer. It’s taken some time for humankind to realize this, and only since the 1980s did we have the computational power to learn that nature has a design logic all its own, an iterative logic so complex that it appeared, until recently, like chaos.

This stands in contrast to the modernist movement led by Le Corbusier, who insisted that the straight line was man conquering the chaos of nature. Nature’s logic reveals a new, emerging style of design, known by such names as organic, parametric, generative or even emergent design. No matter what this new design style is called, it has arrived, and for the architecture community, solid surface offers an excellent source material to express what the world naturally creates: smooth, undulating, continuous and uninterrupted forms that can take on shapes as simple as a countertop to as complex and expressive as a parametric screen shaped as an undulating palm fond.

It may be a bold statement, but having worked and researched all types of materials over the past 15 years, I believe the inherent properties in solid surface behave most similarly to the source of form and the potentiality of what form can be, and without form there is no design.

Solid surface is a material that is fluid, expressive and flowing with potential. For me, it has been the skeleton key for unlocking the boundaries of design. A large factor that differentiates solid surface is that when cut, shaped and, ultimately, fragmented, the pieces can be seamlessly reunited. Reuniting the many back into the one, as poetic as this sounds, is the key to pushing the limits of design. It allows design to break out of the box via the continuity, fluidity and a wave-like intelligence. Solid surface, although shipped in rectangular shapes, can easily be melded into massive monolithic slabs, and can be carved, profiled and thermoformed into complex geometry, as complex as nature could have ever made.

Special Effects into Architecture

We wanted to superimpose droplets, rainbows, butterfly wings, vortexes and natural imagery – these complex and beautiful organizations – into  the architectural world as permanent and robust construction surfaces. One particular focus was wall panels.

It was a bit of a dream, so I started off small, experimenting, testing and researching with solid surface on a daily basis, including numerous mock-ups that got bigger and bigger, until they grew to full sized installations permanently installed on people’s walls, bathrooms and facades.

Textured solid surface has a wholly unique and soft tactile sensation that is warm and smooth to the touch. The way it behaves when carved is also unlike others, as the material can hold an immense amount of nuanced detail that enables a high level of resolution, expression and sensitivity to light and shadow, as well as backlighting. Computers and machines were the catalyst that allowed us to push these boundaries of design.

To accomplish this, we had to develop our own software specifically to allow for complex designs in solid surface material. Our patent-pending software allows us to design algorithmically while including considerations for installation, material behaviors and CNC machine time, as well as offering special-effects-like design potential. In the design world we frequently hear bringing the outside in, referring to the elements of nature, Mario Romano, designer and fabricator, has utilized advanced software and machinery to push the boundaries of solid surface, able to create large-scale, nonrepeating patterns to match just about any design goal. light, landscape and the beauty that only nature can bestow. We challenged ourselves to deliver a nature-inspired design experience and bring it inside the home, albeit on the wall as textured and carved solid surface. M.R. Walls was the result.

M.R. Walls’ Unique Fabrication

Using the software technology that contains the design and the installation process, the solid surface panels are carved with robotic CNC-type machines. M.R. Walls arrive in puzzle pieces, instead of panels, and are precisely cut so that they interlock creating a design experience. The process allows for organized complexity and unlimited scaling, as well as endless design and color possibilities.

The beauty of the system is that the M.R. Walls can be connected to make one massive surface, without the appearance of seams. The 3-D designs created within the high-tech software, combined with the abilities of the CNC machine, paves the way for nonrepeatable patterns inspired by nature.

 I wanted to expand the design language of the wall surface. I wasn’t interested in just having the same shape repeated, as dictated by a mass-produced, unmalleable medium. With M.R. Walls, unique pieces fit together to create an uninterrupted design experience that extends over a large area. People want something they haven’t seen before, that evokes mystery and intrigue. When you see a large-scale, yet unique object, you wonder how it was created. No one thinks that when they see a common repeated pattern. Nature doesn’t repeat itself, so why should your walls?

At our studio we revere digital fabrication as part of a new epoch that integrates the builder and the designer, as one source. Since Leon Alberti dictated, some 500 years ago, architects design with drawings and builders do the composing with material. Digital fabrication offers the ability to unite both the designer and the maker, allowing the designer to actually create in the computer, and then ultimately have a machine fabricate exactly what was created. We’ve focused our entire business around this, and this approach to fabrication enables our team to keep practicing the art of making with each variation of the digital model able to be produced. In this way, designers and fabricators are freed from the constraints of first making the object in the physical world.

The Wave of Design

Very often the essence of the universe is described as a wave, namely a wave particle. When it comes to design, and understanding how meaningful and impactful it is, we have to look at the wave, its shape and its metaphor. The wave is continuous, uninterrupted, fluid and at times amorphous, in the sense that it has no start and stop. Our focus on this idea has led to some very interesting projects.

Bird Feather Façade – In what we call the Wave House, my team and I wanted to create a solid surface facade that resembled the organization of bird feathers. We wanted a unique monolithic bird-like feather arrangement to not only stack over each other, but also wrap around the corner of the building. The challenge was how to thermoform the large pieces on site using the building corner as the form in which to bend. We actually turned to a BBQ for the answer, setting only the individual part wanted to form into the BBQ, and waiting for about five minutes. This would result in warm and flexible piece that we would hoist up, clamped with rope, which would allow the crew about two minutes in which to set the bend or form the piece around the corner. “Another shrimp on the BBQ” we would joke. Clearly a BBQ, is not in any of the solid surface fabrication guidelines, but let’s face it, 250 F is simply 250 F whether it’s a $10,000 thermoforming oven or a gas grill. Romano takes into account a variety of properties inherent in solid surface, such as its reaction to light and shadow, as well as its ability to be backlit, into his unique designs. In a project called “Wave House,” Romano and his team created a solid surface façade that resembled unique, overlapping bird feathers that wrap around the building.

Swimming in a Museum – In another project, a real estate developer creating a $20 million spec home in Los Angeles wanted an iconic design for the indoor swimming pool wall surfaces. We proposed the image of the “Great Wave” to unite the experience of an indoor swimming pool with a super large scale museum-like surface that was also impervious to the wet environment. Spanning more than 600 sq. ft. without any repetition or visible seams, 27 unique puzzle pieces, all carved, etched and textured, interlocked together creating a massive custom mural. 

Mass Customization

For one particular hotel project with 36 showers, we proposed 36 different M.R. Wall designs. The client thought this would be incredibly expensive. We told him the computer and the machine don’t care if they are making 36 different showers surrounds or 36 of the same. This was a bit of a shocker to the customers, but they were intrigued. Harnessing the power of low-level robotics, like a CNC machine, combined with massive computational programming is an achievement that would not have been possible a decade ago.