Young talent is turning New England's second-largest city into design heaven
Meaghan O'Neill -- Interior Design, 11/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
A solar-powered dwelling designed by Rhode Island School of Design students and faculty for a U.S. Department of Energy contest.
Cucumber Lab's Phonograph, a hybrid audio system and wine cabinet.
At the Steel Yard, a golf-club sculpture by Howie Sneider.
Cynthia Treen's screen in heavily sized Chinese silk, cut and folded by hand.
Onda cork wall panels by Daniel Michalik.
His Cortiça chaise longue, made of recycled cork.
A rendering of a loft-style apartment by Two Ton.
In fall 2001, developers demolished Fort Thunder, a well known artists' collaborative in Providence, Rhode Island, and replaced the facility with a big-box store. This move was seen as a step back for the progressive city, which had been "working hard not to marginalize artists and designers," says Clay Rockefeller, a 27-year-old sculptor who's lived there for six years. He decided to fight fire with fire: forming an investment consortium, buying a former foundry site, and helping transform it into the Steel Yard, an industrial-arts center that offers classes, workshops, and studios to a growing enclave of up-and-coming artists and designers.
His investment was well timed. Home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence has the highest number of artists per capita in the U.S. and has long been a nexus for intellectuals and artists. But lately its magnetic pull for young designers has grown stronger, thanks to progressive real-estate measures, an ample inventory of affordable studio space, and a quality of life that's hard to beat.
That wasn't always the case. An industrial center in the 1800's, Providence became a postwar rust port, and newly minted RISD designers had little economic incentive to stick around. Then, in the 1990's, civic leaders revitalized downtown, uncovering and moving two paved-over rivers, building lovely bridges and cobblestone esplanades, and restoring the grand 19th-century architecture. Real-estate skyrocketed, threatening to displace the city's creative sector—read "starving artists." (And designers.) So officials granted tax breaks and property variances.
One mothballed mill after another has been converted into studio space, while various governmental, civic, and academic organizations have popped up to help emerging talent deal with financial issues such as health insurance and accounting. There's even a group, the Center for Design & Business, that teaches small businesses how to incorporate design into their operations. Add comparatively low rents and easy access to New York, and voilà: Providence is looking like the next Williamsburg.
Unlike New York, however, Providence's small scale (population 176,000) has fostered a cohesive community. Furniture designer Daniel Michalik, who specializes in cork, takes advantage of the local boatbuilding industry for fabrication. "We all trade skills," he says. "I designed a friend's studio. He built my Web site." Likewise, a referral network has cropped up. "In the past week, the Steel Yard's received seven or so inquiries, seeing if we had people here who could help build some tables, a sign for a new building, and a decorative fireplace screen," says Rockefeller, who also cofounded the Monohassett Mill Project, a live-work space adjacent to the Steel Yard.
Fresh out of RISD graduate school, sculptor Ben Blanc and technophile Andrew Reed formed Cucumber Lab, a firm that's designed such niche items as a hybrid audio system and wine cabinet. The two partners find inspiration in the diversity of the scene—their cohorts include DJs, glassblowers, and painters. But it's not just local grads who've set up shop. Cynthia Treen, a textile artist who worked for nine years at companies in New York and Los Angeles, relocated here to open her own textile studio. "There's an influx of people coming from larger cities," she says, "because Providence allows you freedom to create an individual path."
Architects Luke Mandle and Peter Benarcik, both alumni of Lundberg Design and now principals of their own firm, Two Ton, migrated here from cost-prohibitive San Francisco. Mandle points to the renewal of downtown Providence, as established urban developers carve out hundreds of apartments in restored buildings within walking distance of theaters, restaurants, and shopping—including the recently arrived Design Within Reach. "Those developers have the luxury of money," notes Mandle, "but they're also using smart, long-term thinking."
Of course, nothing could be more SoHo than artists being priced out of an area by "loft style" apartments for white-collar workers—tax breaks or no. On the other hand, the Congress for the New Urbanism thinks that the city is headed in the right direction. When the organization holds its annual conference there in June, Providence will reinforce its place in the design firmament. As Rockefeller says, "There's a confluence of people and ideas, and they're really starting to operate well together." Good design, as Providence knows, draws a crowd.