Checking In With Sergio Palleroni
An update on the BASIC Initiative, the Katrina Furniture Project and other notable projects from the Interior Design Hall of Fame member.
Mark McMenamin -- Interior Design, 11/19/2007 12:00:00 AM
Sergio Palleroni was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame last fall, in no small part due to the two decades he's spent championing socially conscious architecture. Currently a visiting professor and research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, Palleroni is the cofounder of the University of Washington's Building Sustainable Communities Initiative—also known as BASIC. One of his most ambitious undertakings has been the Katrina Furniture Project to salvage and reuse the destroyed building stock of New Orleans. But Palleroni still took time to help Interior Design editor in chief Cindy Allen choose the winners in our annual future furniture competition, which can be found in our November issue. Here, Palleroni gives us an update on his activities over the past year, and comments on a few of his favorite Interior Design's future furniture winners.
Interior Design: Have you embarked on any new projects or initiatives in the past year?
Sergio Palleroni: Yes, two great projects have emerged in the last year to add to our efforts to address the need of those underserved by design. One is in a way an extension, or even sister, to the Katrina Furniture Project. The Katrina Recovery Sheds is a project that was initiated by the Building Goodness Foundation out of Charlottesville, VA that has been engaging builders in disaster relief efforts by making sheds to help people store the valuables they had in their homes.
In collaboration with Brad Guy, a salvage expert working at Penn State University, and Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, we worked with 22 extraordinary students from Universities ranging from Harvard and Yale to Syracuse and University of Texas to make the salvage that we are using in the KFP useful in addressing the needs of families, and individuals, now living either in FEMA trailers, displaced, or surviving in damaged homes in areas affected by Katrina. The idea was to make the simple sheds out of salvage and make them do things that would improve the lives of storm victims.
One shed became a hope cottage for a couple hoping to rebuild. Made of salvaged wood, sheets of steel, and barn doors, it became the place of pride for the couple to hang out, rest and host meals for friends—a kind of precious living room allowing them to continue with their lives as they slowly rebuilt their home.
In the second, we really pushed its construction, integrating ideas from timber construction and Japanese cabinets to make it work better environmentally and make it possible for it to be disassembled and re-utilized or re-deployed, like Japanese cabinets. It was for Louis, an 80-year-old catfish fisherman on the Pearl River, who wanted a fish cleaning station, workshop, and porch to hang out with his buddies. He got it all in this beautifully conceived shed, in which the students also managed to celebrate the character of each salvaged piece of wood
One unexpected pleasure this past year has been my selection to receive one of the Smithsonian's first Artist Research Fellowships, a fantastic program which is making the extraordinary resources of the Smithsonian, and its vast collections, available to people in the arts and design fields. This has been an unexpected pleasure, don't get many chances to play hooky and indulgence design speculation, and I have to say I am enjoying it immensely.
ID: Give us an update on your BASIC initiative.
SP: In addition to the new work on the recovery efforts I just mentioned, we continue to expand two initiatives that we have added to our existing work in the last few years. One is a micro-credit program that helps homeless farmers in Central America build their own homes, villages, and buy land to farm. Most of these new homeowners are coffee pickers, and our partnership with Agros, put together by two of my former students, has helped them create villages that are economically and ecologically sustainable.
The second has been am effort to address housing needs here in Austin Texas, by making use of the most forgotten part of our urban fabric—the alleys of Texas cities. In an effort to cut costs, many Texas cities ten years ago cut back on maintaining their alleys, making them, a decade later, a lost and underutilized fabric at the heart of many of the fastest growing cities in the region. By allowing moderate income communities to add "granny flats" in their backyards, which have access from the alleys, families are gaining needed additional space for grandparents, newly married children, or large families who may not be able to afford to stay close to their families. This is of immense help to moderate to low-income communities. The alley houses we are offering will be the first net-zero houses in Austin and therefore will be making a contribution to the long-term sustainability and economic viability of these families, as well as helping Austin remain a culturally diverse and environmentally healthy environment. (thealleyhouseinitiative.com).
We also continue to work in Mexico with single Yaqui mothers in the Sonoran Desert (Hogar del Viento/Hogar del Sol) helping them construct a safe and sane existence through sweet little adobe homes that they help build themselves. This project has grown in scale immensely since it was featured in the PBS series Design-E2 and has evolved to become a micro-credit bank, which allows Yaqui families to acquire house financing that they would not normally qualify for, and of course our ecological designs which they have free of cost.
ID: Any recent developments at the Katrina Furniture Project?
SP: We've been putting all the pieces together to scale it up from individual, one or two person workshops, to larger community-based shops. Toward that end, we collaborated Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to come up with a branding campaign. I never thought I would be talking about branding coming from the social engagement end of design, but I am sold. It really made us rethink our own larger message and how we were getting it across to people. The brilliant kids at Art Center, under the leadership of Nik Hafermaas and Paul Hauge, have mounted the kind of campaign that we could never have afforded, and it has affected our other projects. My hats off to them.
Taking the Katrina Furniture project up in scale has also been a real education. Our friends in the furniture business, like Sandor Pratt (sandorpratt.com) and Mark Macek (macekfurniture.com), have been figuring out the ins and outs of scaling up with larger partners like Interface and Autodesk.
We are also hoping each workshop's relationship to its community in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will make them community resources…kind of a hang-out, community center. We are currently fundraising to build the first one, and are hopeful that we will do so by next summer.
And of course, thanks to our dear friends at Public Architecture, we are using all this work to create a new website and portals to our work which we have working to finally get our work out to public. (katrinafurnitureproject.org)
ID: What's ahead for 2008?
SP: One of the advantages to working with the 98 percent not normally served by architects is that there is never a lack of work.
One big agenda item will be the Alley House Initiative. With the first two alley homes, we get two examples out to the public. Then we can really begin to evaluate “our first Prius,” as we are calling it, as we scale up the project to serve Austin and the region. We are also planning to return to the Gulf Coast to complete the first LEED-certified home in Biloxi for Patty, a sweet older woman, which we began this summer with the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, Design Corps, and Penn State. The students designed and built her home on piers that literally puts her in the canopy of her trees (homes have to be 14 feet off the ground to meet the new flood levels in her area). Its understructure is designed to look like a tree, which as an avid gardener she loves.
This coming year I am hoping to get further into my study of the culture of the Gulf Coast—a region that Katrina has made us deeply aware of—and further my understanding of its history, which as a Latin American I have long admired. But frankly, now that I am working there, I've begun to appreciate how little I have understood.
In the works is a potential project in Mongolia that will change the nature of our studios—not allowed to say much about it at the moment but you will be first to know.
ID: Looking at the winners of our future furniture competition, which are some of your favorites?
SP: The very good, not necessarily in order: The OMM Table (Olle Lundberg), NOLA Chair (Kevin Derrick), Deck Stool (Jason Podlaski), and The Felt Shelf (Tami Colichio).
See four of Palleroni's favorites from the competition and his critiques by clicking the slide show above. Keep going and you'll also find photos from the Katrina Recovery Sheds project, and newly developed brand images from the Katrina Furniture Project.