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Industry and Art Unite in Metal Mesh

By Laura Fisher Kaiser
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page H01

On a recent chilly night, 400 members of New York's creative cognoscenti crowded into a Beaux-Arts townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to view decidedly avant-garde furniture and sculpture by some of the country's most innovative architectural firms.

The tables and chairs and other objects were made primarily of stainless steel wire mesh, an industrial material more likely to be seen in parking garage gates, elevators and conveyor belts than among canapes and ornamented ceilings.

Decorative mesh objects in a residential space. (Courtesy Of Shaw-jelveh Design)

The two-day exhibit at the American Federation of Arts headquarters was sponsored by Cambridge Architectural Mesh (CAM), an 88-year-old company on Maryland's Eastern Shore that is trumpeting the domestic possibilities -- and unsung sex appeal -- of woven metal mesh.

"It's the moment for architectural mesh," says Marybeth Shaw, a graphic designer and architect who curated the exhibition with publicist-stylemaker Susan Grant Lewin. "Just as we've seen with concrete, people are getting over their preconceived ideas about the coldness of certain building materials."

Both women have had experience with image makeovers for established firms. Shaw, of Baltimore-based Shaw/Jelveh Design, was former creative director of Wolf-Gordon where she made a name for herself developing wall covering collections with such what's-happening designers as Laurinda Spear, Karim Rashid and Petra Blaisse.

Lewin masterminded the makeover of familiar Formica by curating an exhibition in the 1990s for which such cutting-edge designers as Frank Gehry concocted objects from the solid-surfacing material.

For this show, "Restructure: New Forms in Architectural Mesh," the women commissioned several architects to dream up objects using Cambridge products that would get the attention of the design world.

The results include a stool-bench-and-screen ensemble called "Scribble," made of rolled-up strips of wire mesh by designers Tod Williams & Billie Tsien, and a walnut-veneer table and chairs draped with a long mesh carpet by Jeanne Gang called "Wrinkled Rug." Tom Kundig of Seattle-based Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen came up with an illuminated eight-foot-long table composed of mesh encased in amber resin.

The most enigmatic design was Lorcan O'Herlihy's "Concave/Convex," a teepee-like swath of mesh exploring the ability of the material to become alternately rigid or slack. Having perhaps the most commercial potential is "VoiCell," an S-shaped wireless Internet-cellular phone booth made of rigid mesh by Craig Konyk of kOnyk, an architecture-design firm in New York. The seating, it must be said, looked less than comfy, but each piece embodied a refinement that's a long way from mesh's blue-collar origins.

"The material is so elegant and high-tech, you want to wrap yourself in it and lose yourself," says Konyk, who likens woven metal mesh to jewelry. He imagines far-flung possibilities: bathrooms, bars, flooring, furniture, walls, light fixtures, wall partitions.

CAM was launched in 1917 as the Cambridge Wire Cloth Company and made filters, conveyer belts and screens for agriculture, mining, food processing and other industries. Ever notice the zigzag imprint on Ritz crackers? That's from a conveyor belt made of Cambridge's herringbone pattern. Most domestic beer is brewed using Cambridge filters. Pringles potato chips owe their parabola shape to a Cambridge product.

As a building material or interior textile, however, architectural mesh was virtually unheard of until the 1950s, when Otis started lining elevator cabs with woven-metal panels that proved both durable and good-looking. Despite the high-tech design boom of the 1970s and '80s, it wasn't until the 1990s that European architects started adapting woven metals to contemporary design.

After seeing the architectural mesh ceiling of the Duesseldorf airport a few years ago -- and realizing that the European market was more than double that of the $20 million U.S. market -- Duane Marshall, CAM's international president and CEO, got inspired to re-brand. "It's not much of a stretch to take a vibrating screen on a centrifuge and use it decoratively," he says.

Of greater interest to designers, the flexible metal "fabrics" can be as beautiful as any textile. From afar, the material shimmers with a three-dimensional sensuousness. Up close, the intertwining strands of stainless steel, aluminum, brass, bronze, titanium, gold and silver form striking sequences of squares, paillettes, basketry and chain mail. About four years ago, says Marshall, architects began requesting Cambridge's woven stainless steel to "cloak" building facades. The material not only gave a tired facade a modern jolt, it proved an effective sunscreen to reduce heat load.

The product also has attracted eco-sensitive designers: Besides being 100 percent recyclable, stainless steel contains 30 percent recycled material.

CAM's products recently have been showing up in several high-style venues: an open rectangular weave in the display cases of Louis Vuitton stores in New York and Shanghai, a tight herringbone pattern in benches at BWI Airport, and a stainless-steel- and-brass mesh between the mahogany-and-steel walls of the Music Center at Strathmore's main auditorium -- used after passing a test for acoustical properties.

"Every architect loves it," designer Konyk says. "Everyone has known their work for a long time, but I think Cambridge suffered from the stereotype of just being for elevators."

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