Inside My Design Mind: Janet Echelman, Urban Air-Space Sculptor

by Heather Miller
- Jun 15 2015 - 6 min read
janet echelman profile
Courtesy Studio Echelman

For most people, lost luggage or packages are a major annoyance in the moment and an inconvenient memory that fades over time. For artist Janet Echelman, it changed her life and the course of her career.

Make that lost paint supplies to be exact. On a Fulbright lectureship in India, Echelman’s shipped art kit never showed up in the small fishing village of Mahabalipuram, and she was forced to adapt her artistic mission. Searching for a new medium, she stopped in her tracks one day at a typical sight. It was fishing rope . . . lots of it and fishermen practicing an age-old craft. The genesis of her first floating fiber sculpture was born.

From that time on, Echelman hasn’t looked back—she’s looked up. Her monumental aerial sculptures have graced cities around the world and accolades for the Guggenheim Fellow continue to follow.

Now, over the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston, she just installed her latest sculpture called As If It Were Already Here. It defines a new urban air space, reclaiming an area created by the removal of an elevated highway. As Echelman puts it, “It’s as if I’m sewing across the open space, reconnecting downtown with its waterfront.”

“Sewing” may be a pretty delicate term when faced with a design juggernaut like Echelman’s installations. This new sculpture spans 600 feet, includes over 100 miles of rope and over half a million knots, and weighs approximately 2,000 pounds. And it still floats, flutters, and ripples delicately in the wind.

Here, Echelman shares an inside look at her work, how design risks can be like a game of Texas hold ‘em poker, why you should send your inner critic on a “coffee break,” and how land and history itself—from the Boston Tea Party to the rise of automobiles in the 1950s—can inspire design.

Janet Echleman's latest installation in Boston. Courtesy Studio Echelman and Melissa Henry.
Echelman’s latest installation in Boston. Courtesy Studio Echelman and Melissa Henry.

What was the inspiration for your latest installation in downtown Boston?
During my research process, I was visiting the buildings where the sculpture would attach, and one of the custodial staff asked if I wanted to see the basement wall. I asked, “Why?” He said, “There are the original granite blocks for the seawall when John Adams had his office here.”

I thought, “Whoa!” I realized where we were standing, and in the midst of the greenway, it used to be water. This was in the harbor right where American revolutionaries pushed crates of tea into the water.

I began looking at the way the city grew and the way it was cut apart. At one time, there were hills cut down to create land in the harbor. Then an elevated highway was built in the 1950s when the automobile was king. Its most recent removal in the Big Dig created this beautiful greenway.

All of this history inspired the design. Peaks of the original three hills are evoked with the voids within the sculpture form. I also looked at the shape of the highway lanes, which inspired the striped banding within the sculpture. The entire form of the sculpture represents our “road” now in shaping the future of this space and the city.

Courtesy Studio Echelman and Melissa Henry

How do you even begin with the design of one of these monumental installations?
Well, the truth is, I couldn’t fabricate without design tools. We start with a physical 3D model of string and wire. From there, we create a digital 3D model through custom software tool called JNet, which was co-developed with Autodesk as a plug-in to Maya.

With software, I can model my fiber mesh forms with the understanding of my craft’s constraints. I can input the diameter thickness of each twine and its break strength, thickness, and weight to determine how it will drape with gravity and move with wind speeds. That has revolutionized my design process.

And what’s exciting is it enables me to test many iterations quickly, which I couldn’t do before. I used to send my design off to France where an engineer would take two to four weeks, send it back, and if I got to make a change or two, I was lucky. So in one day, I can try a dozen different variations and it has completely opened up my art process.

Echelman’s installation at the TED conference. Courtesy Studio Echelman and Ema Peter.

What is the timeline and actual production like?
Fabrication is usually nine months. You can’t speed up handcraftsmanship.

Everything is made in the United States, including the braiding of the twines and the ropes. I have worked with the same fabricators for more than a decade, so those relationships have deepened, and that understanding means a lot to me. It’s mostly in the Puget Sound region, which has a tradition from the commercial fishing industry.

Outside of sculpture, are there any new designs where you think, “Wow, they really nailed it?”
I’ve been enjoying the unfolding of the High Line as a public space that is both intimate and enriching. I just came back from a visit at architect Renzo Piano’s The Shard in London. The detail and lightness of his architecture is really beautiful.

In retrospect, what advice would you have given yourself when first starting out? Or advice to other artists and designers trying to make their way and discover their voice and path right now?
To myself I probably would say, “Don’t worry so much.” I think my advice to others is the fact it’s impossible to get rid of one’s inner critic or critics, but I sometimes send them on a “coffee break.” We self-censor so many ideas before we have a chance to fully develop them and gain their own legs.

Janet Echelman. Courtesy Studio Echelman and Todd Erickson.
Janet Echelman. Courtesy Studio Echelman and Todd Erickson.

I think my unlikely career trajectory is about that. If I hadn’t given myself time and taken those crazy ideas and humble materials seriously in India, I would never have developed them to the point where they are now. We need to respect our own ideas however humble they may be.

What do you see as your greatest risk and reward?
Well, I’ve taken some risks in my work, that’s for sure. At the same time, I don’t make haphazard risks. I do my preparation, I build my team, I do my review, I work as thoroughly as I can.

I think as an artist and a designer, we have to own the idea and believe in it, and only then do other people begin to share in the vision. So that’s the risk. It’s like, “I’m all-in,” when playing Texas hold ‘em poker. You don’t always know, but you sort of make your best risk.

Saying yes to build my first major, large-scale aerial sculpture in Portugal when I didn’t know how to do it was a huge risk. But it made everything else possible.

Redshift’s “Inside My Design Mind” series explores the personal insights from leading designers across industries.

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