LA Design Festival – Union Station

Union Station - Front Door

The final event in my LA Design Festival weekend was an art-and-architecture tour of Union Station, Los Angeles Metro’s downtown hub. Unlike the other events, this one turned out not to be exclusive to the design festival. It is actually a regularly occurring event, every second Sunday of the month, that just happens to overlap the LA Design Festival this weekend. Which is great because it was good enough for me to consider doing again sometime in the future.

Union Station - Ticketing Hall

Most of the tour went through areas that anyone traveling through Union Station can stop by and visit, with the notable exception of its ticketing hall. Long since made obsolete by automated ticketing machines, it is now an event venue that is usually closed to the traveling public. The tour does go into the area, though not very far into it and not very thoroughly. Still, it was a fun novelty.


Union Station - Crowd

The tour is given by volunteers wearing bright orange vests, mostly reciting from a script but the personal style of delivery matters. Given the overlap with LA Design Festival, today’s crowd was larger than usual so they split us up into two groups. I chose go to with the guide who was more verbally articulate.

The tour went from the front door, to the ticketing hall where I took the above picture. We then covered the adjacent space that was formerly a restaurant and is planned to become a brewery. There were two gardens that I never knew about, and the waiting area leather couches reserved for ticketed MetroLink and Amtrak passengers only.

Union Station - Gold Line

This was the first time Union Station was the destination rather than a transfer point. I usually arrive via Metro Gold Line and in a rush to transfer to something else. Which explained why, despite traveling through the Gold Line archway many times, I never noticed the tile mosaic artwork representing sunrise and sunset. This is only one of many Union Station features that I never stopped to notice until today.

Another piece of trivia came when we stopped off at an aquarium inside the station. It had a Garibaldi fish (just one because they are very territorial) and here is where I learned Garibaldi is California’s official state fish. I’ve lived on Garibaldi Ave. and never thought to ask what the name meant – I had always assumed it was named after a person whose significance was lost to California history, but today I learned otherwise.

The tour was over an hour long, the final stop was inside LA Metro’s headquarters building right off Union Station’s north plaza. There were several more pieces of art inside the building that I didn’t know was publicly accessible. These and other rotating exhibits inside the station makes me think I’ll have enough to keep me occupied the next time I have some time to kill waiting at Union Station. (Probably waiting for LAX FlyAway.)

If nothing else, I got some great pictures that will become new desktop backgrounds for my computer.

Union Station - North Canopy.jpg


LA Design Festival – ArtCenter South Campus

The ArtCenter College of Design is a private non-profit school whose focus is pretty clearly communicated in its name. The main campus is a bit removed, but their south campus is right near the heart of Pasadena and a venue for them to participate in LA Design Festival.

ArtCenter wind tunnel

Three buildings make up the ArtCenter south campus. The one hosting Design Slam 2018: Prototyping the Future Saturday evening used to be a wind tunnel facility for several aerospace firms that formerly worked in the area. The actual wind tunnel volume is now subdivided into cubicles that appear to be graduate student offices, and many of its its former support spaces are now classrooms. My favorite part of the building is Archetype Press, a letterpress facility where the old fashioned art of typesetting is kept alive for students to experience firsthand.

ArtCenter rooftop

The roof of this building has a space that will host student projects this evening. Beyond that rooftop patio, there was an installation that may or may not serve some practical purpose in addition to being rooftop art, and nestled between these elements is a garden that I did not expect to find on the roof of a (formerly) industrial building.

Since I have a personal interest in the developing field of virtual reality technologies, I was drawn to student projects exploring the same. It’s encouraging to see ArtCenter found the means to provide students access to leading edge technologies like VR. There were multiple HTC Vive VR headsets. Student projects on display were created in Unreal Engine so they don’t have to build VR experiences from scratch.

ArtCenter dual VR

One criticism of today’s VR technology is that it’s very isolating. Once a person straps up a headset they’re visually cut off from everybody else in the room. One project explored experiences designed around multiple VR users in the room interacting with each other. By default each user can move around in their own world, but what they could see was very limited on their own. But when the two users look directly at each other, their perspectives open up to see more of their own world as well as seeing the other person’s world. Fully exploring both of these worlds require the two users to communicate and coordinate, making this VR experience a group activity.

ArtCenter tactile VR

The other VR project present explored a different shortcoming of VR, which is the fact the current technology only conveys the visual and aural representation of a different reality. This student project seeks to add tactile feedback to the experience by building some tactile feedback – in this case vibration motors originally designed for cell phones – into their VR experiences. They are built into small battery-powered, WiFi-controlled devices strapped on to various parts of your body and vibrate on command from the core VR program. The project included a few different experiences, the one they tried to get up and running was standing in the middle of a desert and the user can hear and feel the wind blowing by. Sadly there were some technical difficulties and I did not have the chance to experience this project firsthand.

LA Design Festival – Supplyframe DesignLab

The Supplyframe DesignLab is a facility I’ve visited many times in the context of different events, and LA Design Festival gave me yet another view into what happens there. Unlike my usual experience through Hackaday LA or the Pasadena 3D Printing meetups, these events placed more focus on the “design” of DesignLab.

DesignLab Gallery

On Friday, an exhibit titled Intuitive Objects: When Interaction Becomes Second-Nature was opened at the DesignLab, utilizing the space facing the street which is sort of fitting as it is shiny and white like many galleries. A collection of items were on display, every one the result of a designer putting time and thought into making the user experience intuitive and seamless. The presentation as a gallery put focus on these items, but there were a few downsides of the format. An art gallery wasn’t an environment where visitors could just pick up and experience the interaction in actual usage, and there was limited information on site to satisfy curiosity for more details. Still, seeing them firsthand was a better exposure to these works than scrolling through pictures.

DesignLab Panel

On Saturday, a panel of women in design were assembled to speak on Designed Interactions: Diverse Perspectives. Before the panel even began I knew it was going to be an interesting mix. The event itself was a cooperation of ArtCenter College of Design who have a campus nearby, Pasadena Women in Tech, and NELAUX. (Northeast Los Angeles User Experience.) And the panelists themselves were drawn from a wide spectrum of experiences.

The intersection of all these different interests and experiences, though, did not result in a jumbled mix of concepts like it could have easily become. The panelists focused on the recurring themes that repeat themselves under different contexts, and the challenges designers would have to overcome to address them. Several times a panelist would give an answer that’s a brief summary followed by “… and we can easily have an hour-long panel on that topic alone.” Which, given the size of the interested crowd present at this event, may very well happen.

LA Design Festival – Modernica

The LA Design Festival was this weekend and I had the opportunity to check out some neat events. First on the calendar is tremendously informative tour of Modernica, a furniture (& more) maker whose factory is in Vernon. (An industrial city south of downtown Los Angeles.) Our tour guide was Frank Novak, one of the founders and owners of the company, who started the tour with a quick overview of what we’ll be seeing.

Modernica 10 - Frank Novak

One of their major products is their line of fiberglass shell chairs. A category that is closely identified with mid 20th-century, it has mostly been replaced by cheap injection molded chairs. But there are still people who are willing to pay the premium for thinner, lighter, stronger fiberglass chairs. Modernica keeps the designs fresh by leveraging one advantage they have over the cheap plastic chairs: they can mold complex patterns permanently into the shell. Unlike injection-molded plastic, which could only print on top of the plastic in a way that would wear out with time. By collaborating with different artists they can continually deliver fresh variants on the classic chair.

Modernica 20 - Fiberglass Shell Chairs

The magic starts with spools of fiberglass that is shredded by this machine.

Modernica 30 - Fiberglass strands

The shredded fiberglass is blown on top of a piece of perforated steel approximately the shape of the chair. To my eye this seems to be quite an inexact process: a lot of shredded strands never make it onto the form and are scattered throughout this building. Workers are constantly sweeping to keep the floor clear. I suppose fiberglass is cheap enough it isn’t terribly important to make sure they don’t end up on the ground.

Modernica 40 - Fiberglass to mat

When the first machine has completed its task, out pops a loose fiberglass mat in the general shape of a chair.

Modernica 50 - Fiberglass mat

This general shape is reinforced with patches at strategic locations before visiting the heated hydraulic press. A sheet of the chair’s surface design is placed on the bottom of the press. Then the chair-shaped mat of loose fiberglass strands is placed on top of the sheet, and resin poured over the mat. Finally another sheet of the surface design is placed on top of the mat + resin combination before the machine goes to work pressing everything together.

Modernica 60 - Hydraulic press

Several minutes later, the shell is removed from the press and its edges trimmed.

Modernica 70 - Hot off the press

In an adjacent room, we watched chair base mounts get installed.

Modernica 80 - Chair mounts

With the fiberglass workshop tour complete, the tour group walked over to the wood shop.

Modernica 90 - To woodworkers

Due to the layout of the building, we saw the process in reverse order. The first thing we saw were the workers sanding and finishing wooden parts. This was a surprisingly labor intensive process in our automation heavy world. But this kind of fine surface polish is something people can still do better than machines. As long as there is enough of a market for hand crafted quality, there will be companies like Modernica to supply it.

Modernica 92 - Manual finishing

In contrast to fine surface finish sanding, machines are better at holding big heavy cutting tools and running them on a consistent path. These 5-axis CNC machine take in molded plywood forms and carves out the shape of the product.

Modernica 93 - 5 Axis CNC

To hold molded plywood forms in place, these machines have a vacuum hold-down system using wooden tooling designed specifically for each project.

Modernica 94 - Vacuum fixture

But where did these molded plywood objects come from? That’s the next section, where we see many stacks of thin wood veneer and big vats of glue.

Modernica 95 - Thin veneer sheets

They are glued together into desired shapes by this machine, employing a high-frequency gluing process. I had hoped to learn more details, but sadly Frank is not familiar with the nuts & bolts and the experts who operate this machine is not present today.

Modernica 96 - Veneer press

Behind the machine is a storage area filled with multi-part molds which are loaded into that gluing machine to form each of the molded plywood products made by Modernica. Knowing how to design these molds – where they meet, what order they apply forces on the wood, knowing how much stress wood veneer can take before breaking, are all interesting to me as engineering problems. Frank said they have a piece of software that handles it… and that’s all the detail he was able (or willing) to share. Oh well, something to research later!

Modernica 97 - Multipart molds

After the tour there was a question-and-answer session. One item that caught my interest was about the grounds. Modernica bought it from a glass products company who had built a concrete bunker for their X-Ray inspection equipment. Modernica has no specific need for a concrete bunker, but it does provide a great background for many of their product photos and it seems a natural place to store their chemicals on site. After the Q&A session I went back to take pictures of this bunker.

Modernica 98 - Bunker

How heavy is the bunker door? They don’t know, but it rolls on train tracks and wheels.

Modernica 99 - Bunker door

I attended the tour because I was interested in manufacturing and engineering sides of the operation. Others came to the tour because they are fans of the company’s products. For these fans, Modernica held a little flash sale on select products which made some people very happy. I was here to learn and not to shop, so I passed on the sale.

Modernica 99a - Sale

Another item in the Q&A was that Modernica has a division catering to show business. Film productions that desire a particular look can rent furniture from Modernica Props, and it sounds like they also occasionally custom build furniture for use on set. Frank’s favorite anecdotes around this collection are mostly around pieces that are memorable in a “it was so hideous I had to buy it” way. The stories were fun and while I don’t intend to rent anything for filming, the Modernica Props showroom is open 6 days a week and it might be fun to browse through.