To say that Topher Delaney and her firm, SEAM Studios, are legendary in public art and landscape/environmental design (oh hell, all design) circles is a bit of an understatement.
The award-winning studio, which does public and private commissions, is known for its ability to create powerful stillness–almost a vortex of quiet–out of rock, stone, water, carefully placed pieces of sculpture and ephemera, and plant life. The spaces move you, calm you, and manage to both take you deep within yourself…at the same time as making you hyper-aware of your environment. Stand in one of the SEAM Studio spaces, for a moment, and feel that sense of connectedness that’s almost primal.
There is profound magic in what SEAM Studios achieves through what it calls its themes: relevance, renewal, and evidence of the hand. Simple words, big ideas.
Some of those magical places? Cornerstone in Sonoma, UCSF Medical Center, the Portland Art Museum, the Orangerie in Gothenburg, Sweden, Beth Israel Hospital in New York, San Diego Children’s Hospital, Botanical Gardens in San Francisco…and the list goes on.
This is all good and well, but what truly struck me when I met Topher and the SEAM Team at their funky/gorgeous San Francisco studio is the sheer generosity of the vibe at SEAM, and the commitment to community.
There’s generosity in the (delicious, gluten-free) lunch that’s cooked in the studio kitchen every day; generosity in inviting in virtual strangers to share that lunch thereby creating new communities; generosity in the team’s commitment to working with and nurturing local artists and artisans; generosity in the way Topher’s incubating the Gluten Free Reviewer Grocery Store out of her studio (she’s not gluten-sensitive but one of her team is); and generosity in the way the team is encouraged to find things they love to do, and run with them.
We love the commitment to discovering local artisans (Topher calls this the community of making), seeing the possibilities and collaborating with them in ways that stretch the artisan. (Very cool.) The day of our visit, Topher and Kika were working with Hank Matheson of Bicycle Fabrications on a piece–not a bike–for an installation.
What also struck me is that when we were talking about the interview, Topher (not exactly a shrinking violet) wanted me to focus on the next generation. “That’s what’s important,” she said. “The future.”
Kika Probst is part of that next generation but has that SEAM Studio DNA: curious, talented, smart, socially committed, humane, generous.
Kika–soft-spoken, unpretentious–graduated from architecture school in Rio de Janeiro. Initially, she focused on interior architecture, but soon realized that she was itching to work a larger scale, both physically and socially.
The outdoors beckoned. But it began on the Amazon River and in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
The favelas? Seems a far cry from sanctuaries for hospitals. In the last year of architecture school, I created the opportunity to serve as an intern for PAA (Planejamento Arquitetonico e Ambiental) and RioUrbe (Empresa Municipal de Urbanizacao) which focused on projects within the favelas–Brazil’s infamous urban slums (to use that rather un-PC word). These projects focused on creating physical infrastructures (paving, water, electrical, and pocket parks) for the favelas to make them more neighborhood-like. This work activated a continue interest I have in working with communities. I realized that that’s what was really exciting–working with the community, trying to find a way to fit in with the tight urban spaces, trying to accommodate to their space, and help change their lives along the way. I’ve come to understand the relationship of economics and the importance of land distribution in reference dense urban spaces.
From there? From there, I continued exploring the relationship of urban planning to housing and land development. In 2006 when I moved to the United States (to be with her now-husband), I had the opportunity to work for SWA Group where we focused on a broad spectrum of projects from dense urban projects in Japan (senior housing) to land development for the deceased. (She worked on Mountain View cemetery in the SF East Bay. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead it’s the final resting place of author Frank Norris, architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, and early railroad tycoon/robber baron Charles Crocker (English majors, please note the irony). This was my first experience working in a large corporate office–very different than my Brazilian experience.
Out of curiosity, what’s it like programming a cemetery? It was fascinating…they wanted to design that particular part of the cemetery to be sensitive to Asian cultural values, so we incorporated feng shui principles into the design. I learned a lot about feng shui and other cultural practices and nuances.
So how did you get to working with SEAM Studios? I took a class with Topher at UC Berkeley Extension entitled Ethical Land Values. I chose to volunteer at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and engage with interesting courses.
After the class, Topher asked if I was available to come work at her studio as a consultant to develop signage for the UCSF Medicinal and Botanical Garden at 654 Minnesota (it features medicinal herbs–how perfect), and that was the beginning. One project turned into another, and another…
It just feels odd to call SEAM Studio a landscape design studio…and yet you’re way more than landscape artists too. It’s really environmental design, and yet that still doesn’t work. We are an interdisciplinary studio. Actually what we offer has a broader base than landscape design. We have a holistic studio engaged with a broad spectrum of art, design, and a craft of the hand. For example, I develop and oversee the construction of furniture, public art, publications, and templates for teaching.
We’re really interested in the public platforms of art, science, botany/horticulture and nourishment within urban infrastructures. Our current installation at the San Francisco Botanical Garden is a perfect example.
What do you think about when you design a space? I begin by investigating and exploring the physical shapes and the structure of the space. It’s very much about understanding the context and environment, understanding the history and the elements there. I also get very excited by the structures that are there, the plants and vegetation. It all needs to work together and in synergy.
We’re also really inspired and led by the artisans and artists we work with. Topher is always trying to put together people, getting people in contact, reaching out to new people, and bringing in other talents. She’s always connecting and connecting. That’s a huge part of our inspiration for the work and so important, because people are so much a part of place. Our purpose as a studio is to make the community stronger through weaving connections + talent.
Now you’re curating the SEAT exhibit at Fort Mason…you’re wrangling the work of 35 artists, designers and architects to create seats for this installation. It’s gorgeous, incredibly interactive and has garnered great reviews. Talk about doing that…couldn’t have been easy. In fact it was delight! Yes, a great deal of work (420 hours!) with the assistance of the team at Fort Mason Center, Pat Kilduff, Director of Marketing, Charmagne Leung, Art Director and John Dorsey, Director of Campus Facilities we were able to create a truly unique venue for public art in the National Parks.
I would say that I have really honed my management skills. You could actually call our team here at Seam Studio the cheerleaders for a broad Bay Area artistic community playing on the fields of the National Park! There were a lot of rallies and a lot of practice sessions.
Specifically we interviewed 60 artists with the final count being 36. We worked with these artists to ensure that they understood the history and currency of this unique site. I am still amazed at the generosity of these artists who devoted in some cases hundreds of hours to their installation without compensation. All for the good of the public who visit our national parks.
How do you keep interest going when an exhibit runs for a year? Fort Mason Center is a National Park, as such it serves a public of 1.6 million on a constant 365. Seam Studio in conjunction with Charmagne Leung have developed a significant program of signage using the technology of QR codes.
Next time you’re in a public space, give some thought to the talented teams of designers, artisans, and every day workers that create the magic (sometimes so much more impressive than the interior spaces.) We all need a little more grace in our lives.