the Neighborhood Design Center

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September 9, 2020

Playable Art, the New Wave Sweeping the DMV

The DC Commission on Arts & Humanitiies put designers to the test with a playable art competition, resulting in ‘The Chairs.’

Bruce Willen of Public Mechanics was the winner of a national competition hosted by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and funded by a grant from ArtPlace America to create playable art. The Chairs is a new public art installation in Washington DC. This project pays homage to the famous Big Chair of Anacostia, beloved by the neighborhood and a roadside attraction. 

During the development process of this project Bruce, and NDC Program Manager- Katryna Carter, hosted a two-part community engagement session! The first portion of the workshop was dedicated to the Anacostia librarians and staff. They offered Bruce and Katryna invaluable insight regarding common hang out spots on the plaza, problem seating that they suggested should be replaced, and helped to narrow down the number of pieces to about 6-9.

The second portion of the workshop was dedicated to the Black Swan Academy, a group of teens aged 14-17.  They showed Bruce and Katryna where they liked to hang out in the plaza, gave suggestions for seating placement, and chose the color that the final designs would be. Bruce stated that his team, “wanted to be as responsive as possible to the youth, librarians and staff that would be using the chairs.” 

Initially, Bruce became interested in design and typography as a bi-product of his love for music — specifically, the cover art on rock and indie albums. He explained that the fact that he could tell that an actual person designed the cover art intrigued him and made him feel that he could do that too! 

Bruce described The Chairs as a cross between a design and an art project. His inspiration came from multiple sources — the Big Chair of Anacostia, and the “Situational Seating,” project that he has been working on with his wife, Sarah Templin. 

Due to the fact that the project was a competition, the turn around for the design was about three weeks!

Bruce first began collaborating with NDC when he lived in Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood. When he and a neighbor wanted to see some change in their environment, a friend suggested that Bruce contact NDC for support as they lacked the know-how, and resources to complete the project for the neighborhood which turned into the Old Goucher Vision Plan. On the Chairs project, he worked on the implementation side, saying how nice it was to be able to see both sides of an NDC collaboration. Bruce reflected that his work with NDC has allowed him to cross paths with people that he otherwise would have never met! 

Already, Bruce has been receiving positive feedback regarding the new installation. He hopes that his team will be able to give the neighborhood, “positive energy,” and that the community will look at it as a landmark of the neighborhood.  He says, “Hopefully they want to sit on, take pictures, skate on, and have fun with them.” 

Bruce is currently working on some self initiated public art pieces, applying for grants, and shifting the focus of his pieces toward the past.  He wants to use his art to not only connect people to our human history, but also the built history of their environment. This project would not have been possible without the support of Tim Scofield of Tim Scofield Studios, Sarah Templin,  The Graham Projects, Katryna Carter, Briony Hynson, and Jennifer Goold of NDC. Special thanks to Lauren Glover from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Yvette Davis and Eboni Njoku from the Anacostia Library, and Linnea Haggerty and Ryan McCoy from the DC Public Library!