Thursday, February 13, 2020

Art that's meant to Inspire and be Experienced: Meet Nataly Gattegno and Jason Kelly Johnson of FutureForms

Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno of FutureForms at their studios in Dogpatch, San Francisco, CA. 
"I'll meet you at the 20th Street underpass after dark" said no one ever. Until last spring that is when Dogpatch business, FutureForms together with students from the California College of the Arts (CCA) lit up the night and a very dreary Dogpatch underpass to show us all that it is possible to activate these lost spaces and make them a potential gathering place for the community. 

This one-night pop-up used digital projection, light and sound as a pied piper to gather the neighbors together.  

The pop-up might have only been one night (for now) but Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno, the husband and wife team behind FutureForms have made it their mission to bring these types of spaces to cities worldwide. 

FutureForms creates public art, immersive installations, shade canopies and interactive facades.  An extreme simplification of their talent and vision is they create large urban art installations that make public spaces appealing and accessible places to gather. Their many projects under way include two art installations located nearby -- one for the park to be located near the under construction Marriott by the SF Giants ballpark and an installation by the new Uber headquarters located near the Chase Center. As the Pier 70 and the Power Station projects take shape they hope to be part of the discussions for the art that will activate the public spaces of those large projects as well.

Jason and Nataly and their two children live in Dogpatch and as do many businesses in Dogpatch, FutureForms started life in the American Industrial Center (AIC). They have grown from just the two of them in their first studio in 2013 to six employees and multiple studios within the AIC. In addition to running their company, they are both full-time associate professors at the CCA. We met with Jason and Nataly among the scale models in their studio for their various projects to find out more about their passion for bringing people together. We have blended our conversation with both of them into the following interview:

Jason Kelly Johnson and Nataly Gattegno of FutureForms with photographs and models of their projects. 
Why do you do what you do?
There is a lot of satisfaction in having something we created out there in the world and to feel you influenced a place with your artistic vision. It is a great feeling to bring people together and to know that our art was the catalyst that brought them together. One of our favorite stories is a worker helping on an installation wanted to know when it would be finished so he could propose to his girlfriend there!  Activating a public space is more interesting to us than creating private art installations that few people will get to experience. We want the whole family to show up to enjoy and experience the art -- whether it be an interactive piece (Editors Note: like the murmur wall installed at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in SF) or an immersive LED light and sound experience. 

Jason grew up in Canada and moved to New York as a teenager. Nataly grew up in Greece and first came to the U.S. for grad school.

We like to say that we are recovering architects. We met at grad school in 1999 at Princeton. We were both in the architecture program.  We both have undergrad degrees in architecture as well.  We began collaborating almost from the time we met on various design competitions and our company FutureForms really formed in 2005.  After grad school the economy wasn't so great so we both accepted teaching positions at the University of Michigan. We knew our next step after those positions ended would be to find an urban area where we could live, teach and pursue our design projects.  There are really only a few cities where you can do that and San Francisco fit all our requirements. We both applied to the CCA and accepted positions there. 

In the studio Jason primarily handles design and fabrication of the art pieces. Nataly is studio manager taking care of proposals, contracts and studio business. 

Almost all of our work comes from developers and cities and some from private commissions. All of the projects are competitive bids.  One of the benefits of our architecture background is that we can build scale models to showcase our plan for the installation.  This helps explain our ideas and heads off any confusion that might cause problems once we are under way with a project. The models also really increase our win rate. Before we decide to bid on a project we look for well-crafted projects that will allow us to be adventurous with the design.  

Although teaching full time as well as running our business makes for a very busy schedule we find that our designs benefit from being out in the world with our students. Teaching forces us to remain engaged with the world and that keeps us fresh. We are always hearing about new ideas and that improves our work. And our students are smart and optimistic so that rubs off on us as well! 
The copiously organized tool bench at FutureForms in Dogpatch.

Why Dogpatch?
We really feel we lucked out by finding this neighborhood.  When we moved here it was really just Reno's Liquor Store.  Piccino Restaurant soon opened but not much else was here in terms of shops.  We are close to the CCA and our offices in the AIC. It was affordable and reminded us a lot of Brooklyn where we had spent some time.

Our studio in the AIC really kept us in the neighborhood.  We have developed a real community here with inventors and artists. Many are friends now as well as collaborators.  Greg Markoulis, owner of the AIC, really gave us a chance to grow and thrive here. We love the history of the neighborhood and it has become not just a place to live and work, but also a place to put down roots and become part of the community. We want to be part of deciding how the neighborhood grows in the most effective way for the community. We are involved with the Green Benefit District (GBD) and the Esprit Park renovation, among other projects.

What would you do if you weren't doing this?
Whatever I chose it would still be in a creative field and I would be making something -- clothes, jewelry -- something where it is very hands on and I can be obsessive about the all the tedious details!
In our business even though we have a lot of control in the projects we do we still don't have complete control. It would be fun to take on a project where I controlled everything and could do it at my own pace.  I've made furniture before and I would love the complete control of making furniture as well as the slower pace of designing and producing each piece.

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