Ziyuan “Zoey” Zhu (left) leading an upcycling workshop at the MIT Museum • Photo by Daisy Zhang

As I write, waves of green lull through the window, lush and buoyant on a sibilant breeze. It is a familiar experience, and yet moments of recognition jolt me to realize how it is ever changing. These evocations of place and presence tie me to conversations I had with the artists and designers behind three projects featured at this year’s Seattle Design Festival, hosted by The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Seattle.

The event is an annual celebration of “all the ways that design makes life better for Seattle,” aiming to “nurture relationships among multidisciplinary designers, civic leaders, business innovators, community organizers, educators, artists, and activists.” Taking place over six days from Aug. 19th to the 24th, the theme of this year’s event is “curiosity.”

The artists and designers I talked to interpret this theme through lenses that span localities and lifespans, yet their commonalities converge, to me, as narratives of care; how do we reach deeply into relations between ourselves and place?

The first group I talked with was Studio Waah, an international team of designers and artists consisting of Shreya Somani, Shaunak Patel, and Goutham Thirumalesh. The studio’s name comes from their intent to bring “waah” (wow) moments to people through their observations of the world. This is embodied in Studio Waah’s approach to the theme of “curiosity.” Through their installation, the team explores how design and human experience can evoke a sense of childlike wonder, to appreciate what’s been in front of us anew. In preparation for the project, Thirumalesh, based in Seattle, asked local residents what they were curious about with regards to the region. Responding to expressed desires to travel instead of exploring the city more, “Are We Even Looking?” asks what it would take to elicit curiosity about one’s immediate surroundings; a reference to Eastern philosophies that posit how perception shapes who you are.

For a region like Seattle, how might an installation bring the rich natural abundance and breathtaking architecture of the region to the fore? With their playful reconsideration of relationships between people, objects, and place, the Studio Waah team envisioned how their approach can encourage viewing from a fresh lens, perhaps even engaging multiple senses. They want to share the curiosity and joy Seattle brings to them as explorers. “Are We Even Looking?” will be accessible during the Festival’s free, opening Block Party event, being held Saturday, Aug. 19th to Sunday, Aug. 20th from 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM at Lake Union Park.

Aligned with raising awareness of what lies in front of us, “Unwanted Project” aims to engage participants in the practice of creative upcycling and speculative design, where discarded materials are reimagined as objects of greater service and meaning.

This project is the creation of art and design duo Ziyuan “Zoey” Zhu and Yicheng “YC” Sun, based out of the California Bay Area. “Unwanted Project” emerges from Zhu’s design practice working at the interface of design, sustainability, and community engagement, formerly partnering with institutions and museums to rethink the lifecycle of materials, such as plastic, in the environment. Independently, Zhu began collaborating with artists and designers to showcase how materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) could be upcycled into products including lights and bags, culminating in a workshop during October of 2022 that engaged K-12 children in creative upcycling. Zhu recalls an impactful moment where a mother expressed that she wished she had this type of environmental education as a child.

Together, Zhu and Sun come to SDF seeking to ignite new communities behind the idea of upcycling with a speculative making method, redesigning the workshop as a drop-in experience. Along with plastics, the workshop aims to highlight the upcycling of other materials such as fabrics and abandoned paper from discarded magazines. Zhu and Sun have also designed a series of activities based on their speculative design card deck, which aims to boost the creativity of participants, inviting them to reimagine materials not only for now, but also for a better future.

Zhu shares a vision to mobilize communities behind the redesign of recycling processes, particularly in places such as the United States where design constraints have contributed to the preponderance of downcycling, in which materials degrade in quality over their lifecycles. “Unwanted Project” will be accessible during the Festival’s free, opening Block Party event, being held Saturday, August 19th from 3:30 PM – 5:30 PM at Lake Union Park.

In addition to reconfiguring our relationship to present surroundings, Seattle-based architect Queena Stone encourages us to reimagine relationships to place as we age. In “Get Curious About Senior Cohousing!”, Stone shares the findings of her research project, supported by the AIA Seattle Emerging Professionals Travel Scholarship. In it, she investigates the experiences of some of the first senior cohousing developments at five locations around the world. Started in 2020, Stone’s research was spurred by her recognition of the lack of decent or affordable housing options for our aging population, particularly an aging LGBTQ+ population, as well as findings that identify loneliness and isolation as significant public health concerns.

Senior co-housing refers to living arrangements where residents themselves manage the housing development. Without external management, residents build strong relationships of trust and mutual respect, taking care of each other while establishing boundaries that may not exist in other senior housing arrangements. For instance, community members may have their own private units, although a commonality amongst these developments is a shared kitchen and dining area where residents hold shared meals and community meetings. In contrast to intergenerational housing, which tends to emphasize the experience of children, senior cohousing raises attention to the experiences of elder residents.

Stone’s research found that the early senior co-housing developments were led by groups of elderly organizers who successfully found like-minded people with shared values and the ability to fund the projects. Once the funding is arranged, future residents typically partner with a design team to complete the development, while remaining engaged throughout the rest of the process.

Stone’s work sparks much needed discussion on how regions like the Pacific Northwest may translate these concepts for its own communities. In addition to presenting at the SDF, Stone will continue investigating how these communal living arrangements may reach communities who have been historically marginalized. “Get Curious About Senior Cohousing!” will be presented at the Seattle Design Festival’s Design Mixer at the Seattle Architecture Foundation on Wednesday, August 23rd from 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM.

In addition to the three projects mentioned above, the Seattle Design Festival includes dozens of other experiences. The first two days of the event will consist of a Block Party event at Lake Union Park, with interactive installations and pop-up experiences that are free to attend. The portion from Monday, August 21 to Wednesday, August 23 consists of virtual events that will be live-streamed for free, as well as social mixers at various locations throughout the city which require registration, but are free to attend. The event wraps up with a Closing Party on August 24, which costs $25.

I see a thread between these projects that revolves around caring. Caring about the place you are situated; caring for place by reimagining the “unwanted”; building care into place for our loved ones. “Curiosity” shares etymological roots with “care”; perhaps what emerges from these projects are deep revaluations of our interconnectedness. I am thrilled and honored to have shared in these playful and creative approaches to rethinking our notion of place; a moment to reflect on its beauty and the timeless nature of change.

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