To create a custom tiled surface that wraps a 1,000-square-foot core wall of a New York duplex apartment, Bryan Young, AIA, considered using felt, glass, and metal. Then he came upon plaster. Plaster is both economical and full of “rich and unexplored” potential, he says. His curiosity was piqued when an artisan introduced him to the time-honored technique of pulled plaster, in which a pile of wet plaster is scoured into shape by a contoured die (“knife”) and carrier (“horse”) pulled along straight rails. The technique is used to make crown molding.
But Young imagined using the process in a radically different way: to create plaster panels that are mounted vertically, with joints obscured to form a “sculpted monolith.” Rather than the straight and uniform extrusion of crown molding, he and his Brooklyn-based firm, Young Projects, designed wavelike “sweep” profiles through a combination of 3D modeling software and physical modeling.
They settled upon six master panel templates—each 7 feet long by 6 inches wide and between 0.375 inch and 3 inches deep—that give the impression of endless variation when arranged in different sequences. The panels could also be sliced in half to add further unpredictability in the overall installation pattern. The seamless appearance of the wall results not only from the scalloped surface geometry of the panels, but also because the pointing material, gypsum plaster, blends chemically and thermally with the plaster panels.
While others might have turned to CNC milling to execute the irregular panels, Young was determined to work manually with the wet plaster. But all the tools had to be modified: the knife required new profiles, the horse needed to allow the knife to slide side to side and up and down while being pulled forward, and the rails had to be cut and sanded to define a smooth arc.
“I appreciated the tactile quality of the panels, and especially in the process of making them,” said juror Doug Stockman, AIA. Juror Elizabeth Whittaker, AIA, called the ribbed panels “quite beautiful,” adding: “It is exciting to see a product that allows for the customization and possibilities of the extruded fabrication process.” And juror Mic Patterson commended “the nuanced complexity of form yielding from this novel yet simple craft technique.”
Ultimately, the 674 installed wall panels were cast in molds derived from the six original hand-pulled masters. Casting results in a more durable product, Young says, and these full-height panels are likely to be bumped and touched as crown moldings are not. Still, he says, “the design of the apparatus and technique of pulled plaster are embedded within the product.”
See all the 2016 R+D Award winners here.
Project: Pulled Plaster Panels, New York
Design Firm: Young Projects, New York · Bryan Young, AIA (principal); Jon Cielo, AIA (project architect); Noah Marciniak, Samantha Eby, Nayoung Kim (project team)
Lighting Designer: Architectural Lighting · Rick Shaver
Structural Engineer: Silman · Nat Oppenheimer
Electrical Engineer: Engineering Solutions · John Ryan
Consultants: Butter and Eggs · Judy Dunne (interiors); Taocon (general contractor); Engineering Solutions · John Ryan (M/E/P engineering)
Drawings: Young Projects
Fabricators: Kammetal (stainless steel screen); Balmer Architectural Mouldings
Photography: Young Projects and Jon Cielo
Size: 1,000 square feet