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Beneath the Surface Blog

Thursday Salute to Originals: Un-Decorating with Light

GPI Design - Thursday, January 02, 2014

Happy New Year! The season of holiday decorations is quickly coming to a close. Bright lights strung from rooflines, red and green decorations generously plastered on walls, and giant inflatable snowmen residing over front lawns will soon be taken down, bringing these festive surroundings back to status quo.

As you dismantle and put away the holiday paraphernalia, think about how those decorations are completely additive – objects are suspended or tacked on, garnering attention from their gleaming light, vibrant color, or sheer size. These decorations live and breathe with the “more is more” philosophy, shouting at you and overshadowing the most simple (and often underrated) characteristics at their core.

So since we’ve been exposed to this “additive” mindset for the last couple months, today, we’d like to call attention to something a little... less. Today’s “light artist” provides a peaceful relief by stripping it all down to two simple elements: object and shadow.

Plastic Bottle Shadow Art Lighting

Contemporary artist Rashad Alakbarov enlivens surfaces with his light and shadow paintings. The Azerbaijan native arranges miscellaneous objects in what appear to be scattered piles. But when the flick of a switch introduces backlighting, the composition becomes an ordered image shadowed on the wall.

Geometric Light Pattern Projected Shadow Art

Crisis Plastic Pipes Shadow Art Installation

While there are other artists using similar projection techniques, Rashad’s use of translucency and color raises his installations to a new level. In the coastal scene depicted below, layers of translucent acrylic are suspended at precise positions. When backlit, their irregular forms and moody hues cascade into a dazzling assemblage of light and color, and depict an organized and unified painting on the wall.

Multicolored Translucent Plastic Light Suspended

Today, we salute Alakbarov’s work. Following a season filled with “more,” it can be difficult to appreciate and value basic simplicity. With object arrangements and subsequent shadows dependent on one another to reinforce meaning, Alakbarov proves that things can be stripped to their simplest form and still retain their beauty. Much like the new year, a fresh start comes from looking backward at the solid past while projecting forward with goals and hopes – and embracing the interpretation that happens in between.

Image credits: Sensationist

Thursday Salute to Originals: The Eggnog Project

GPI Design - Thursday, December 26, 2013

Madeleine Eiche has an affinity for eggnog. For this graphic designer, the appeal of eggnog is not in its ability to be spiked, but for the packaging on the outside. While working at a coffee shop earlier in her career, Madeleine always noticed the kitschy eggnog cartons with their mismatched fonts and chaotic colors. Drawing a parallel to Warhol’s tomato soup cans, the designer imagined elevating this mundane piece of holiday consumption to pop art.

Eggnog Carton Graphic Design Fonts Colors

Madeline continued to collect eggnog cartons, grossing a broad collection that is as much a study of bad typography as it is a collection of nostalgic holiday-ware . "The peculiarities of the packaging range from festive to banal, minimal to unappetizing, and each seem to be printed with complete disregard for color alignment. It is precisely these things that make for such compelling kitsch", describes the designer.

Eggnog Carton Graphic Design Collection

So whether you’re donning your favorite ugly Christmas sweater, watering your Chia Pet, or simply admiring your aluminum Christmas tree today, we salute all those kitschy things about the holiday season that make it so special, and hope that all of you – our blog readers, colleagues, clients, and co-creators – get to enjoy the same! Happy holidays and we will see you in the new year!

Image credits: If It's Hip, It's Here, The Eggnog Project

Thursday Salute to Originals: Shall I Play For You (pa rum pum pum pum) - On My Wineglass?

GPI Design - Thursday, December 19, 2013

Nothing gets you in the holiday spirit quite like Christmas music. Merry melodies, quirky lyrics, and beloved classics quickly instill joy and nostalgia, becoming a soundtrack for the season. And with the radio stations blaring holiday music 24/7 since before Thanksgiving, this seasonal music is a little difficult to avoid. Over a month of listening to nothing but cheery holiday jingles will make even the grumpiest Grinches and Scrooges of the Christmas season change their tune (pun intended!).

Insistent as it may be, Christmas music does play special role in setting the spirit of the season. With jingle bells, trumpets, and drums accenting these cherished songs, there is a certain sound very specific to Christmas music; it’s different from the regular songs you hear on the radio the other eleven months of the year. But while Christmas music is unique in its own right, we’re willing to bet you haven’t heard it done quite like this…

Glass Duo Playing Glass Harp

Anna and Arkadiusz Szafraniec of the Glass Duo were, at one point, classically trained musicians and members in the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra playing the violin and trumpet. However, after recognizing the potential musical quality inherent in fine glassware, they decided to abandon their traditional instruments to make music with less conventional means.

Glass Harp Musicians Duo Music

Referred to as a glass harp, the Glass Duo uses glass goblets of varying sizes to produce music with a swipe of a finger. Carefully and precisely running their fingers around the delicate edges, sound resonates within the goblet, creating beautiful harmonies. Spanning 5 octaves, this glass harp is largest one in the world, and has an incredible range of note and pitch.

Glass Harp Musical Instrument

Oddly enough though, using wine glasses as instruments at one time wasn’t quite as avant garde as it seems today. Dating as far back as the 12th century in China and the late 1400’s in Europe, glass music was once quite popular, but slowly died out as time moved on.

Listen below as the Glass Duo plays their rendition of the Sugar Plum Fairy. If you had heard this song on the radio mixed in with all the other Christmas favorites, would you ever have guessed it was produced by dishware and not a traditional musical instrument?

Now, normally we salute those who make our Thursday blog. But in this instance, it seems only appropriate that we TOAST! So we raise our glasses to the Glass Duo for embracing unconventional and antiquated methods, and using them to put a captivating and unique twist on the holiday season. Cheers!

Image credits: Glass Harp

Thursday Salute to Originals: Snowflake Focus

GPI Design - Thursday, December 12, 2013

As you tune into the evening news, take a moment to listen to how the winter snowfall is reported in the weather forecast. You will notice that snow is usually described in large volumes, using measurements of its mass intended to intimidate the morning commuters. Phrases such as “eight inches of accumulation”, “hard-hitting snowstorm”, and “cold front” refer to snow as a massive force, a looming entity without individual parts. How often do we step back to appreciate the white fluffy stuff flake-by-flake, millimeter by millimeter?

Macro Detail Snowflake Pattern

In his macro photographs, Russian photographer Alexey Kljatov captures snowflake patterns in such vivid details that, for a moment, we stop complaining about our frosty morning drives. The up-close views of individual flakes reveal details that engage thoughts about the accumulation of snow – how can weather patterns so ominous, so regional, so imposing, be built from these tiny breathtaking building blocks?

Snowflake Crystal Closeup Photo

Snowflake Up Close Detail Photo

Macro Shot of Snowflake Detail

Snowflake Photography Detail of Crystal Pattern

What’s even cooler? Kljatov uses fairly basic equipment in his shooting process, layering lenses with plastic bags and packing tape. He takes the photos right in his own backyard, catching flakes on his balcony and lighting them with an LED flashlight.

Camera Snowflake Detail Photography by Alexey Kljatov

Capturing the originality of nature with simplified, homegrown technology, we salute this artist for reminding us that, sometimes, a little tunnel vision can shake up our frozen perspective.

Image credits: If It's Hip, It's here

Thursday Salute to Originals: Creation through Subtraction

GPI Design - Thursday, December 05, 2013

Usually when creating, we tend to think in terms of addition. Colors + materials + forms + light = manifested vision. It’s the combination and compilation of these various items that turn an idea into a physical entity. These additions are what build a design and define its identity.

It is much more difficult to think of design in terms of subtraction. We’ve been trained that you must add things together in order to create something. (After all, an idea minus nothing still equals nothing, right? You can’t bake a cake without combining all the ingredients, can you?). But artist Karin Waskiewicz has embraced the concept of subtraction and turned it into a unique way to craft her artistic vision.

Deep Blue Paint Excavating Karin Waskiewicz

“Deep Blue” Acrylic on Panel, 24×20 / Image credit: Design Milk

Using layers upon layers of poured dried paint as her substrate, Waskiewicz chips away at the surface, revealing colorful coatings of enamel beneath. Layer by layer, she discovers new hues and patterns as she literally digs deeper into the surface, generating works created INTO paint and NOT by the stroke of a paint brush.

Reflective Yellow Mound Acrylic Painting

“Reflective Mound”, Acrylic on panel, 36×24 / Image credit: Karin Waskiewicz 

"Reflective Mound" (Detail), Acrylic on panel, 36x24, detail / Image credit: Karin Waskiewicz

Almost like excavating an archaeological site revealing treasures hiding beneath, Waskiewicz’s works take shape as she progresses. More a process of discovery as opposed to the execution of a pre-calculated design, her visions slowly reveal as she painstakingly and patiently moves deeper into the surface. Not only does this subtractive technique give her works a very tactile appearance – it’s not the application of paint that gives the illusion of depth, it’s actually the physicality of these crevices creating pockets of three-dimensionality - but the randomized assemblages of colors convey an psychedelic and almost dreamlike appearance. (And we can’t help but notice that the organic movements and various tonalities within these pieces look a lot like our backlit onyx panels, too!)

Revival Chipping Away Acrylic Paint Layers

“Revival 1″ Acrylic on canvas, 25.5×20.5 / Image credit: Karin Waskiewicz 

Serving as a reminder that sometimes the best ideas emerge from nontraditional techniques and practices, we salute Waskiewicz's artistic prose and her courage to embrace an unconventional method, proving that subtraction can actually add up to a moving masterpiece.

Thursday Salute to Originals: Slot Machine Thanksgiving

GPI Design - Thursday, November 28, 2013

The traditions inherent in the Thanksgiving meal run deep, thick with expectations of perfectly roasted turkey and creamy mashed potatoes. And with foodie blogs and Pinterest recipes abundant on the internet, the choices for side dishes to perfectly complement your meal offer the tantalizing potential to differentiate.

Designers may relate, as architecture must meet basic standards of structure and code, while simultaneously breaking molds and expressing innovation project after project. But with so many cutting edge choices amidst the traditional strongholds, how does one plan the perfect menu or an award-winning building without getting overwhelmed by all the potential options? The solution: the slot machine.

The Thanksgiving Dinner Generator by Saveur magazine operates like a traditional slot machine, leaving your dinner simply up to chance. Randomizing food options at the click of a button, the spinning categories land on five final culinary selections that become your Thanksgiving menu. You might be a winner with the traditional fixings, or you might end up with a more avant-garde version of this annual feast; it is luck of the draw here. But unless you’re willing take your chances and spin again, your celebratory meal is what it is. In the holiday frenzy, it may cut down on time and stress for the cook’s decisions, but there’s no guarantee the chef will get what he or she wants.

Thanksgiving Slot Machine Meal Planner

Image credit: Fastco Design

This got us thinking. What if designers had a magic wheel we could spin? The categories of program, form, landscape, interiors, and materiality would spin around and around, landing on a final set - a non-negotiable combination that could not be altered by client decisions, meetings, budget constraints, or code requirements. This would certainly reduce project timelines and stress levels, but would design without choice really be design at all? Would the control-loving designer personality be able to relinquish their creative grip and vision, leaving the future of their creation up to a spinning wheel?

Now for some, this might be the perfect solution. But since we’re not the gambling type, this Thanksgiving, we are thankful that design choices are limited only by a designer’s imagination, and not mandated by a random machine. Because, after all, the beauty in any art form – whether it be culinary or architectural – is most impactful when there is a human element and mindful preparation molding and defining its existence.

Happy Thanksgiving to our clients and colleagues! Check out our favorite blogs from past Thanksgivings:

Backlighting Our Food

Eating to the Beat

Thursday Salute to Originals: Loosening Creative Grip for Creative Gain

GPI Design - Thursday, November 21, 2013

As designers, we can all become quite attached to our creations; our ideas become pseudo-beings that we try to nurture and grow into actualization. And while we do our best to accept the inevitable constructive criticism along the way, sometimes it can be difficult to relinquish those creative bonds and allow another perspective to alter your view.

Now, it’s tough enough when the person pulling the reins on your creative prowess is a respected equal - another designer, colleague, professor, etc. - who also has an eye for design, solid a point of view, and an appreciation for artistic expression. But it’s quite a different story when the person collaborating on your design has a little less formal training, and whose professional artistic opinion is influenced primarily by the puppets on Sesame Street.

Four Year Old Artist Mother Sketches

This is the exact situation artist Mica Angela Hendricks found herself in. With her 4-year-old daughter, Myla, constantly begging to contribute to her mother’s lifelike and detailed portraits, Mica finally gave in, allowing young Myla to express her own vision in the drawings.

Mica Hendricks Art Drawings Daughter

Now you might think, initially, that this is a recipe for disaster. A 4-year-old with barely enough hand-eye coordination to wield a pencil would surely ruin the sketches her mother worked so hard on, right? Totally wrong! The imagination, creative spirit, and quirkiness Myla brings to these otherwise serious and somber portraits infuses an interesting dichotomy of technical styling, catapulting these separately ordinary sketches into whimsical works of art.

Hendricks Mother Daughter Art Collaboration Drawing

With such fantastical and imaginative perspective exuded by a child, it reminds us that good, inventive ideas don’t need to come from formal training, and they certainly don’t have to follow the rules. The best ideas should merely provoke thought, add an interesting spin, and inspire a new way of interpreting. Mica and Myla remind us that much can be gained by loosening our grip.

Image sources: Busy Mockingbird, Distractify

From the Field: Backlit Onyx Feature Wall Installation in Ottawa

GPI Design - Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Last winter, the GPI Design team was commissioned to engineer one very unique feature wall in the lobby of 150 Elgin Street in Ottawa, Ontario. Within the main lobby of this 21-story office complex, the designers at NEUF Architect(e)s and ownership at Morguard Investments imagined a glowing onyx wall to dazzle visitors and tenants. Intended to bring an organic texture to the crisp white gallery-like space, the surface possibilities for the onyx wall were left open to the imagination.

Taken by the concept and encouraged with the general contractor’s (PCL Constructors) foresight to plan the feature into the schedule well in advance, GPI Design began working to deliver the backlit onyx wall. Working with an intense obsession for detail and a critical eye on constant refinement, we crept towards the November 2013 completion date.

Now, after much coordination and anticipation, November 2013 is finally here, and we are on site! Here is a condensed look at our development of the feature wall over the last 11 months.

Phase 1: Concept

The designers’ rendering is shared with GPI, establishing the aesthetic vision for the feature wall and its connection to the surrounding space.

150 Elgin Lobby Backlit Onyx Rendering

Phase 2: Engineering

The GPI team begins structural engineering. Prior to final submission, the architect and contractor visit the GPI studio for shop drawing and mock-up reviews where slight adjustments are made. Shops drawings are revised per the review and submitted to the client for approval.

Engineering Section Detail Backlit Onyx Wall

Phase 3: Stone Selection

GPI’s director, Thomas Lawrence, accompanies our geologists on a sourcing trip where they discover the rare Petri Onyx. Meeting all the design criteria for color and patterning, this rare stone variety is procured.

Petri Brown Honey Onyx Pattern Slab

Phase 4: Pre-Production

The GPI Design team performs extensive studies on the layout possibilities of the onyx, and receives feedback from the client on the visual intent; the client selects concept B. Based on this selection, GPI compiles complex production diagrams precisely indicating how the stone will be mapped and cut to execute the desired patterning.

Onyx Bookmatch Pattern Movement Diagrams GPI

Phase 5: Production

After tweaking the lighting cavity and finessing the attachment details, all components of the feature wall are sent to production. This includes: the substructure (custom metal rails, custom powder coat for joints, all fasteners), the onyx itself, LED panels with custom color temperature, wiring, and hand built lighting controllers.

Backlit Honey Onyx Color Swatches

Phase 6: Site Prep + Shipping

All existing site conditions are coordinated to reflect GPI shop drawings and adjusted to fit the feature wall system. Components are shipped to converge on site just prior to our crew’s arrival.

Substructure Wall Construction Backlit Onyx

Phase 7: Installation

This is our current stage in the process - the rewarding phase where all the months of hard work finally come together. Our installation team members have been involved in every aspect of the engineering process, giving them an intimate understanding of the nuances of this system. And with tight 1/32” tolerances, there are many long working days for this dedicated crew.

Backlit Onyx Feature Wall Installation Art

Phase 8: Lighting Adjustments + Programming (to come in the near future)

After all onyx panels are installed, GPI’s lighting technician will analyze each panel individually, then as it relates to the composition as a whole. Based on panel size and stone translucency, our tech will address and adjust the brightness of each individual panel to harmonize illumination along entire wall.

For ease of control, the client opted to have GPI create a central theatrical lighting controller system, synchronizing the behavior of each of our 4 Infuse™ Power Supply/Dimming Units powering the wall. Once programmed, this will offer predetermined scene selections which can be accessed and implemented directly from an iPhone or iPad app.


THANK YOU to the project teams at NEUF Architect(e)s, Morguard Investments, PCL Constructors, and J2 Construction Management for your upbeat spirits and continual willingness to embrace the natural (and beautiful!) potential of onyx.

Stay tuned to our Facebook page as we post more photographs of the installation wrapping up and completing the final touches.

Thursday Salute to Originals: Hidden Potential in Thoughtful Design

GPI Design - Thursday, November 14, 2013

When it comes to design, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the big picture. With all the excitement and anticipation associated in creating something new, it’s tempting to get distracted by broader ideals. (We know the feeling of getting sucked into the aesthetical momentum of a new project. But when fractions of millimeters make or break our backlit features, we can’t let the distraction of the bigger picture cloud our attention to detail!)

Sometimes when focus is placed so heavily on the larger existence, we miss the most understated, yet significant gems right before our eyes, the important nuances hiding in plain sight. And in our experience, it’s those disregarded details that are key elements in defining the design, function, and purpose of an object – even objects we use (or THINK we know how to use) every day.

Take for instance, Chinese takeout containers. The artfully folded glossy cardstock clearly satisfies the simple utilitarian function of holding food. And their minimal, compact, boxy forms are aesthetical while still sliding neatly into the fridge. But the folded geometry of these cartons actually serves another purpose. Meant to unfold into an impromptu platter while dining, and then crease back up to house remaining cuisine, the thoughtfully designed origami of this simple takeout container is more than what meets the eye:

And take another look at the package housing your saran wrap or foil. The serrated teeth along the edge are clearly noticeable and they seem to get all the glory; everyone knows how those little guys work. But we’re willing to bet you’ve looked over the unsuspecting tabs on the side of the box. When depressed, these simple tabs secure the roll in place, preventing it from sliding or slipping while you tear a sheet:

Now, the goal here is not to start a discussion on the secrets of packaging containers. The point is to acknowledge that our perceptions and attitudes toward design are often clouded by what we believe to be their purpose; we’re swept off our feet by the “big picture” and find it tough to further analyze with an objective mindset. If we’re missing thoughtful design in common objects, what do we overlook on a larger scale? What do we miss in the architecture and interiors we inhabit every day?

So take a second to stop and smell the roses – or in the case of design, stop and VIEW the roses - to notice and appreciate the unsuspecting elements at design’s core. Because who knows, those inconspicuous details might just unlock secret potential you never knew existed.

Image credits: Petals of Paula via Flickr Creative CommonsFood Beast, This Week for Dinner, Apartment Therapy

Thursday Salute to Originals: Nature's Unexpected

GPI Design - Thursday, November 07, 2013

Looking outside, fall has finally arrived. It is one of the most remarkable and breathtaking moments of the year for many parts of the world. One element that stands out during fall in the Midwest is the beautiful trees that shed their colorful leaves. There is a myth that at the right time of day, with the right sunlight, upon the top of each tree is a glistening leaf that turns to gold when it’s bathed in the golden light of the sun. As a child I always tried to find that golden leaf.

Trees are the root of many of our ideas, both metaphysical as well as inspirational. They act as a foundation for ideas, giving us many hints on how Mother Nature designs her natural environments, almost seeming effortless, but most definitely intentional in every way.

Reflecting on those moments, one ponders the different theoretical forms of design that exist naturally that don’t get enough acclamation. Distinctively, two artistic pieces come to mind that possess natural elements not only aesthetically in appearance, but highly functional in the inherent material composition and ability to command the idea of “life” as its basis of origination.

Below are two different images - one is a design project, while the other is a photographic piece. Both act as current inspirations for designers to draw inspiration from the natural world, allowing the possibilities for growth to creep into spaces.

Project: Eco-Architecture To "Grow Your Own Home"

Plantware Eco Architecture

Eco Architecture Growing Home Design

Imagine designing a construct or spatial quality not by putting the elements and components together like Lincoln Logs or Legos, but rather designing it based on future growth and calculated certainty in strength and composition. The above design by Plantware boasts a new level of integrated design concepts focusing on biological environments, living and breathing plants that are shaped and mimicked on the micro level of biological engineering. Their main objective is to generate a innovative conceptual framework that can be applied in multiple facets of design using biological engineering as its backbone. Now as fascinating as it sounds, it doesn’t do much for those of us that aren’t biological engineers! However, none the less still quite a captivating concept from which to draw spatial cues.

Image: Unintended Green Architecture

Tree Growing Side of Building

The piece above, although not engulfed in creative design or screaming innovation, still brings to our attention that even the plants can go out of their way to remind us that sometimes we focus on hardscape too much. In such a barren and depleted wall condition, high up at almost 4 stories, a tree attempts to grow horizontally amongst a collection of solid brick in a crevice. It is examples such as this that make one wonder how it was even possible.


Food for thought: sometimes we designers forget that Mother Nature has some much to offer us as inspiration for design. We tend to only remember the “dead” materials for design such as the stones, metals, and treated woods, and we often forget the “living” materials, the ones that live, breathe, and change over time. Nature truly is the best designer, taking elements that are at once organized and unpredictable. Since being a child, I never did find that golden leaf. However in looking for it, I discovered that what lies between the unoccupied spaces of trees is where imagination, beauty, and creativity all come together.

“Love the trees until their leaves fall off, then encourage them to try again next year.” ― Chad Sugg

Image credits: Green ProphetBroken Sidewalk