Next Progressives: Design With Company

Architect Magazine Ι September 2015 

Design with Company’s Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer have a modest body of experimental and built projects that exist somewhere between Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In their investigative studio, the Chicago-based couple explores Midwestern building archetypes and institutions that are bizarrely iconic. Their projects are playful and surreal, but still humbly attached to a vast middle ground.

The Michigan natives returned to the Midwest after a stint in New Jersey—Hicks picked up his M.Arch. from Princeton University in 2006 while Newmeyer practiced; she then earned her M.Arch. at the University of Michigan in 2008—giving them the opportunity to re-examine their home region with fresh eyes. They’ve cataloged Boom Town Chicago’s near-mythical traditions of land generation as well as the infamously oversized curios that line highways in the open prairie. Design with Company tries “to take something mundane and everyday and make it the outlier,” Hicks says. Their practice straddles the line between a loving homage to their native Midwest and a critical riff on it.

The pair’s sense of irreverence made them an attractive prospect for University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture director Robert Somol, who lured them from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012 to teach. “What we try to see with the offices and people we engage with is work that is rigorous and funny,” Somol says. “Their work hits those registers.”

Design with Company thinks of its creative process as narrative. Newmeyer and Hicks tell the stories of contemporary architectural conditions in a sepia haze that gives each project the air of a timeless myth or fable—even when the subject is a ripped-from-the-headlines preservation battle: Their submission to the Chicago Architectural Club’s Reconsidering an Icon exhibition to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital lionizes not the structure itself but the wrecking ball used to tear it down.

The duo’s built work often features domestic objects that signify welcoming and community, arranged with a performative and barn-raising spirit. Shaw Town, a temporary performance venue at an artist retreat in suburban Chicago, abstracted elements of local architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s buildings into a giant toy box of a stage complete with pastel foam furnishings that audiences pull out and arrange at their leisure.

For the Porch Parade pavilion in Vancouver’s Robson Square, Design with Company crafted a series of interconnected neon porches made with materials sourced from yard sales. Likewise, Pavilion MMM… (“Miami Many-a-chair Monument…”), installed in Miami in 2014, comprised intricate scaffolding that suspended chairs picked up at garage sales, with every scuff adding a new layer of narrative and personal history.

Two of their earliest projects loom large over the young firm’s theoretical explorations. Farmland World and Animal Farmatures propose a hybrid theme park/working farm where “agro-tourists” leave their technocratic cubicle grayscapes to work the land for fun alongside robotic, behemoth Archigram-styled cows, pigs, and sheep.

The fetishization and idealization of agricultural icons appear consistently in Design with Company’s work, in different contexts. “It might look weird, but it’s everyday,” Newmeyer says. “We’re revealing the absurdity to the world,” Hicks adds.

Along with completing their first built projects this year, the young designers moved into new office space on the 14th floor of Daniel Burnham’s Monadnock Building, where they’re getting ready for their biggest venue to date: the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, slated to be the largest architecture exhibition in North American history.