Indoor/Outdoor Space Engineer

“I had always seen architecture as landscaping.”

                    – Michael Kalil, “Seed Vision” interview, 1990

Kalil’s archive offers up several interesting pieces of evidence that support the fact that he held a long-standing fascination with integrating natural elements (water, fire, flora) and landscapes into his designs. This theme that runs throughout Kalil’s work and can be seen from his earliest design commissions up to his final residential and theoretical projects (not to mention his 1990 Honors Studio class at University of North Carolina at Greensboro-I’ll be writing about that in an upcoming post.) Elements of Japanese garden and interior design as well as more austere, western modernist design tendencies abound.

One of Kalil’s earliest (unbuilt) professional residential plans that incorporated his concept of interior “landscaping” was actually response to a House & Garden magazine design contest in 1977. The challenge put forth was to re-imagine a client’s existing apartment, which had been unceremoniously dubbed as a “decorating disaster.” Suspecting that Kalil could provide a particularly exciting solution, Beverly Russell, whom at the time was the Special Features Editor for House & Garden, personally wrote to Kalil, encouraging him to participate.

She was right- Kalil provided a bold take that was largely inspired by his own home experiments with innovative space reconfiguration and the carefully considered introduction of natural elements.  In an 1990 interview that Kalil did for IS Journal, Kalil recalls this project, noting that he envisioned terraced levels within the living room (covered with an earthy, moss-colored carpet), a small teak foot bridge that would lead to a raised bedroom area that would be planted with irises and ivy. Additionally, he designed a “fire pit” in the floor of the bedroom for candles and sand. If that weren’t enough, in the main living room area, there would be a convertible teak table that could serve both for dining and as a small coffee table, and also a waterfall (a clever meditative device created from a faucet that would be run high up into a wall so that water would trickle down a series of glass block steps.)

Interesting to note is that this House & Garden article is perhaps is the earliest instance of Kalil being referred to as a “space engineer.” Although it is unclear if he coined that term himself, from this point forward, he uses this descriptor to his best advantage in subsequent press interviews to define his approach towards architecture and design.

Processing the Kalil Collection

The Temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming out of the flowers
- Basho

Admittedly, this post is overdue, considering the fact I began working with the Kalil materials back in September 2010, and by now I have long since completed processing of this remarkable collection. But in all fairness, I had my hands full with the task at hand!  Nevertheless, I would like to take a moment to present an overview of my appraisal and arrangement activities, and reflect on some of the challenges and surprises that I have encountered along the way.

Perhaps a small preface is in order here. The Kalil Collection contains a wide range of materials including personal papers (sketchbooks, student artwork, journals, correspondence and datebooks); professional papers (collegial correspondence, lecture and speech notes, research files, grant applications and awards); faculty papers pertaining to teaching appointments at both Parsons and UNC Greensboro (administrative documents, course materials, reference files, clippings, class plans, Masters Studio student exhibition materials); office records (administrative documents, clippings, promotional materials); project records (contracts, meeting minutes, photographs, slides, transparencies, sketches, drawings, photoprints), and original artworks and realia (craft and maquette materials for design objects). There is also an additional category of materials gathered posthumously by colleagues includes  documentation of Kalil’s memorial service in 1991, administrative notes about the formation of the Michael Kalil Foundation and the Michael Kalil Endowment for Smart Design, exhibition materials for a “Designs for the 21st Century” (a 1993 retrospective of Kalil’s work, presented at Parsons), and a 1993 inventory document detailing the contents of Kalil’s office and home created by former Kalil Studio employee, Tom Garvey.

During the course of going through the boxes, not too surprisingly,  I discovered that Kalil’s diverse body of materials retained only isolated pockets of organization and what appeared to be “original order”. Given this, I applied an overall arrangement scheme in order to apply folder-level intellectual control to this collection. Rehousing the papers was also a fairly straightforward set of tasks involving removing materials from decidedly non-archival plastic binders, sleeves and folders, and placing them into archival quality folders and document boxes.

Kalil drawings and prints unfurled

However, Kalil’s plans, original drawings and sketches were another matter altogether! For anyone interested in his working methods, Kalil was visually oriented problem solver the act of putting pen and/or pencil to paper was absolutely central to his working method. His archive contains hundreds of drawings and sketches dating back to his days as a student continuing through to his professional practice and last collaborative project, “Rug for Threeing”, with Jean Gardner and Paul Ryan for V’Soske.

Most of Kalil’s visual materials are rendered on  yellow or white tissue paper of varying sizes, but he drew in sketchbooks, on napkins, cardboard drink coasters, and in the margins of his notebooks and journals.  There is also an long scroll of tan craft paper containing pen and pencil sketches- although I wasn’t able to determine which of his projects it pertained to, its a great illustration of a searching, ceaselessly creative mind at work. With the exception of a few smaller flat works, everything came to the archive rolled in cardboard tubes that were for the most part labeled with the project name. Throughout my processing of these materials, I jokingly referred to the process of removing and flattening these as like watching  a clown car circus act– the drawings and sketches just kept on coming- a typical roll for any given project would unfurl to reveal a trove of smaller sketches. I would separate these and sort them by size and media, and do my best to flatten and folder these groups/sub-groups in such a way that wouldn’t be completely inconvenient for a researcher to open and sift through. This may have been the most labor intensive and delicate aspect of processing Kalil’s collection.

I chose the Basho quote to begin this post because I feel that it’s an apt statement in regards to the power of action- in this case, the vibrancy and immediacy of Kalil’s hand and intellect that is so present throughout the entirety of his materials-and also the potential of these materials to “speak” to researchers about 20th century design history long after Kalil’s direct involvement with them. Metaphorically speaking, my job as an archivist has been to be a steward of this garden, and make sure that clear paths are made for future scholars to find the flowers.

2012 Kalil Fellows Presentation on 3/1

For those of you interested in the Kalil Fellowship awards, there will be presentation by this year’s recipients here in New York City on Thursday, March 1. As part of this event, I’ll be giving a brief talk about Kalil and my work with his archive. Here’s the press release:


March 1, 2012 6:15 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

The School of Constructed Environments (Architecture/Interior/Lighting/Product Design) at Parsons the New School for Design hosts Nicholas de Monchaux and Angelo Vermeulen, named joint Kalil fellows for 2012, to present their work in the  context of design and art intersections of nature and technology. At the event, the three  competitive $5,000 grants supported by the Michael Kalil Endowment for Smart Design will be awarded, and the progress on archiving the work of Michael Kalil will be presented.

Nicholas de Monchaux
 is an architect and urbanist whose work examines  intersections of nature, technology, and the city. He is the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, an Architectural History of the Apollo 11 Spacesuit. 

Angelo Vermeulen is a visual artist, filmmaker, and biologist. His research in ecology, environmental pollution, and teratology informs his art, which includes bio-installations, experimental setups incorporating living organisms and science fiction references.

For more information on the Michael Kalil Endowment for Smart Design on its 10th Anniversary, please visit

Theresa Lang Student Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd FloorADMISSION:
Free; no tickets or reservations required

Tools of the trades…


Kalil's weaving tools, textiles, metal and wood pieces

In archival terms, this assemblage of objects is known as “realia”- ie. three-dimensional objects (man-made or naturally occurring) such as coins, tools, and textiles and anything else that cannot be described as a document. Librarians may roll their eyes at what to do with materials like these, but as an archivist, I genuinely enjoy the artefactual part of my job, and the process of determining how best to preserve and position them in the collection. From a design historian’s perspective, the value of realia is that it has the potential to provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner creative life of a designer. Kalil’s realia presents a snapshot of a person who not only had a collection of handmade craft materials, but he also found creative use and perhaps even inspiration in the small, often quirky detritus of commercial manufacture. Kalil’s interest in the made-made and the natural world, and his spirit of exploration, tinkering and play definitely emerge in this part of the collection.

We made the decision to retain samples of each skein of intensely saturated embroidery thread and the fabric samples. Also, we have ample physical evidence of Kalil’s interest in weaving and textiles via a small loom, several weaving tools and a variety of fabric samples. Along with this we have two cigar boxes chock full of bits of commercially made small metal parts (and interestingly, an Civil War era Union soldier belt buckle!), and also a small set of modular cardboard maquettes.

Interestingly, there are also some slightly enigmatic, “non sequitur” objects as well- there is a rough string of purple beads, terminated by a metal cube  in a talisman-like mini sculpture, and a creme colored billiard ball that fits perfectly into a delicate cylindrical, celluloid box. Who knows? These seemingly trivial yet imaginative combinations of objects could have perhaps led Kalil to brainstorm an articulated, real-world design idea at some point along the way.

The Open Atelier: “I was told he was a designer and a poet…”

This quote is an excerpt of what Giuseppe Zambonini had to say about Michael Kalil in a 1979 New York Times feature about The Open Atelier of Design and Architecture.

The Open Atelier brochure, 1978-1979

The Open Atelier of Design and Architecture (OADA) was a non-accredited design school founded by Guiseppe Zambonini in 1978. At the time, Zambonini was the Dean of the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID), but felt that the students were not receiving enough practical teaching in relation to the abundance of theory and design courses. His goal in establishing OADA was to cover a full cycle of design study from theory to practice. Zambonini likely knew Kalil through NYSID where Kalil taught seminars in architectural history. Judging by a promotional brochure in Kalil’s papers, by 1978 Zambonini had invited Kalil to be a part of his OADA faculty. Other faculty members included Christian Hubert, George Ranalli and Michael Monsky. Guest speakers included the conceptual artist Donald Judd, architectural theorists Raimund Abraham and Lauretta Vinciarelli, and also design luminaries including Ward Bennett, Norman Diekman, Joe D’Urso, James Wines, Michael Webb and Gamal El Zoghby.

The school was originally housed on 11 Worth Street, in a 100-year old warehouse in TriBeCa (the downtown extension of SoHo at the time).

Page from an uncorrected proof of an article for Interiors magazine, “Low Budget Design” by Beverly Russell, 1980.

It occupied roughly 2200 square feet in a fifth floor loft that was internally unbuilt and without utilities. Zambonini saw this as a golden opportunity to design a space that would not only house the activities of OADA, but also serve as a space that could “teach by example.”

OADA offered both day and evening classes, lecture series, and opportunities to do professional design work, and it was equipped with a working wood and model shop.  Most of the furniture used as drafting tables and work surfaces were designed and built on premises in a joint effort between faculty and students. Although the school did not award degrees, Zambonini ensured that every student left with a portfolio of real-world residential and commercial projects that the school contracted as class assignments.

Within Kalil’s papers, there is no tangible evidence regarding this part of his career aside from a couple of articles and a few promotional brochures published by OADA. Kalil’s relationship with OADA and Zambonini may have been relatively brief, but it does illustrate that during the 1970s, he was already active as a design educator, and very interested in creating alternative kinds of learning experiences for design students.

Interestingly, I recently ran some Google searches for “Open Atelier of Design and Architecture”, and variations that used both Zambonini’s and Kalil’s names, and I came across a number of results that took me to the websites of working architects and designers where OADA was cited in their CVs. If you are one of those individuals, please feel free to contact me via this blog- I would be interested to hear about your educational experience at OADA, particularly if you took one of Kalil’s courses!

To keep or not to keep, that is the question…

During the processing of the Kalil collection, an interesting debate arose surrounding whether or not the Kellen Design Archives should keep Kalil’s pair of Rolodexes. For those not familiar with one of more ubiquitous, postwar analog office tools, the Rolodex is a desktop rotating card index with removable cards that first came to market in 1958. The Rolodex is usually used for names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Although some corporate stalwarts may still actually use their rolodexes, they are becoming increasingly rare in the digital age. No doubt you will see them recycled by the score as props sitting adjacent to IBM typewriters on secretary and middle man executive desks on shows like Mad Men.

In keeping with someone who was as professionally active and outgoing as Kalil, not surprisingly his tray style rolodexes are filled to capacity with taped in business cards and notes regarding a panoply of colleagues, vendors and manufacturers with whom he came into contact. This includes: antiques dealers, art suppliers, carved glass fabricators, carpenters, stone and tile workers, electrical and aerospace engineers, fabric houses, florists, kitchen equipment distributors, landscapers, metal workshops, magazine editors and painters.

The question was posed about how valuable the contained information might be to a potential scholar of Kalil’s career. After all, the information itself likely holds little use value as actual contact information, and it is impossible to know how close or loose some of these professional affiliations were for Kalil. The only way to distinguish between who may have been a crucial team member or fabricator for any one particular project would be to crawl through Kalil Studio project records and look for instances of particular tradesmen, vendors and fabricators etc. But is having the actual business card of one of these entities necessary?

Perhaps not, but we decided to indeed keep them- and here’s why. These rolodexes have great overall artifactual value because they provide a glimpse into 20th century business practices and more specifically, how Kalil Studio operated administratively. It is informative to know that Kalil relied on such a wide range of tradespeople and manufacturers. The rolodexes also tell us that many of the people and companies he may have been in contact with were of them local to New York City, but they were also international in scope. Some particularly interesting contacts include R.Buckminister Fuller and a Walt Disney Company “Imagineer.”

1980-1983: Armstrong Industries, “Smart Pavilion”

By the late 1970s, Michael Kalil’s interest in convertible spaces and the design potential of  kinetic floor structures led him to materials and fabrication research that broadened his creative horizons and raised his professional profile considerably.  In 1980, Kalil became involved with Armstrong World Industries, an international designer and manufacturer of floors, ceilings and cabinets, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Kalil participated in the “Twelfth Interiors Initiative Project”, a design study sponsored by Armstrong as a showcase for new furnishing materials. As part of this, he was granted a commission to design a prototype of an automated office space, to be installed in their Lancaster facility.

Seeing this as a golden opportunity to present the design potential of integrating of digital and mechanical technologies with human activities and environments, Kalil soon enlisted the assistance of several key associates- project manager, Marty Spiegel; lighting designer,  Peter Barna, and an engineering consultant, Mac MacArthur. Not surprisingly, project records indicate that quite a bit of collaborative planning went into the creation of this unique space.  By late 1983, the room was realized, and it received national press through feature articles in both Interiors, (May 1984), and Omni Magazine (“Special Anniversary Issue”; October, 1984).

Room Description & Design Elements:

Smart Pavilion under construction

Kalil’s “Smart Pavilion” was circular, 22 feet in diameter, with an inverted pyramid ceiling set with Armstrong “Soft Look” acoustical panels, and a hand-sensor activated, 54-inch diameter circular entrance portal that was framed by a tilted, square door. The walls were 7 foot-6-inch high, and lined with Armstrong “Sound Soak” acoustical fabric.  All upholstered areas were covered with Armstrong, “Silent Partner” carpet.

The real star of the show however, was a movable floor (in theory to be automated, but the prototype was manually adjustable) that was envisioned to contain hydraulic furniture that would rise from underneath the floor according to the needs of the room occupant. The floor was composed of 15 panels, each 12-inches wide (of a terrazzo-like material “Pavimar”, then prototyped by Armstrong), and 16-feet in total length.

Smart Pavilion Executive Seat

Important to note here is the fact that Kalil derived the proportions of the entire room plan from the 12-inch measurement of the Pavimar tiles. According to Kalil’s published remarks about his design programs, the application of proportional/incremental dimensions as taken from the spaces and materials that he worked with was a central aspect of his working method, and directly related to his close study of  sacred geometry.  Throughout this project (as well as many of his other designs), he was deeply committed to creating environments that fostered an intuitive and encompassing sense of ease and harmony via the integrated, geometric proportions of each individual design element.

Smart Pavilion, room in use

Visual elements were introduced to the room via four, 5-foot square, rear projection screens that were  positioned on the north, south, east and west perimeter of the floor. These were designed to display text and/or images (envisioned also to receive video or holographic transmissions). Perimeter lighting was also programmed to operate on a 24-hour basis, and would provide cyclical durations of simulated sun or moonlight, in accordance to the month, day, hour and year.

Upon entering the room, a computer keyboard would rise from the floor just inside of the doorway. This was meant to provide the ability to manipulate various pieces of hydraulic furniture to position as needed.  Kalil cleverly envisioned pieces of folding furniture to be designed along the lines of Japanese oragami, housed in very shallow, 7-inch subflooring. Perhaps due to mechanical complexities, budget and time constraints, ultimately only two pieces of furniture were actually installed- an “executive chair”, modeled after a backless, ergonomic kneeling chair, and an “executive bench”, which was essentially a chaise with an undulating profile.

The user could then enter the space and take a seat at the executive chair, positioned directly behind a horizontal “control bar”. The control bar was a complete re-envisioning of a computer keyboard; instead of typing in a command, the bar was meant to be touch sensitive. Depending on where the user lightly tapped the bar, in it’s “north/south” orientation, this would activate the screens to project either still images, videoconferencing or holographic transmissions.  When the bar was pivoted 90-degrees into an “east/west” orientation, this would prompt the executive bench to arise from the floor. Cylindrical heat sensors located on either side of the control bar would activate various color lighting schemes within the space, allowing the user to “paint the space” with a spectrum of colors, ranging from a warm, bright yellow to a deep indigo blue.

While previous to this commission, Kalil had successfully explored and prototyped some of his ideas regarding  manually movable floors and the use of geometric/incremental proportioning, the Armstrong “Smart Pavilion” was undoubtedly a significant moment in Kalil’s career. It likely marks the most comprehensive and technically ambitious expressions of his desire to seamlessly integrate digital technologies within an uncluttered, flexible and rigorously proportioned space.

In large part due to the success and notoriety of this project, Kalil was able to establish a unique working relationship with NASA’s Ames Research Center. Kalil and his associates were very eager to apply what they had learned from the design process of the terrestrial “Smart Pavillion” to the human factors involved with the creation of a habitation module for a low-earth oribt, international space station.


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