"You can probably hear my 3D printer in the background," says Nick Gelpi over a soft whirring on a recent call. Last week the 35-year-old founder of design firm Gelpi Projects was elbows-deep in the creation of a furniture collection for Art Basel in Miami, a set of stools "combining 3D-printed material with white oak." The greatest thing about 3D printing? "We hit play, and then we go home. We make a stool while we're sleeping." This is all telling of the Miami-based Curbed Young Gun winner's outlook and oeuvre: Gelpi's studio is focused on experimenting with materials, and coming up with playful solutions to real problems.
Despite his love for the technology, Gelpi is not a pioneer glued to his 3D printer. To him, it feels more like a one-man tool—and if the designer has learned anything from working on massive projects like the redevelopment of New York's Hudson Yards as part of Steven Holl Architects, it's that collaboration and innovation go hand-in-hand.
Though he's left the skyscraper game to start his own studio and write a book on the history of full-scale architectural mock-ups, he is still "obsessed with getting architecture off the page." Most of his recent endeavors, in fact, have centered on trials and experiments.
Gelpi's work often appears deceptively simple. He tends toward straightforward forms, though his use of structural materials is far from standard. He loves finding innovative ways to fabricate buildings, furniture, and parks, a fact proven by the firm's winning bid to turn the Wynwood Gateway Park in Miami (below) into a glowing greenhouse with a giant oak growing through the structure.
"It's a way for us to get into the details and reinvent them. We don't necessarily have to have a radical form," he says. "A large part of what we try to do is to celebrate the performance of materials and how things come together."
Plans for a giant glowing greenhouse at Miami's Wynwood Gateway Park.
Gelpi has always been interested in building stuff from scratch. He grew up in New Orleans, and his family ran a home-building company. "As a family we built our own house when I was 10 years old, and I got to watch that happen." He found the process very exciting. "It wasn't an award-winning work of architecture, it was a typical suburban house that my parents really customized and did interesting things to. But it was something that we worked on together."
At the moment, Gelpi is immersed in creating a new building material from the wood of an Australian tree, called the melaleuca quinquenervia, which has become a serious threat to the ecosystem of Florida's Everglades National Park. The trees, which are also known as paper bark tea trees, were originally planted to help drain swampy areas in the Everglades; alarmingly, their population has quadrupled in the last decade. The firm is working to transform organic material from the trees into a new substance akin to a wood-based concrete, which, if successful, will be able to insulate buildings far better than normal concrete does.
The building material made with melaleuca quinquenervia, an invasive tree species
"We're going to be the first building in North America to build with this material," says Gelpi. "We've been taking invasive species of trees out of the Everglades and chipping them up, and mineralizing the wood chips. We cast those into concrete. The result is very lightweight. It absorbs sound, and it takes harmful things out of the environment."
It took Gelpi's firm a year to cook up a mix that consistently performed well as a structural material. Far from the complicated chemistry experiments that one might expect the invention of a completely new material to entail, Gelpi instead describes the process of fine-tuning and adjusting the recipes as "low-tech." "We would mix test cylinders, take them to a compression machine, and test how strong they were," says Gelpi. "We would literally go smash them, to see how strong they were."
This is not the first time he has found existing materials lacking, and subsequently created his own. A few years ago, Gelpi and architect Steven Holl designed a gorgeous line of perforated furniture made from an innovative combination of Kevlar (a tough fabric best-known for being inside bulletproof vests) and wood laminate. The composite material was then laser-cut and folded like a big piece of origami.
A table made with a composite material of Kevlar and wood laminate
The resulting "Riddled" furniture line received Architect magazine's first annual research and development award for its pioneering use of the new, and very light material. The "Riddled" cabinet, which is constructed from five hole-punched boxes, is fully functional (and even commercially available from the Italian supplier Horm), but looks more like a museum piece than a storage item. The "Riddled" table, which has a glass top that sits on thin sheets of wood that are as porous as a coral reef, is a stunning object that seems to bend the laws of physics. "There's no hardware in this furniture: it just opens and closes based on the flexibility of the material itself," says Gelpi.
The pair did not originally set out to create a new substance. At the beginning of the project, they envisioned making the furniture out of folded steel. But it turned out that fabricating such furniture would be prohibitively expensive, and so they asked the manufacturer if it was possible to laminate something lighter, like Kevlar. It was a shot in the dark: Both men assumed they would have to use steel for their design. But after receiving an affirmative answer to the question, they moved forward with plans to create not only a unique line of furniture, but also a new medium for it.
Gelpi was entranced by the ability to "substitute a much more lightweight material for something very heavyweight and hard and permanent," an idea that has informed many of his later pursuits. "That became a real moment for me where I started to question and rethink a majority of the materials we use, and started to think if there were other ways of accomplishing the same thing," he says. "It got me thinking about materials in a different way."
Now the designer is putting his ideas to the ultimate test. The wood-based concrete mix that his firm is working on will soon be used to build a 500-square-foot addition onto Gelpi's own midcentury house in Miami. In a nod to its past as an invasive species, he is calling the textured new material "alien tile." If everything works out, it will be the lightest concrete house in all of Florida.
The Skin + Poles garden pavilion