SEGD Fellows Clifford Selbert and Robin Perkins add dramatic scale, emotion––and most of all, stories––to the urban landscape.
Landscape architect/graphic designer Clifford Selbert and graphic designer/sculptor Robin Perkins teamed up in the late 1980s and, in the ensuing 25 years, they have collaborated with a wide range of municipalities, public agencies, owners, developers, and architects to create landmark projects that connect stories to places using art, communications, and environments.
With offices in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Dubai, Selbert Perkins Design is an international practice founded on multidisciplinary collaboration. They may be best known for monumental projects such as the luminous gateways at Los Angeles International Airport, Brobdingnagian furniture at the Pacific Design Center, and iconic identity and wayfinding programs for clients including the World of Coca Cola in Atlanta and East Fremont Street in Las Vegas.
Their large-scale sculptural work––beginning with Seven Hills Park (Somerville, Mass.) in 1990 and continuing with LAX and other projects around the world––has changed the notion of what environmental graphic design can do for public spaces, says Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD 2010.
“Original. Bold. Joyful. The depth and breadth of Selbert Perkins’ work is remarkable,” says Gehshan, FSEGD, principal of Cloud Gehshan Associates (Philadelphia). “They have entertained us with cows in the air at Seven Hills Park and giant chairs at the Pacific Design Center. They produce both landmark projects and quiet gems. Their accomplishments have greatly stretched the field of environmental graphic design.”
Selbert and Perkins were named SEGD Fellows during a celebration at the 2011 SEGD Conference+Expo+Awards in Montreal June 1-4. They join the ranks of EGD laureates Massimo Vignelli, David Gibson, Deborah Sussman, and others recognized for promoting the highest standards in EGD and significantly contributing to the direction and growth of the field.
The partners spoke with segdDESIGN recently about their inspirations, their individual paths to EGD, and how they view their monumental work.
Q What was the first thing you ever designed?
Robin Perkins: In kindergarten I made a doll over the weekend, cut out of sheets and sewn together with red thread. Tim Burton would have loved it. I adored this crazy little zombie thing, and that’s when I fell in love with the idea of making things.
Clifford Selbert: The first thing I got paid to design was a sign system for Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island. I wasn’t trained to do that kind of work, but my first job was landscape architect for the city of Providence. Designing a sign system was a revelation for me, a great combination of communications and landscape design.
Q You both attended the Rhode Island School of Design, at different times and in different disciplines. But your paths finally crossed in environmental graphic design, right?
Selbert: I started at Colgate University as a pre-med student and eventually transferred to RISD, where I got my degree in landscape architecture. After my first job in Providence, I started Clifford Selbert Design in Boston in 1980, based on the concept of integrating communications and environment.
Perkins: I studied graphic design at RISD, but I kept coming back to making things. After college, I began studying sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art. I had my own sculpture studio for many years. Then I worked at an architectural firm and learned how to create architectural plans and drawings. When I began working with Cliff, it seemed like my love of sculpture, making things, and graphic design came together in EGD.
Q Tell us how Selbert Perkins Design got started.
Selbert: Robin joined in the late 80s and that was a true turning point for the company. The name was officially changed to Selbert Perkins Design Collaborative in 1997, but the actual partnership goes back 10 years before that. From 1988 on, the work coming out of our studio was heavily influenced by our partnership.
Seven Hills Park was our first major project together, and in it we saw the opportunity to develop landmark elements that could be integrated with the design of the park and also tell a story about the city of Somerville. Robin’s sculptural expertise meant that we could truly integrate these sculptural elements into the environment.
Q So this became the model for future SPD projects?
Perkins: We found that integrating landscape architecture, sculpture, and communications was an incredibly effective framework for investigating the history of a place and telling its stories through a three-dimensional experience. That piece of property (Seven Hills Park) used to be a parking lot in a very blighted area. It was so powerful for us to see that design could transform it into a community space for learning, relaxation, and inspiration.
Selbert: It really changed things not just for our firm, but for many others. We began to ask the question: What is special about this place? We discovered we could find something very unique and tell the stories in the environment. That was a big moment in our work together, and also in the field of EGD.
Perkins: Out of that project evolved a phrase we still use a lot: Every place has a story, and every story has a place.
Q What have been the major influences on your work? Who are your mentors?
Perkins: Cliff is my greatest influence and my mentor. Our daughter is my greatest inspiration.
Selbert: And Robin is my greatest influence. We’ve invented a lot of what we do together. But we’ve also been heavily influenced by the notion of multidisciplinary design, so we’ve learned a lot from Bauhaus and other early designers who did everything. Massimo Vignelli said a good designer can design everything from spoons to cities, and we believe that.
Perkins: Because our work has always been in the public realm, we’ve also been influenced by artists and urban planners and architects: Alexander Calder, Frederick Law Olmsted, [abstract expressionist sculptor] David Smith, [landscape architect and artist] Isamu Noguchi, and other artists who integrate landscape and communication and art.
Q And you also share a fascination with Egypt, right?
Perkins: I’ve been mesmerized since fourth grade, and Cliff has always shared that fascination with me. We were finally able to make a trip there as tourists in 1999, right after we finished design work on LAX. It was the trip of a lifetime. Standing in the midst of these temples and experiencing the monumental scale has had a huge and pretty obvious impact on our work. These monuments are timeless because they were imbued with great meaning at the time of their construction.
Selbert: Nobody really knows how old they are. The scale is otherworldly. And when a culture like that designs something imbued with great meaning, it becomes timeless. That is really the inspiration for us. I think that’s at the core of our work, too. We imbue our work with meaning, and it’s meaning based in reality (as opposed to a theme park), the reality of the place or the people or the history.
Q So it’s really no surprise that people often use the words “landmarks” and “monuments” to describe your work?
Selbert: We’re interested in telling stories in monumental ways, and creating landmarks that help orient people. The Statue of Liberty, the St. Louis Arch, the Eiffel Tower, and the monuments of Egypt have been inspirations for us. People still orient by the biggest thing in the landscape. We want to create these landmarks and imbue them with meaning and story.
Perkins: A project like LAX has universal meaning to a global audience. We’re trying to create something that evokes emotions and a positive response. LAX is an icon and a symbol that speaks to a gateway into the U.S., much like the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. LAX is the gateway into the United States for the West Coast. Someone once said to me, “Seeing the light columns makes me happy.” That was the best compliment I’ve ever received.
Q What other projects do you see as major benchmarks for your firm?
Selbert: The second turning point was Canal City Hakata, a mixed-used development in Fukuoka, Japan. We approached this project as a truly collaborative process with architects, landscape architects, water feature designers, and lighting designers. It was another opportunity to integrate stories and landmark elements and sculpture into the environment. It really informed our collaborative approach to our work moving forward, and also was our introduction to the international market.
Perkins: We produced a beautiful and timeless urban design solution, and we remained very close to our collaborators. We’re all still great friends. That approach of co-creativity (a term that Jon Jerde coined) has influenced the way we relate to our colleagues in other professions. We see a very gray line between our disciplines and this has allowed the outcomes to become seamless. So signage isn’t separate from the lighting or the architecture. This was a benchmark for us.
Selbert: LAX was also a pivotal project for us, in that it changed how people look at monuments, art, and storytelling in the environment. We know that project has inspired many people around the world and luckily, has inspired new clients to find us.
Q Your peers also often mention your skills in managing a multidisciplinary design practice. To what do you attribute the success of your business?
Perkins: International work has been key to our practice. Since Canal City, we haven’t stopped. We’ve worked all over Asia––including Japan, Indonesia, China, and Thailand––and now we’re working in the Middle East. This has meshed well with our personal passion for travel and our desire to see the world and learn through different cultures. This has always affected our design in a positive way.
As the United States has gone through a lot of economic changes, our geographical diversity has been what has sustained us emotionally and intellectually, as well as financially. When 9/11 happened and work stopped for several months, our international work helped us to ride that wave. It’s been a deliberate approach.
Q What would you change about the contemporary field of environmental graphic design?
Perkins: We would like to see environmental graphic design be more about design in the urban context. There should be better integration of landscape architecture, public art and sculpture, and communications. There should be a focus on enhancing and beautifying our cities and communities.
Selbert: What annoys us is the big focus on typography. We emphasize symbols and monuments over typography, because people understand symbols universally.
Q When SPD's work comes up in conversation, people often talk about scale, endurance, emotional qualities, and conscience. What do you think have been your most significant contributions to SEGD?
Selbert: Our core mission is to do work for the public good. As opposed to promoting products, our work tends to promote places––destinations where people want to be. I believe the way we’ve brought monuments and art and sculpture and symbols together has added a lot to the field.
Perkins: We believe design has the power to create a better world. We want to enhance our communities and make our cities more beautiful. There is so much urban blight in our communities and around the world. Design has the power to enhance and beautify our cities and environments and, ultimately, to elevate the human spirit.
--segdDESIGN No. 33, 2011
Photos courtesy Selbert Perkins Design
“Cliff and Robin's work makes me smile. They have shown that thinking big and simply can be pulled off. There is nothing complicated about a big chair. Its message is simple and obvious. Its uniqueness lies in its reduction of message emphasized by its increase in scale. I think we all take ourselves way too seriously most of the time. Cliff and Robin have shown us that if we just lighten up a bit and have fun we can produce great work, make the planet a little more enjoyable, and make ourselves happier in the process.”
David Vanden-Eynden, FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden/Design/Consultants
"The work of Selbert Perkins has always possessed a visual vitality and drama combined with meaning, function, and pure joy. Their being recognized as Fellows is well deserved and long overdue."
Richard Poulin, FSEGD, Poulin+Morris
"Robin and Cliff exemplify how EGD makes a significant, material difference in how places are both used and perceived by people. Their work consistently manages to embody both the rational, functional aspects of wayfinding with the emotional qualities that engage people and capture the spirit of a place.”
Henry Beer, FSEGD, CommArts/Stantec