Contours—CRĒO and Acrylicize’s Collaborative Journey

When Tableau Software (Seattle) was seeking a way to tell its brand story in its global headquarters, team members from Acrylicize and CRĒO Industrial Arts found themselves embarking on a collaborative journey.

Inside the atrium of Tableau Software’s global headquarters in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, a stunning sculptural installation appears to float in space, emerging from the concrete ceiling in concentric curving lines of white light and wood. The line work is reflected on the surrounding glass and in pools below, having the visual effect of ripples expanding throughout the overhead space.

It stokes curiosity in viewers: What is it? Who works there, and what do they do?

Tableau Software is a public company that creates interactive business intelligence and data visualization software products with built-in geocoding, which originated through years of data and computer science research at Stanford. Tableau’s mission reads: “We help people see and understand their data.”

In the spring of 2016, Tableau was underway with construction of their new Seattle headquarters and asked their past-collaborator Acrylicize—a collective of award-winning artists, designers and craftspeople that had just opened a Seattle branch of their own—to help create a site-specific installation that would reflect the Tableau brand and its values.

The Acrylicize team was taken aback by the location, look and scale of the new building in Seattle. “The space is so incredibly stunning, with views of the lake that are visible through the open space of the atrium,” says Sean Bendell-Whittaker, design director at Acrylicize. “So we embarked on this journey to create something that would sit beautifully in the space, reflect its surroundings and represent the brand—without blocking the view.”

Conceptual development began with the design team performing research on Seattle and the region’s history. The design team also held workshops with the client group, reaching the understanding that the installation needed to present a warmer, more organic, fluid interpretation of data visualization, as the field is often perceived as “cold.”

“There was a big push to bring the outside in, celebrate the local area and convey a sense of discovery,” says Bendell-Whittaker. “The tools the company develops allow people to use their curiosity and discover new things through data—these were the core drivers we were looking to express.”

Working through the ideas of data, discovery, warmth, fluidity and organic forms, the Acrylicize team quickly landed on the idea of using a longstanding form of data visualization: contour lines. Contour lines can easily describe the movement of bodies of water and the rise and fall of land masses—a fact that brought the team to Mount Rainier as topographical inspiration. The mountain is a much-loved regional landmark, and its shape is very recognizable.

Following a series of visual experiments with the concept of using contoured map lines, the Acrylicize and Tableau teams were unanimously in favor of the approach. “There’s something about using an archaic data visualization language of topography map lines to describe Mount Rainier and the fluidity of Lake Union that just struck the right tone,” explains Bendell-Whittaker. “It also speaks to the big, overriding theme of celebrating discovery in a unique and sophisticated way.”

 More from Acrylicize about Contours

As the creative team worked through the concept and initial design, Seattle-based Project Manager Shannon Andrews met with the team at CRĒO Industrial Arts, a firm with whom Acrylicize had mutual connections, to assess their capabilities. “Contours was one of the projects they were working on at the time, and we discussed it—not knowing if CRĒO would ultimately fabricate the project,” remembers Patrick Angelel, president of CRĒO Industrial Arts. “We had some ideas that were different than what they had previously heard; the partnership grew from there.”

CRĒO became an advantageous partner to Acrylicize, both in terms of achieving the design intent and in terms of the project’s engineering, timeline and budgetary goals. The working relationship between the three teams was a model of collaboration, according to Angelel. “It was one of the most collaborative projects that CRĒO has been involved in and a great experience overall,” he says. “It felt like a real journey together. It’s great to work with like-minded people,” adds Bendell-Whittaker.

The most pivotal example of the collaboration between the design and fabrication teams on the Contours project involved the materiality of the installation. Contours was initially conceived as a series of metal structures wrapped in wood veneer, but that approach posed a challenge.

Using actual wood veneer would not yield a cohesive look, given the horizontal visual movement of the piece; executing the design with wood would require many small panels to be mounted with the grain running vertically due to the material’s rigidity. The significant shift in fabrication strategy, however, was moving from a metal structure with a lens in the bottom to interlocking eight-foot-long sections of heat-formed acrylic.

The CRĒO team also proposed two alternatives to the design and client groups in addition to natural wood veneer: digitally printed wood covering and a hand-painted faux wood grain finish. “The faux-finished version won out because it was so convincing,” explains Angelel. “And it allowed us to create a continuous flow of wood grain around the organic shapes of the piece.” In addition to creating a cleaner and more convincing look, the faux finishing technique was less expensive.

After weeks of planning on the part of the CRĒO team, they began fabrication. The acrylic pieces were manufactured and painted before 3,400 specially selected, color temperature-matched white LED lighting modules were fitted into their tops.

The four-month-long process of fabrication culminated in a complicated and carefully orchestrated installation. A special system of modular scaffolding was built to accommodate the process, from laying out a full-size pattern and using lasers to mark the 281 attachment points on the ceiling, to running the electrical wiring through the hollow threaded metal rods across the ceiling and into the closet that houses the 34 remote drivers.

The thoughtful design and engineering also helped to both navigate a busy ceiling space and to conceal the attachments by way of custom paint and the emanating ring-like forms of the piece. In total, the installation boasts an astonishing 984 linear feet of continuously-lit acrylic.

Contours is successful on a number of levels: It effectively communicates the client’s brand values and personality using only a series of lines, adds a characteristic element to the building, encourages curiosity in viewers and blurs the lines between brand communication and bespoke art. The installation sets the tone for the space and the company; by day, warm wood tones play off the architectural finishes, and by night, it lights the space and serves as a subtle beacon outward to the community.

For both the design and fabrication teams, the collaborative journey was the biggest takeaway. “This project validated the importance of our process of implementing strong research and collaboration from the beginning,” says Bendell-Whittaker. “Through this experience together, we have been able to create a piece of impressive scale that feels light, air-filled and does not overpower the space it’s in.”

And, the client couldn’t be happier with the results. “As you walk into Tableau’s global headquarters you are greeted by a three-dimensional, glowing, topographic counter-rendering of Mount Rainier,” beams Christian Chabot, CEO and founder of Tableau. “It’s wonderful to watch people ‘take it in’ as they enter and begin to understand what it says about our company.”

Many would agree with Chabot, Angelel and Bendell-Whittaker; Contours has been featured by press outlets and continues to be shared on social media—highlighting the artwork, building and brand in a positive way.

 More from CRĒO Industrial Arts about Contours

Project Name: Contours
Client: Tableau Software
Location: Seattle
Open Date: February 2017
Project Area: 13,560 cu ft
Fabrication: CRĒO Industrial Arts
Design: Acrylicize
Project Team: Sean Bendell-Whittaker (lead creative, designer), Shannon Andrews (U.S. project manager), John Lenehan (U.K. project manager), James Burke (creative direction), Patrick Angelel (fabrication project director), Rich Upton (fabrication project manager), Kevin Taylor (lead artist), Don Sparling (installation supervisor)
Photos: Hero Creative