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Fierce and fashionable: Designers turn commercial interiors materials into wearable art

October 08, 2018

By Rebecca Keehner, Elaine Medeiros and Ashley Fratis

Stantec Sacramento interior designer walks the runway in dress crafted from carpet, window shades, and upholstery—for a good cause

As interior designers, we are drawn to creative opportunities. And one of the most exciting and unique opportunities for our Sacramento, California, team is the annual MERGE Fashion Show. It’s like “Project Runway” but with carpet fibers, upholstery, tile, stone, and all kinds of unusual interior building materials. 

MERGE, which gets its name from the idea of bringing together people and materials, is a unique night for design professionals. The Northern California Chapter of the International Interior Design Association sponsors a design competition with a dozen local architecture and design firms. The teams create high-fashion clothes from commercial interior products. The finished garments walk the runway and the event raises scholarship dollars for local interior design students.

One of the great things about the event is the collaboration that happens to pull the garment together. In our office, the team included our interior design staff, landscape architects, architects, and our administration staff.

Here’s a walk through the process:

Stantec interior designer and MERGE Fashion Show model Rebecca Keehner is surrounded by other team members on the night of the runway show.

The early stages

It all starts with a kick-off party where all the teams meet to randomly select their theme and manufacturers. Stantec pulled “coral reef” as our theme. Our materials included products from a local lighting distributor, window coverings, upholstery, carpet, and solid surface materials.

We knew right away we did not want to do a literal recreation of a coral reef. Instead, we approached it from a high fashion, avant-garde perspective. So, selecting the items from the five manufacturers was a process. We pulled an array of inspiration images, met to discuss concepts, and had sketching parties to put ideas to paper.

Our design concept

Initial, left, and final concept sketches.

The color palette evolved from what is currently trending on the runway (cobalt blues and hues of pink) and what can be found in coral reefs and the ocean.

Since sustainability was a judging category in the competition, we felt it was imperative to highlight the global epidemic of coral bleaching. It was important for us to make the direct connection between the health of the coral reef ecosystems and the overall health of the oceans and everything in them. This drove our decision to select white and black fabrics, window system material, and the white solid surface.

Collectively, we chose bold, bright colors to allude to the vibrancy of healthy coral reefs. In contrast, the whites reflect coral bleaching, which is plaguing our beautiful underwater ecosystems. Blacks represented the dark mysteriousness of the deep, endless ocean.

The geometric framework of the dress, crafted from carpet and arranged in a variety of pyramid shapes.

A month before the show

Once the materials arrived, we evaluated where we needed more and where we could reduce. It’s about finding the balance between color and material.

The first concept for the dress drastically changed when we started working with the material. Ultimately, we came up with the concept of creating a dimensional patchwork dress comprised of geometric triangular shapes. This new direction helped us incorporate the lighting in a more meaningful way.  

The willingness to stop and reassess made our final garment much stronger than if we had been less bold. Our Stantec team has participated in six MERGE shows, but this year there was a twist. The organizers gave us a month to create the final product. In previous years, we had four hours on the day of the show—from nothing to runway. The additional time made the design process more complicated, but ultimately more rewarding.

The Stantec Sacramento staff working on assembly of the MERGE Fashion Show garment. The team included interior designers, landscape architects, architects, and administration staff.

Assembling the garment

Once we knew what the outfit was going to look like, we sent CAD plans to a casework fabricator to create the solid surface.

Each work session, we could see the outfit slowly coming to life. It was very exciting to see our concept manifest physically. The carpet was cut into small triangles and assembled into different-sized pyramids. Some were made fully enclosed, while others were intentionally left open, like a mollusk. The open pyramids received a bright pink interior lining, and a centrally placed LED light, reminiscent of a pearl. Velcro and metal eye hooks were essential since the upholstery fabric was so heavy.

Mechoshade window film was rolled into long, pointy cones and placed on each of the model’s fingers, much like the long spines of a sea urchin, adding another layer of intrigue and mysteriousness.

Usually when we design for client projects, it takes months to see our designs become a reality. We enjoyed the quick-turnaround aspect of the competition. Oftentimes, we are the ones designing, while others—fabricators and contractors—are the ones who do the physical work. So, it was satisfying to be able to create things with our hands too—a total connection to the process.

Runway night

Not everyone gets an opportunity to have a “behind the scenes” peek at what it takes to put on a runway show. There is a lot of excitement, nerves, and anticipation of the live event.

In the hours before the show, teams of local cosmetology students provided hair and makeup for the models. It was also the time for last-minute alterations and applying the finishing touches.

Then it was time to walk the runway.

Rebecca Keehner walks the runway at the MERGE Fashion Show in Sacramento. The event raises scholarship funds for interior design students.

Designer reflections

Ashley: My favorite moment was when Rebecca was at the end of the runway and the lights whet down. You could hear the crowd “ooh” and “ahh!” It was such a proud moment for me.

The lighting was spectacular! Our final creation far exceeded anything I had in mind from our initial concept sketches. We spent weeks planning and countless hours fabricating. It was so rewarding to see how intrigued and captivated the audience was. Rebecca was phenomenal on the runway.

Rebecca: As the model, there is still a huge rush to get ready before the show on the day of the event. Ashley and I met early to prepare final costume adjustments, and to continue working on the hair design, going through multiple spray cans to get the color right. Getting ready also involved a lot of time in the model green room working with the cosmetology students and sitting thorough the tedious application process.

Oftentimes, we are the ones designing, while others—fabricators and contractors—are the ones who do the physical work. So, it was satisfying to be able to create things with our hands too—a total connection to the process.

After we assembled the entire costume with the makeup and full-coverage black contacts and giant spiked boots, the whole look came together. That is when I started feeling like the concept we were trying to create.  Walking was kind of heavy and mechanical, and we got some stares from hotel patrons as we went from the green room to the runway downstairs. 

Walking the runway takes a lot of energy—both physical and mental—to hold the essence of the character so everything that is projected is congruent with the garment and concept. 

Elaine: This event is always a highlight. Four short years ago, as a wide-eyed senior in college, I was the recipient of the MERGE student scholarship. It was that very night I met my (then future) co-workers. It’s a surreal moment when one year you are on the student team, looking up to the design firms you are competing against, and the next year you are a part of the fiercest firm in town. I will forever be grateful for this event and what it can do for the emerging designers of the community. It truly pays homage to Stantec’s mission: Design with Community in Mind.

  • Rebecca Keehner

    Rebecca has over 12 years of experience in architecture and interior design, working with retail, restaurant, academic, healthcare, residential, and corporate clients .

    Contact Rebecca
  • Elaine Medeiros

    Working with our team in Sacramento, Elaine is a designer specializing in interior rendering, color and material selection, and space planning. She predominately works with civic, healthcare, and workplace clients.

    Contact Elaine
  • Ashley Fratis

    An interior design coordinator with our Sacramento design team, Ashley focuses on healthcare projects and how designs can positively impact and connect users.

    Contact Ashley
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