Inspiring Inflatables

Inspiring Inflatables

Crouched on a windy warehouse rooftop, August Lehrecke 14 FD slams the full weight of his body against the inner wall of a monstrous plastic bubble as strong gusts push the inflatable dome dangerously close to the edge of the roof. Hearing calls for help, Matt Muller 14 FD runs up from the ground floor, helps bundle up the flimsy materials and flattens the rogue installation into submission.

“It was like an angry wave—there was so much force from the wind,” explains Lehrecke, now sitting comfortably in his studio. “Luckily we were able to deflate [the installation] before it launched me off a three-story building. And then we had a good laugh.”

Shortly before Lehrecke and Muller graduated last spring, the pair founded Pneuhaus, a contemporary art and design collective focused on making inflatables and other objects, along with event spaces and structures. Fellow alum Hunter Blackwell 14 GL was soon recruited along with Levi Bedall, a friend and recent graduate of Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture.

In need of living quarters that could double as a working studio, the four friends moved into an airy warehouse within walking distance of College Hill. The bottom floor is now stockpiled with a handy assortment of tools—a projector, rolls of shiny mylar, dismantled robotic arms, laptops and loads of duct tape. The upper levels house a comfy living room, full kitchen and bunk beds for sleeping.

After doing a bit of research, Muller was tickled to learn that a group of sculptors who made large, stoneware pieces for gardens founded the space in the 1920s. “There’s a history of making here,” he notes. “I can feel an energy—it’s something special.”

Pneuhaus’ cavernous space has already proved to work well for the types of projects the team creates on commission. For instance, in May they made a tubular amphitheater for Design the Night: It’s a Circus, the public opening for the RISD Museum’s summer exhibitions. After blowing up the 12-foot-high bubble using portable electric fans, the designers hopped inside to perform in an ad hoc carnival. Children were especially captivated by Blackwell’s unicycling abilities and Lehrecke’s juggling tricks. At one point during the show, when one of the beams started to droop, Muller didn’t skip a beat before propping up the sagging tube with a long rod.

“Sometimes, you have to make adjustments on the fly, even if it isn’t the original plan,” he explains with a smile. “It’s all part of the fun. Plus, we learned that more structural reinforcement is required when setting up inflatables on a slope. They tend to like flat surfaces.”

In September Pneuhaus created a piece called RGBubble, a gargantuan tricolored dome that functioned as a lounge area at Providence’s annual A Better World by Design conference organized by RISD and Brown students. Entering the space, visitors were tickled to be enveloped in varying shades of magenta, purple and yellow light cast on the interior floor.

For each of the unique pieces Pneuhaus produces, the team uses SolidWorks to design the structure and generate blueprints. They then unroll yards of nylon fabric and cut it into desired shapes using a soldering iron. The pieces are sewn together and heavily reinforced with industrial sewing machines before the big moment when each piece is first tested. As industrial fans run inside, they cause each new creation to organically unfold and inflate.

“We meticulously plan every last detail of our inflatables, but I still get a rush every time we puff up our projects for the first time,” Blackwell admits. “I always feel like I’ve been transported into another dimension. It’s a wildly sensory experience.”

Abigail Crocker

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