By Mike Klepfer

GuildWorks on SE Washington

GuildWorks is like many of its neighbors – set into former industrial space near the river, and difficult to tell exactly what the place holds.

During business hours, you’ll see a gray, nondescript building across from a red brick apartment building on SE Washington St.

Peek in their door, you’ll see a reception area with an altar, a small platform with a bronze-colored Buddha and precious stones, surrounded by tensile twists of white fabric suspended from the ceiling like mobiles. That’s just a taste of what’s inside.

GuildWorkers from left to right: Kristen Krauter, Ari Werthamer,
Jonah Lee and Mike Thayer

GuildWorks is a space devoted to what is described as “aerial architecture”, decorative installations involving large fabric pieces strung out to create artful awnings, or free-standing, fabric-walled areas. These installations are specifically crafted for unique occasions by a team of designers and installers.

GuildWorks founder, Mar Ricketts, worked in a kite store while studying fabric and tension architecture, eventually patenting a number of innovative kite designs.

Kite design morphed into kite performances, which moved into tension-fabric stage sets, and then finally cohered into site-specific fabric interiors and awnings.

The business has been a movable project that has traveled with Ricketts from New England, to Wisconsin and now Oregon. He says the business’ name is meant to allude to craftsmen’s guilds in the Middle Ages, alliances of people meant to display the workmanship of their pursuits.

“Through the name, you see the essence of a craft, but when you see ‘work,’ then you understand that this is new work. It’s breaking new ground with what’s been done,” Ricketts says.

“The kites were the start-point, but there was this long point of collaboration with other co-creators who showed up. There’s other people who come in and are part of the process, who make this what it is.”

GuildWorks workspace is half warehouse, half design facility. Their workspace boasts a floor gridded off into one-foot squares. Peg-boards of hand-tools sit atop a cluttered work bench.

GuildWorkers unroll giant bolts of fabric from one wall and make their cuts with electric scissors. They bow the fabric around metal bars called “spars,” to create their signature bends and twists. When they have what they’re looking for, pieces are sewn, using the sewing stations positioned against one wall.

The back room is for storage, with bolts of colorful fabric stacked onto heavy-duty shelves. Large plastic totes with previous installations are stacked three-deep, with rough schematics in sleeves on the front.

Curved metal bars are suspended from the ceiling, indicating an installation designers have worked on along with metal pieces involving welding, an aspect of their project crowned “structural alchemy”.

The project includes expanding on elements of famed designer Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes.

Allusions to Fuller are intentional. In the back office, among more altars featuring crystals, statuettes, Indian finger-cymbals called kartals, and hawk feathers, is a quote by Fuller himself:

“The things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.”

Fuller was a designer who wanted to re-engineer humanity with an inventive, efficient, rational and ultimately humane physical world.

One idea of GuildWorks is to soften the edges of traditional architecture, to create beautiful spaces by incorporating elements that mimic the natural world.

“Most things in this world are built using compressive techniques,” Ricketts says.

“If we look at the universe overall, the universe is a tension structure. Planets are interconnected by gravitational force. That’s a tensions structure. Tension structures are absolutely the most efficient way to build. Traditional architecture uses 50 percent of the world’s natural resources and we need to stop doing that. There’s an innate beauty when you design with the way nature designs.”

GuildWorks clients have included festivals, as well as corporate events. They’ve created installations for the Portland Business Alliance, including a twisted fabric dais, along with projections on fabric screens.

One of their longest-standing clients has been Pickathon, the 15-year-old roots music festival at Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley. Ricketts says that their awning for the festival is the largest fabric structure to be created annually for an event in the world, using over 140,000 square feet of tension fabric.

Production manager Kristen Krauter loves that the collaborative work GuildWorks does is influenced by project members’ talents. “This is a small business where people’s talents and what they bring to the table has been appreciated,” she says.

Joe Culhane, who gives his title as “solution-maker” loves the free-ranging creativity allowed by the group. He says GuildWorks has just reached the tip of the iceberg, in terms of fulfilling demand for the installations they provide, and the realization of their vision for the project, to support the artists involved in the company’s endeavors.

“We’re a collective of solution-makers,” Culhane says. “We each come in, show our gifts and what we bring to the table, and through that it becomes clear what our role is.”