To Annie’s growing vexation, I will often say yes to meeting requests when neither or us are exactly sure why or what I’m getting myself into. As the prudent one - and also as the one who has to work around the stuff I sneak onto my calendar - Annie’s view is to vet each opportunity. My view is to say yes and figure it out later. So, when she was working to schedule this week, she asked, “What’s up with the visit to Design Fugitives? I didn’t schedule that.” I said, “I don’t know but I am psyched to find out.”
When I arrived at their headquarters at a warehouse just south of the Third Ward on 2nd, I was greeted by Tuan Tran, one of the three partners at the firm. Tuan led me into their office and the first thing I noticed was the openness of the space, then the precise, angular glass sculpture next to the door, then the carved wood textures on the wall, and finally a stunning mobile - which changes in the light - that hangs over their conference table.
I couldn’t tell if they were a design firm, an architecture firm, or a collective of high-level, industrial fine-artists.
As it turns out, they are all three.
The story is pretty incredible. As a child growing up in Vietnam, Tuan always had an urge to make things with the clay in the ground. After immigrating to Milwaukee as a child, he spent all of his time in the art rooms at every school he attended. This led to Tuan getting his Masters in Architecture from UWM and what seemed like a great career at an architecture firm in Chicago.
After the Great Recession, Tuan was called back to Milwaukee to take care of family and met up with friends from the architecture program at UWM and they started imagining. Inspired by each other and the possibilities, they started designing, investing, and creating. And Design Fugitives was born.
Their first big corporate client was the Johnson Controls headquarters in Glendale. There was a willow tree on the campus that had to be removed for the expansion of their headquarters. Employees loved the tree. It was where many folks congregated to meet, connect, and be together. The challenge and opportunity was to install a sculpture that could recreate the canopy of the willow tree and remind people of how the space and light made them feel. This resulted in the 1500 piece hanging sculpture in the atrium of the new power solutions division at JCI.
As Tuan took me through a tour of their facility, he talked about how their proprietary design software communicates with their machinery at a 1-1 level which means that they can make a majority of their design installation in-house without losing any design fidelity in fabrication.
Then he showed me the robots that he’s been tinkering with.
As Tuan excitedly talked about all of the possibilities for art, sculpture, and his business with these industrial robot arms, I realized that he’s basically Tony Stark for the art and design world and instead of making Iron Man suits, Tuan is utilizing technology to push the boundaries of making incredibly beautiful, biophilic, art installations.
“These robots have the same dexterity as a human hand, but with larger work capacity and more strength,” he said.
I asked him if he thought of this as a loss of the human touch; how exactly do you quantify how a painter knows how to apply their brush or how a sculptor chooses to engages with their material to achieve a certain effect?
"I don't see it as a loss of craft,” he said. “The history of humans making things has gone through enormous changes. While the tools have changed, what has driven the work has not,” he continued pointing to his head and his heart. “I’m interested in the unseen potential that can be revealed by these new tools.”
As we ended our meeting and tour, Tuan told me that so long as he can think with his brain, draw with his heart, and make with his hands, he’ll work until he can’t. The inspiration and joy in his spirit were unimpeachable.
By the way, if you are interested, robot arms are readily available on eBay. They go for anywhere between $4,000 and $70,000 (or best offer), and shipping ranges from $35 to contact the seller. You might be able to get Tuan and Design Fugitives to help you write a program to make it do your next art project.
Check out their portfolio. You can also see their “Climbing Dragon” light sculpture in the atrium at 833 E. Michigan.