Sustainable Cool

Sometimes an interiors project presents an opportunity to create art.

When O+A’s design team was wrapping up the adidas RED project in Portland, Oregon last year one of the final tasks tackled was art installations in the elevator lobbies. The RED building is the place on campus dedicated to the company’s sales teams. Its first two levels are essentially showrooms for visiting buyers; its upper third and fourth levels are workspaces for the various sales departments. As the pumping commercial heart of its American operation RED represents in a very tangible way the future of adidas. And in an equally tangible way that future depends on the sustainability of the materials and processes adidas chooses.

So, it made sense that the art concept for the building’s four elevator lobbies would reference new materials from which each season’s products are—and will be—made. On one level, an art piece made from the lattice midsole material developed for the company’s 4D line; on another, an artful weave of recycled-content yarns; on a third a tribute to the technology used to manufacture the Boost shock-absorbing shoe sole.

But the concept that most sparked O+A’s imagination was the piece imagined for Level 3: a quilt assembling a selection of sustainable materials for shoes, apparel, and sports gear now or soon to be in production. Normally when O+A coordinates art for an interiors project, the client commissions an artist, and our designers oversee the installation—we’ve done it with big hanging sculptures at McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago and with a wall-sized mural at Nike’s Digital Innovation Studio in New York. We’ve done it at Livefyre, at Uber, at Yelp—at workplaces across our 30-year portfolio of projects. Rarely have we had the opportunity to make the art ourselves.

“I was immediately excited by the concept and possibilities,” Lisa Bieringer said in an interview as adidas’s sustainability quilt was being finalized. Before she was O+A’s Managing Principal Lisa founded her own company designing and making custom fabric goods and art. When the adidas quilt briefly hit a snag for want of a fabricator skilled enough to put it together, Mindi Weichman, who directed O+A’s multi-year adidas project from the beginning, turned to Lisa. “I said, ‘Really? Are you serious? It would be a dream to work on.” A week later the word came down from adidas management. Mindi called Lisa to say: “If you want the gig, it’s yours.” Lisa replied, “I can’t wait to get started.”

If one purpose of art is to record the values of its time, the adidas sustainability quilt is a record of our best and most hopeful selves—the us that wants to fix what we’ve broken, the us that’s determined to figure out how.

Informed by decades of sewing, pattern making and her experience as an architect, Lisa took the collection of eco-friendly materials adidas provided and experimented with ways of turning them into a coherent mosaic. Not surprisingly the radically different materials—fabrics made from recycled bottles, knits woven from recycled wool—were not instantly compatible as pieces of a quilt. “They did not naturally connect,” Lisa said. “They did not act the same. The quilt was supposed to be 18 feet long, but I just didn’t feel like the fabrics sewn together would tolerate that length and hang right.”

Her solution was a triptych of framed fabric art panels, each 60 by 50 inches. To marry the different weights and textures of the fabrics, Lisa deployed the clothing construction techniques that adidas uses to make its products: zippers and toggles, stretch cords and patches, an array of stitching patterns. “It was just so much fun,” Lisa said. “Mindi came out to collaborate in the She Shed. We played with different sizes and configurations of the fabrics. Tested stitching and connection details—making a series of miniatures from which to select the configurations for final construction.”

And the quilting bee had a third participant. Lisa learned sewing as a child from her grandmother—and sewing and its related values of concentration, planning, resourcefulness, and execution. “She passed last summer at 103,” Lisa said, “and I inherited her sewing machine and her notions. It arrived just before I started the quilt. I had her scissors with her initials on it. Her pin cushion. While I was doing the pieces I thought, Alright I’m going to channel this, I’m going to channel her through this project.”

The final triptych thus brings together multiple layers of public and private meaning. It’s a reminder to everyone who steps out of the elevator that adidas has set a goal of climate neutrality by 2050. It’s a window on the future of the fashion industry presented in a format from our pre-industrial past. It’s an example of collective craftsmanship at a time when communal cooperation is society’s only hope. It’s a product of Lisa and Mindi’s friendship and a loving tribute to Lisa’s grandmother.

If one purpose of art is to record the values of its time, the adidas sustainability quilt is a record of our best and most hopeful selves—the us that wants to fix what we’ve broken, the us that’s determined to figure out how.