Innovation & Design

How 3form Is Bending the Rules of Design


When Ruben Suare leans across a Manhattan café table and says the word "plastics," he isn't dispensing the modern-day career advice of Mr. McGuire in The Graduate. He is explaining, in the simplest terms, the signature product of 3form, the Salt Lake City materials manufacturer where he is a vice-president running the architectural division.

But saying that 3form makes plastic is like saying an iPod is a hard drive. Rather, 3form is generating buzz in design circles with a hotshot proprietary material called eco-resin and an architectural unit, led by Suare, ready to collaborate with architects on their most elaborate visions -- whether it's translucent undulating walls or exuberant stages for the circus.

SUPERNATURAL. Already, 3form has bagged a crucial role in a highly anticipated building project: Diller Scofidio + Renfro's renovation of Alice Tully Hall at New York's Lincoln Center. The architects, known for high-concept, high-tech designs, imagined the revamped concert hall with curvaceous, glowing wood walls -- not exactly a form found in nature.

"There wasn't a product in the marketplace that met what we proposed," recalls Diller Scofidio + Renfro project leader Ben Gilmartin. "We needed people who were willing to go down an R&D path with us to develop it." At its facility in Utah, 3form built a 22-foot-tall wall mockup made from wood veneer sandwiched between layers of resin, making it translucent, yet still satisfying the hall's rigorous acoustical and safety requirements.

It took a visit to Salt Lake, but the mockup persuaded Lincoln Center officials of the plausibility of their architects' vision. "It wouldn't have happened if 3form wasn't willing to take on a certain amount of risk and commit to a certain amount of invention," Gilmartin says.

NEW SOLUTION. The company's success is a story of both chemistry and business strategy. 3form traces its beginnings to 1991, when Roy Goodson, an inventor and former Dow Chemical executive, sought to bring both his experience with injection polystyrene packaging and his environmental consciousness to the building industry. In 2001, his son, Talley Goodson, a Wharton grad and McKinsey & Company veteran, joined him and helped re-brand the company as 3form (it was originally called Simtech).

The new company launched Varia, a system that deploys the eco-resin (made from 40% post-industrial recaptured material) developed by the elder Goodson in a process that sandwiches it with an unlimited variety of colors and patterns -- everything from leaves to Pantone colors.

3form's customized process gave architects millions of possibilities, but as the company found out, most architects were a bit perplexed at choosing even one. As Talley Goodson recalls: "People would say to us, 'That's a really exciting material, now how do I use it?'"

DESIGN SUPPORT. Thanks to advances in computer numerical controlled (CNC) fabrication processes, 3form could mold its product into new shapes and structures, but its technical capability had outstripped architects' creative ability, or at least their willingness to experiment. 3form's sales staff was visiting 2,000 architects' offices a week, but it was selling a limited range of possibilities, not collaborating on the design itself.

"There aren't often new materials in architecture," Goodson points out, citing Formica as one not-so-recent addition to the standbys of steel, glass, and concrete. "We found early on that in order to realize the potential of this new medium we were going to have to support it in some unique ways -- both to ensure that projects are successful and to instill the confidence to try for more invention."

So 18 months ago, 3form launched its architectural division, a kind of in-house design consultancy that encourages and supports architects and designers who push the limits of 3form's materials. Led by Suare, who has degrees in both architecture and business, 3form sought to work like the 21st-century version of a master stonemason, combining manufacturing, fabrication, and creative consultation to help architects rethink both their design process and the buildings that result. "We're going to the original idea of architecture, bringing back this idea of craftsmanship, but with digital tools," Suare says.

CREATIVE SERVICES. The result is that 3form isn't just a manufacturer anymore. Instead, it has become a fabricator, creating products such as wall systems and room dividers that could easily be installed at a construction site. And it has begun offering an ever-expanding suite of services to help customers use its product more effectively. The changes have boosted 3form's revenue from $3 million in 2002 to a projected $29 million this year.

"The traditional buyer-supplier relationship isn't very effective in creating really innovative projects," says Goodson. "We see ourselves as a partner and have the caliber of people who can walk in and sit down and brainstorm with someone like Liz Diller," principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Given the nearly infinite range of color, texture, and shape combinations in which 3form's panels can be constructed, the company doesn't inventory any products. Everything is made to order, and architects are encouraged to come to the Utah facility to create their own designs.

"BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS." For architects eager to challenge convention, 3form is the ultimate materials candy store. For example, a new theater in Las Vegas designed by Marnell Corrao Associates for Cirque du Soleil has a glowing floor that curves up to the walls and the ceiling, yet withstands 200 pounds per square inch of weight -- an innovation ready for implementation in future projects.

SHoP Architects -- a New York firm that, like Diller Scofidio + Renfro, has a reputation for both radical forms and savvy use of technology -- plans to use 3form's products for several projects currently on the boards. "We don't want to build our buildings out of parts that you pick out of a catalog," says principal Coren Sharples, referring to the source books from which architects typically choose materials. She had been impressed when Suare visited SHoP's studio to explain the capabilities of his architectural division.

3form's CNC machines are able to work directly from Rhino, a design software program suited to complex curves, thereby eliminating the reductive process typically involved in translating design drawings into reality. "It's all about this breaking down of the barriers between the different disciplines, and all these people coming together and enriching the process with their collaboration. So as architects we're not working in a vacuum coming up with the aesthetic intent and drawing that without input from the people who will actually be making it," says Sharples.

"Architects are becoming much more confident in pushing the limits of our material with us," says Suare. "And you need a lot of confidence to be innovative."


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