Innovation & Design

A Forest Grows in Manhattan


The Urban Forest Project is bringing a panoply of tree imagery from artists around the world to the heart of Times Square

When you hear "Times Square," what comes to mind? Neon? Signage? Crowds? Chaos? All are perfectly reasonable answers, of course. But look up the next time you find yourself fighting your way through the hordes of gaping tourists and observe that a little bit of the natural world has made its way into the area—at least temporarily.

Through Oct. 31, 185 banners created by designers, artists, photographers, and illustrators from around the world will hang in the streets in and around Times Square. Named the Urban Forest Project, each 3-foot by 8-foot sign riffs on the form of a tree, though the forest of resulting images is far from uniform.

"We wanted to develop an idea that had universal appeal, not only for the designers creating the artwork but also for the audience," explains Mark Randall of design agency, Worldstudio, who worked on the project together with Alan Dye, Emma Pressler, and Alice Twemlow at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). "The idea of using the tree came from the notion of sustainability, which is an issue close to all of our hearts. The tree is a great symbol of that concept, while it's also a great graphic symbol that we knew people would be able to do a lot with."

CORPORATE-FRIENDLY.

"Our main challenge is to ensure that Times Square retains the authenticity, edge, and creativity that have made it such a special and unique space," adds Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, the nonprofit organization that commissioned the project. "And a part of that is to ensure that the streets in the area are populated with fantastic images." As such, approximately 1% of the Alliance's $10 million budget (which is contributed by the area's business owners in the form of an add-on to their property tax) goes towards public art projects.

As you might expect from such a public affair, rules and regulations were very much in play: no obscenities or violent imagery allowed. "The designers also couldn't do anything using corporate logos or that was bashing corporations," says Randall. "Essentially it was important that they were aware that they were creating art for a public space."

RECYCLING CONCEPTS.

Indeed, many of the designers actually appropriated imagery from public spaces to create their designs. Pentagram partner Michael Bierut inverted a regular street sign to transform an arrow into a tree while Douglas Riccardi of boutique design firm, Memo, borrowed the language—"Sexy Sycamores!"—and typography often associated with a seedier side of Times Square. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the signs also took on a political or environmental cause: Michael Hodgson's design attempted to highlight what he sees as the world's excessive consumption of bottled water, while photographer Jason Fulford's signpost banner comments subtly on the over-fished waters of Newfoundland.

The result is a project that attempts to elevate itself from being just another cute design show. Seeing the concept of sustainability through to a logical conclusion, the banners will be recycled. "Instead of chucking the banners in the garbage when we take them down at the end of October, we'll give them to Jack Spade to make into tote bags," says Mark Randall. "We'll auction these to raise money for scholarships for kids wanting to study art and design. I love the idea that through this project we're also sustaining the next generation of design talent, not just producing a load of pretty banners."

Helen Walters is the editor of Innovation and Design at BusinessWeek .

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