Stephen Schwartz is known for his architecture and his Building Blocks Workshops. Here, he shares with us his love of LEGOs and how he worked with Wae Center artists to combine architecture and LEGOs for “The Empire State Chair.”
- What is your education and background as an artist?
I earned a Bachelor of Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis. My six years of Architectural education include studies in fine art, sculpture, wood block printing, and freehand sketching.
- What inspires you?
Well “designed” gardens and hardscapes together with the landscaping inspire me.
I think that is where I get this appreciation for “the whimsical” and it is reflected in my own elaborate home garden with Koi pond, fountains, hardscape and landscape. LEGO allows me to combine the “whimsical” and the “structural” elements of design. I love the “scale” of LEGOs in that you can capture large details with the smallest building blocks.
- How would you describe your artistic style and your process?
In architecture I prefer the clean lines of “very contemporary” with features that blend with nature. Some of our best residential projects are those with large expanses of glass and focus on outdoor natural areas. My own home is a great example of how we enjoy viewing our landscape through large expanses of glass.
Our design process starts with understanding our client and trying to see how we can create the most drama given the needs of the project.
- What do you do when you’re not creating art?
When I am not engaged in architecture I am usually working with LEGOs. What started as a small venture to teach has now grown into a very time consuming venture called "Building Blocks Workshops". It is a unique way to teach about the architectural heritage of a community so that students and their parents will learn while having fun. My wife, Bunny, and I do about 60 programs a year all over the US.
- What was your experience working at the Wae Center on your Chair?
For me the Wae Center project was a real milestone in my many years conceiving architectural projects and many years of using LEGO as an educational tool. The LEGO “Chair of Inclusion” was conceived as “a building structure” in the shape of a chair, with entries, doors, windows, balconies, all conceived as a totally whimsical chair/structure. It had to be structurally sound, look like the object it represents, and be a fulfilling adventure for the participants who built it. We all accomplished our goal together.
- Did your Chair concept change or evolve as you worked with the Center’s artists?
We wanted to have six Wae Center artists consistently work on the project so we engaged about 15 Wae members to audition and see who would enjoy the challenge and enjoy working with LEGOs. That process was fascinating because our final six participants all really enjoyed working with LEGO, and by the end of our audition process it was very obvious who would be great LEGO builders. As the chair evolved, I reduced the size of the chair because I quickly saw that the “windows” did not have the visual impact I wanted. I reduced the width of the walls and that changed the scale so the windows were more dominant and thus the “whimsical” quality of the building started to evolve with the image of the chair.
- What does Inclusion mean to you?
The general public sees the Chairs of Inclusion as a finished project. The whole idea of “inclusion” is a brilliant idea at so many levels. To me the process of actually building the chairs “with” Wae members is the real essence of inclusion.
- What initially inspired your Chair concept?
The goal from the start was to combine architecture and LEGO in a totally whimsical creation. The juxtaposition of a building in the shape of a chair gives you a whimsical look of that “change of scale” that I love about LEGO. The chair is really a building or is the building really a chair?
- What are some of your recent projects?
We recently completed the design of the Gaelen Art Gallery at the JCC in West Orange. It is a great example of how we created “drama” through the creative use of materials and structure. We have designed a series of five synagogues over the past 15 years and I thoroughly enjoy going to services in those buildings. For instance, the Sanctuary we designed at B’nai Shalom in West Orange really inspires me spiritually; I can sit in that space for hours. I think that others also find it spiritually uplifting and I feel very fortunate to have been part of that design effort.
- What is your next project?
In LEGO we are developing a new program, which will be focused on Washington, DC, specifically the area between the White House and the Capitol. It will be a program we can do at public schools and will be a great way to teach American History.
In architecture, we are completing a new art gallery in Morristown. In Summit, we are designing a three-story dog spa for boarding and grooming.