Lead Pencil Studio: Non-Sign II

Published:  December 16, 2010
Alison Copley
Lead Pencil Studio: Non-Sign II

Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo have been exploring the overlap of architecture and site-specific art for the past 13 years. After studying architecture at the University of Oregon, the duo formed Lead Pencil Studios, and have been involved in a handful of innovative installations and projects ever since.

Their resume is long and impressive and includes prestigious awards such as the 2006 ‘Emerging Voices’ from Architectural League of New York, the 2008 Founder’s Rome Prize in Architecture from the American Academy in Rome and, more recently, the 2009/2010 New York Prize from the Van Alen Institute.

Their recent project, Non-Sign II, a ‘non-billboard’ on the US-Canadian border has been generating quite a bit of buzz of late, as its promotes ecofriendly living in an upfront yet innovative manner.

I caught up with the duo to discuss how the billboard came about, their design ethos and what type of projects that they’re drawn to.

Lead Pencil Studio

Please can you tell us how the Non-Sign II project came about?
We were invited by the US Government to make a proposal. The jury seems to have found us based on our previous work; in particular Maryhill Double (2006) and an early welded wire staircase project (2003). Though not a requirement for all new Federal buildings, the US Government has a great program that makes a concerted effort to commission new buildings by emerging architecture firms that show particular promise. They have a parallel program to find an equivalent artist to pair with each new building and we were fortunate to be on their radar.

Can you explain how the concept developed into the ‘billboard’ that we see today?
We began by studying the vernacular landscape of highway signage surrounding the site and other nearby influences such as the Peace Arch Monument which was created to celebrate the Treaty of Gent. The structure acts as a type of portal between nations and was built early last century. We decided early on not to attempt to address any international political issues directly given the loaded nature of the site and anxiety surrounding all things visa and immigration. Instead we choose to study  the nature of commercial trade across borders, advertising and highway auto-based culture. Employing the same habituation that billboards use to draw attention away from the landscape, we turned the effectiveness of the rectangular framing device against itself to refocus attention back toward the atmosphere and potency of the landscape shared across borders. Rather than build a billboard outright, we employed a technique to approximate with pencil strokes the atmosphere around a solid object. In doing so we could concentrate attention on the absence more than the presence. This also has the effect of appearing at the edge of perception and creates both a barrier and an aperture simultaneously – which mirrors the prime border crossing experience.

Lead Pencil Studio

Were there any challenges involved in getting the result that you wanted?
Since the piece was constructed in six smaller segments it was difficult to make sure that the individual pieces were fabricated with identical density gradations so that when placed against the backdrop of the sky they would not appear drastically different from one another. Accomplishing this in the shop without benefit of distance, background or perspective was actually quite difficult to achieve.  That and true randomness to the placement of the hundreds of thousands of rods.

How long did installation of the Non-Sign II take?
It took nine months to fabricate in our shop by the two of us and two assistants welding about 40 hours a week. Installing on-site took two full weeks of assembly, welding and site preparation.

Lead Pencil Studio

Lead Pencil Studio

How do you feel working on projects that make a statement?
We prefer work that makes a pointed observation but without being blunt about it.  This project does make a statement or rather several and we’re happy when viewers begin to project those discoveries. We also like to create work that hints at layers of subversion gained across multiple viewings.

What is your ethos/design style when creating something?
Since this is art and not design per-se it is not addressing any function and can therefore address any subject at all. With that in mind, we like to create work that is specific to the site or context which it will ultimately be viewed and often unintended associations develop from the complexities of the site. We like to create work that is both visually compelling and conceptually rich.  Sometimes the work can be critical, purely formal or principally visual depending on the opportunities available on each project.

Your resume is impressive – you’ve been the recipients of numerous awards such as The New York Prize and The Emerging Voice award. Is there any project that has been a standout for you? Why?
We both agree that the Creative Capital Foundation grant was a watershed moment for us since we were so young in our art making practice and the project (Maryhill Double) was a particularly ambitious project with respect to scale/complexity/cost. We feel fortunate to have received that award and also fortunate that we completed the project without injury. It has since lead the way to many other opportunities. We will always be grateful for the generosity and risk on the part of the foundation for granting us that trust. Maryhill Double was also the first project that achieved the scale and gravity of work that we had always wanted to do.

Lead Pencil Studio

What type of projects are you drawn to most often?
We like most to work out in the real world, outside of neutral containers, but are happy to gain the expertise and assistance of institutions and galleries when doing work in those locations. We like working around urban issues and of course anything that deals with constructed space and site history.  We would love for there to be more institutions that would commission work in locations outside of their venues and out in the city.

What can we expect from you next?

We want to continue creating spaces for nothing, structures without function and build atmospheres that frame volume. We also want to make a film about various forms of collapse – in all the ways that that can be interpreted.

Also, we’re looking to create a new city sometime soon from scratch… sidewalks, road-building codes, dumpsters, signs, warts and all.  Let us know if you know anyone who has a site and some venture capital.


All images copyright Lead Pencil Studios.

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  1. Pingback: Media Tonic » Blog Archive » The billboard that promotes billboards

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