Design Dispatch from the Magic City (Birmingham, Alabama)

This is a special guest report by Austin-based photographer and writer Adrienne Breaux, who likes taking pictures and telling stories of creative people doing awesome things. She also explores and snaps shots of small town Texas (Instagram: @small_town_texas) and watches a lot of Star Trek.

11.06.13 | By
Design Dispatch from the Magic City (Birmingham, Alabama)

Confession: I am not an expert on Birmingham, Alabama’s design scene. And I only got the tiniest taste of Design Week Birmingham (DWB)— the city’s first ever week-long design celebration last month (October 21-28). But I saw enough to be able to tell anyone thinking they might be on top of any “hottest new design towns” lists to head back to the batter’s box. Birmingham’s on deck.

A “multi-faceted event that unites architects, graphic designers, interior designers landscape architects and industrial designers to promote, discuss and celebrate great design with its relevance to everyday life,” I saw plenty of home run-worthy, rich, earthy, humble and charming designs during Design Week. Below are a few tidbits.


Alabama Center for Architecture
The ribbon cutting for the sleek new Alabama Center for Architecture in a renovated historic building in downtown Birmingham is the hub of all-things-architecture in Alabama, and was the kick-off event and headquarters to DWB. Designed with the three core principles of engagement, education and collaboration in mind, seeing the kind faces and hearing the excited voices of the architects and designers gathered into the building’s long open space made it clear this center will surpass those principles.



Design Pop-Up Shop 
The Pop-Up Shop at the Alabama Center for Architecture was a curated view of some of Alabama’s most creative craftspeople. Like the textile products by Cotton + Quill, a company specializing in custom designed textiles for decorative pillows, linens, upholstery fabric and accessories. Or Feather Wild‘s textiles, led by Sarah Conklin. I adored Winslow Taft’s wood furniture pieces. Plenty Design Coop, a collection of craftspeople and designers in Birmingham, had some furniture in the space (we particularly loved a floor lamp with a wooden shade with stitched details and some stools with stain-dipped legs). Felix Glenn, an online store selling organic, handmade kitchen utensils, were organic and modern. (And I’ve only named a few!)





Kinetic Communications Offices designed by Appleseed Workshop
Design Week offered a peek into the offices of Kinetic Communications in downtown Birmingham, designed in conjunction with Appleseed Workshop. They created a space that would encourage “teamwork, efficiency, originality and creativity.” It features, among other things, train boxcars, an LED bar and a two-story cube (with all kinds of LED light features) and metal, cut-out patterned panels.

From Mike Gibson of Appleseed Workshop:

Appleseed designed and fabricated everything in the project including the wall system. The concept behind the wall was to create a customizable wall. Every panel is unique and the undulation was inspired by the structural ribs at the end of old box cars. The structural part of the wall is made from maple plywood that was cut using a CNC router. The panels are Coroplast (the stuff campaign signs are made out of) that was laser cut. Each piece has a unique tag that allows the end user to follow the grid of numbers routed in the structural ribs so that they can be taken off and stored and put back in the same spot easily.

The building has a crawl space and we wanted to create a two story space with the crazy wall so we sunk the cube system into the floor and used the LED to accentuate the “sunken-in-ness” of the cube. The 3/4″ thick acrylic allows you to stand next to the cube and allows the LED to shine through and illuminate the cube. We wanted to create a wall that felt Kinetic…like it was full of energy and in motion. We were able to create it with sustainable and affordable materials at an affordable price.


Southern Accents Architectural Antiques
For anyone with a bad habit of seeing a piece of furniture on the side of the road, throwing your car into reverse, and tossing an old chair, rug, mirror, etc in your backseat with plans to paint, sand, re-make or re-do, the talk given by Southern Accents Architectural Antiques owner Garlan Gudger wasn’t just inspiring, it was life-validating. He spoke about their salvage business located in Cullman, Alabama (about an hour north of Birmingham — totally worth the drive up) and how their mission is to rescue, restore and protect architectural elements of historical significance. Seems about as far away from modern design as possible, but you have to admit that rustic, reclaimed wood looks absolutely smashing with clean, modern lines. And this event was held at a charming design hub: Pepper Place, a grouping of shops and businesses, many of them design-related, which once housed a Dr. Pepper Syrup Plant and Bottling Company.

What I missed 
I missed out on two poster shows. There was a Creative Roundtable. Two film screenings. A Pecha Kucha event. An exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of ArtVanguard Views, “celebrating the innovation in visual representation in early modern art,” and running through next February (which I did actually walk by while they were still setting up and can promise is worth the visit). I missed closing lectures with two nationally known speakers, graphic designer Charles Spencer Anderson and citizen architect John Peterson. Basically for all the cool design I saw, there was plenty I didn’t make it to. But judging from this year’s success, there’ll be plenty to catch next year.


Something that should have been a part of design week 
On a tip from a friend, I headed to Birmingham’s newest library, Vestavia Hills Public Library, known as the “Library in the Forest.” Tucked into nine acres of beautiful tall trees and near a nature trail, it’s the opportunity to read and learn in natural surroundings. It’s also the state’s first LEED certified library, having used wood from trees cleared from the site in the design and more.



While you’re in Birmingham
The hip place to grab breakfast or some coffee is Urban Standard, a well-designed space full of crumbly walls, architectural details, comfy furniture and antiques.

El Barrio Restaurant, designed by Kdag Designs, LLC and constructed by Appleseed Workshop, features bold colors, reclaimed woods, industrial design details and a colorful painted wall mural, all wrapped in a reputation for tasty multi-regional Mexican Cuisine.

SoHo Retro in adorable Homewood offers a pretty great selection of Mid-Century Modern and vintage furniture and accessories, as well as more affordable contemporary furnishings that have a lot of style.

Railroad Park is a modern 19-acre green space with great views, nice trails for walking and a calm, peaceful place to start or end your day in Birmingham. (I was standing in the park when I took that first photo above!)

Last word
So how was the reception of Birmingham’s first ever design week? In the words of one of the organizers, Jared Fulton (of Plenty Design Coop), “It was a great success and I could not have imagined it going any better than it did. I have really enjoyed getting to know everyone better and am really encouraged by everyone’s energy and commitment. As a group we can accomplish amazing things.”

Stay sweet (and stylish), Alabama!

Special thanks go out to Bruce Lanier of Standard Creative, who must have fielded about 100 of my emails about design week. And to Robert Gay of Thoughtbarn for tipping me off about Design Week Birmingham and connecting me to creative folks!