Monthly Archives: August 2014

Vilcek Foundation Design Awards panel discussion: Neri Oxman, Mansour Ourasanah, and Quilian Riano

2014 Vilcek Prizes booklet
2014 Vilcek Prizes booklet

The Vilcek Foundation was created to highlight the achievements of the many talented immigrants who made their life in the United States.
Marica and Jan Vilcek are themselves originally from Slovakia, Jan Vilcek, a microbiologist, has 45 patents in his name and was the co-inventor of the blockbuster drug, Remicade. Marica is an art historian. They married in 1962 and lived in the United States for 50 years, after fleeing Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. They used the wealth earned thanks to the medical patents to create the Vilcek Foundation in 2000. Every year, they give out rewards in different categories. This year’s focus was excellence and innovation in design.
Vilcek_7045On June 19, 3 of the award recipients came together for a panel discussion at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City. The designers spoke about their creations, and topics covered were material ecology, and how can industrial design improve society? The discussion was moderated by Glenn Adamson, Director at the Museum of Arts and Design. Featured designers were Neri Oxman, Mansour Ourasanah, and Quilian Riano.

Neri Oxman, originally from Israel, studied medicine in Jerusalem, before changing her focus to architecture.  Medecine, however, provides her with insight into biological structures that other architects and designers don’t have. She came to the United States in xxx and currently is a professor and member of a multidisciplinary team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her specialty is “Material Ecology.” She told us about the dome they created using silkworms.

Mansour Ourasanah, originally from Togo (West Africa) came to the United States at the age of sixteen. His plan was to study engineering, but he discovered industrial design and changed his major. In many African countries, this is not a profession that many have heard of. Knowing that raising cattle for meat is extremely unsustainable, and that many in a variety of countries eat insects and in particulars grasshoppers, he invented (among other items) a mini-farm to raise crickets in your own kitchen. Very recently, the New York Times addressed this new type of protein in an article about companies manufacturing cookies and other baked goods. Here is a video explaining the premise (courtesy of Mansour Ourasanah).

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about another “non-traditional protein”. mealworms: “Celebrity Chefs Tout Bug Cuisine.”

Quilian Riano, born in Bogota, Colombia, was raised in Miami, Florida. He is an architect, trained at the University of Florida and Harvard University, now practicing in Brooklyn, NY. as principal of the DSGNAGNC_logo4 bnwDSGN AGNC (Design Agency), a collaborative design/research studio exploring political engagement through architecture, urbanism, art, and activism. His focus is on making the urban setting more human-centric and on the various forces which influence the urban environment. One of DSGN AGNCs projects is in Corona, Queens in New York City.
His work reminded me of my own architecture studies, when under the mentorship of our professor, the architect Denis Valode, we studied how spaces were to be used from the inside out, mapping out the activities to be carried out within the space. This did not have a political aspect but did delve into the way a space is utilized in a more organic way.

All three designers gave us, the audience, hope that the planet may not be destroyed by humankind after all, if we follow their lead towards a sustainable and gentler built environment. The panel discussion provided us with a very inspiring evening.



In Mount Vernon, NY: artisanal tile makers from Cuba

Blue and grey tile

Cement tiles have been used in many countries, in France, Lebanon, Morocco, Mexico… for centuries, and also more recently in the United States, mostly in the South, including Florida.
We discovered a new company almost next door, here in the Northeast, in the industrial neighborhood within Mount Vernon, New York.
Two brothers, Seniel and Sergio Pena, originally from Cuba, along with a third partner, Aine Sanchez,  brought their skills and know-how to the United States. Seniel was the last to immigrate from Havana, about five years ago. In Havana, they already had founded a cement tile company in 1999. However, the situation became difficult, and they closed shop in 2008.
New immigrants to the United States often find that the reality is different from their expectations, and the first years in the United States were difficult for the two brothers. However, when they realized that all the cement tiles sold here were imported, they decided to return to their original business: manufacturing cement tiles.
Their workshop is in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, NY.  They offer a variety of styles and color combinations. The company is named, appropriately, Brothers Cement Tile. They made many of the machines themselves, elaborated the mixes for the raw material, and created designs.

Pena Brothers
The Pena brothers

It is a labor of love. For the moment, they sell mainly locally, especially to Brooklyn, where there is a lot of  both new construction and renovations. People appreciate the close-to-handmade quality of the tiles. Orders come in along with color samples to be matched.
At the moment, Seniel prefers to install the tiles himself, to ensure that the work is done correctly. 

Tiles made to order to match color swatches
Tiles made to order to match color swatches

They sometimes receive orders from across the country, but at the moment, transportation costs make such jobs extremely expensive. They are keeping busy with the New York area, and with the website, they are easily discovered by homeowners and contractors interested in this beautiful type of flooring.

Daniel Castillo, glass artist


IMG_1689We noticed some very interesting “paintings” made in glass while in Montreal for a short stay. We enquired about the artist behind them, and were given the name of Daniel Castillo. Daniel Castillo is an artist born in Bucamaranga, Colombia, now Colombian-Canadian.

After studying to be an engineer, he became interested in art, both painting and sculpture. Upon discovering stained glass, he fell in love with the technique, which he pursued for many years. He then added on the challenge of fused glass. As he explains the difference: “Fused glass is a technique where you have to fire your pieces within a kiln at temperatures between 1,300 and 1,500 degrees; stained glass is made by joining the pieces through lead.  With fused glass you can make sculptural pieces and follow your imagination further.” Below is a series of smaller pieces.

He moved to Canada with his family, and after learning a new language (they were in the English-speaking part of Canada), he delved into the traditions and music of his community, joined a choir and found much inspiration in Celtic music. In his work, he started blending Colombian/Latin American and Celtic influences.

His portfolio of work in Canada includes:
– The Charley Fox Memorial Overpass Public Sculpture, in London, Canada (33 ft. high)
– The Banting House National Historic Site of Canada, Banting Museum, London, Canada (12 ft high)
– The Memorial Wall for the Holocaust For the Jewish Community, London, Canada.
He also has had commissions for private homes and hotels in various cities, both in Canada and in the United States.
A few large commissions:

As he describes it: “My biggest inspiration is the mystery of the sea; some of my pieces are based on it. I feel great respect for something huge, and unknown underneath. Some pieces are very organic and other pieces are the result of my work on kinetic art with glass (…) “

In recent years he returned to Colombia to work on a few large commissions, such as a large sculpture for a hotel lobby, and a mural, both around 60 square meters, as well as preparing sculptures for a couple of exhibitions.  He already had many pieces both in Colombia and in Venezuela, and has taught and lectured at Colombian universities and museums.

He plans to return to Canada soon to work on new commissions. His website is and his work can also be seen on Pinterest.