Skip to main content

Stretch | Material


German architect Frei Otto spent the majority of his career exploring the possibilities of lightweight tent-like structures. His most notable tensile structures include the German Pavilion for the Montreal Expo in 1967 and the roof of the Olympic Stadium for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.1 In many of his projects, Otto developed models to help him determine the most efficient material solutions. His early designs became revolutionary for they occurred before the advent of computer programs that today assist architects and engineers in predicting the shape and behavior of fabric structures.

After Otto’s introduction to the potential of fabric architecture, continued research and the development of computer-aided design programs advanced this form even further. In 1980, Architectural Record published an article entitled “Tent Structures: Are They Architecture?” The articled declared that tensile structures had “arrived.” Fabric architecture had become an acceptable solution for projects with limited budgets that required large spans. They began appearing in a variety of building types such as airports and shopping centers.2

Another possible influence may have come from the fabric installations of artists Christo and Jean-Claude. Early in his career, Christo demonstrated an interest in creating sculpture by wrapping objects in fabric. By 1961, he began contemplating the possibility of wrapping entire buildings. Seven years later, Christo finally gained permission to wrap the Kunsthalle in Berne, Switzerland. By tightly pulling reinforced polypropylene fabric over the exterior, the architecture appears shrink-wrapped. Other influential Christo projects include Valley Curtain (1970-1972) and Running Fence (1972-1976). These environmental installations do not involve wrapping, but rather stretch huge pieces of nylon fabric across beautiful landscapes creating a “curtain” and “fence” at a scale appropriate for Mother Nature.3

Commercial interior design uses stretched fabric in a variety of ways that mimic both the work of Otto and Christo. Reminiscent of Otto’s fabric roofs, designers sometimes create dynamic ceiling treatments by using kite-like pieces of fabric to form interior canopies. Like a Christo installation, wrapping of interior components also occurs such as the installation at Nissan Design America in which a piece of white Lycra is stretched over a Nissan Z Roadster and then attached to the wall and ceiling. Finally, stretched fabric is used as a dynamic, less intrusive way to partition interior space.

Over the last forty years, by far the greatest number of material innovations has come from experimenting with the properties of synthetic polymers. Polymers can take a variety of forms some of which include “fibers, monofilaments, yarns, woven and knitted textiles, nonwovens and felts.”4 Anne Masako Moss’ “Chair Cocoon” (1999) is a spandex chair-cover in purple; Jurgen Bey’s “Kokon Double Chair” (1999) in the Droog Design Collection is comprised of two Thonet-like traditional wooden chairs set back-to-back and wrapped tightly in green PVC.5 Researchers have only just begun exploring the possibilities of polymer-based fabrics and this archetype may see significant growth in the future.6

end notes

  1. 1) John Pile, A History of Interior Design (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 335.
  2. 2)  

    “Tent Structures: Are They Architecture?” Architectural Record (May 1980): 127.

  3. 3) Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Koln: Taschen, 2001), 35, 50.
  4. 4) George M. Beylerian and Andrew Dent, Material ConneXion (Hoboken,NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 154.
  5. 5) Ellen Lupton, Skin: Surface, Substance and Design (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 194, 79.
  6. 6) Evidence for the archetypical use and the chronological sequence of Stretch as a material was developed from the following sources: 1970 Valley Curtain [1972] Christo and Jeanne-Claude; Rifle, CO in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Kohn: Taschen, 2001), 38 / 1990 Ellerbe Becket Offices [1990] Ellerbe Becke, Architectt; Kansas City, state in Susan R. Bleznick, "Tenting to Light," Architectural Record, Lighting Supplement 178, no. 12 (Nov. 1990): 5; PhotoCrd: Mike Sinclair, Sinclair-Reinsch; Winter Garden, Temporary Performance Structure [1990] FTL Associates; Battery Park City, NY in Justin Henderson, "Dramatic Tension," Interiors CXLVIV, no. 6 (Jan. 1990): 155; PhotoCrd: Durston Saylor; Carmelo Pomodoro Co. Offices and Showroom [1992] FTL Associates, Architect; New York City in "Fashion Plate," Architectural Record 180, no. 9 (Sep. 1992): 99; PhotoCrd: Elliott Kaufman / 2000 Restaurant 23 for Michael Jordan [2000] Studio Gaia; Chapel Hill, NC in Edie Cohen, "Hoop Dreams," Interior Design 71, no. 12 (Oct. 2000): 208; PhotoCrd: Mark W. Ballogg, Steinkamp/Ballogg; Dressing Rooms, Miss Sixty store [2002] Borruso & Alessandro Design; Costa Mesa, CA in Edie Cohen, "Sassy Miss Sixty," Interior Design 74, no. 4 (Apr. 2003): 80; PhotoCrd: Benny Chan/fotoworks; D'Fly Store [2002] 3deluxe; New York City in Leanne B. French, "Nuanced Lighting at D'Fly in New York City," Architectural Record 190, no. 11 (Nov. 2002): 242; PhotoCrd: James Wilkins; United Bamboo [2003] Studio Acconci; Tokyo, Japan in Ian Luna, Retail: Architecture and Shopping (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 260 263; PhotoCrd: Ryota Atarashi for United Bamboo; Lobby, Ku'damm 101 Hotel [2003] Ascan Tesdorph, and Vogt and Weisenegger; Berlin, Germany in Otto Pohl, "A German Lesson," Interior Design 74, no. 14 (Nov. 2003): 170; PhotoCrd: Otto Pohl; Nissan Design America [2005] Luce et Studio; La Jolla, CA in Edie Cohen, "Changing Lanes," Interior Design 76, no. 9 (July 2005): 230; PhotoCrd: Art Gray; Moet and Chandon's Tent at Australia's Melbourne Cup Carnival [2006] PTW Architects; Amanda Henderson, Gloss Creative; Melbourne, Australia in Sheila Kim-Jamet, "Pop the Bubbly," Interior Design 77, no. 4 (Apr. 2006): 165; PhotoCrd: Dianna Snape Photography, Courtesy of PTW Architects.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) O'Brien, Elizabeth. “Material Archetypes: Contemporary Interior Design and Theory Study.” M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2006, 95-101.