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Stitch Design changing the look of Triad architecture

by Britt Chester

The sun setting over Winston-Salem affords the downtown architecture an opportunity to paint silhouettes on its structural peers. The shadowed extension of the Winston Tower falls on Krankies Coffee; The Reynolds Building falls on its old factories; and all of downtown seems to be reaching toward progress as the Innovation Quarter slowly but surely molds the next iteration of downtown Winston- Salem’s skyline.

The latest addition, unfinished but on schedule for a May 2 unveiling, is Artivity on the Green, the first art-park in the area. At the helm of the project is Stitch Design Shop, a young, vibrant architecture and design firm with offices appropriately situated in the casted shadow of the Winston Tower on the top floor of the same building that is home to Krankies Coffee.

But in this shadow, this metaphorical reaching appendage attached to the old downtown, there is a storm of creative concepts and innovative ideas.

“There is a certain dynamic we have that we want to maintain, one that doesn’t preclude growth, but we have to grow cautiously and be aware of what culture we are creating,” said Ben Schwab, 37, one of the founders of the boutique architecture firm. “Our specialties align in all arenas.”

 

Stitch is a small shop by the standards of architecture firms tapped to handle projects like Bailey Park and Artivity, and with all four employees reiterating the idea that they are a “boutique design firm,” they live in the mantra that collaboration is key to success, and that if size matters, it’s their four-man team and their connections that make them one of the major contenders in modern architecture.

“On any project, we go in the conference room and scheme about what it could be,” said 35-year old Stitch architect Adam Sebastian. “We ask ourselves, ‘Have we thought about this?’ It’s more a holistic approach to design. A lot of times, it’s one person’s view, but we have the want for all of us to think about it. At the end of the day, it creates a better product.”

That rhetorical question, “have we thought about this?” was generously applied to the Artivity on the Green project.

“The thing that blew us away was that we had something in our minds of what it could look like, but when they came out they turned it all upside down,” said Harry Knabb, chairman of the Art For Art’s Sake (AFAS) Group.

Sebastian recalls some of the first meetings about the forthcoming park and how AFAS wanted the usual pieces of architecture in a park. He said, “In their mind, they were considering a gazebo, and waterfall that would trickle. That gave us the opportunity to challenge every aspect of it; What is water? What is a gazebo? How do you make it art?” The resulting renderings that Cameron Whitley, the designer at Stitch, provided blew AFAS away because of the detail and the concepts, which also seemed a bit farreaching for a public art space, or park.

“They took the conventional and made it unconventional. Every park has a water feature, but who says it has to be a waterfall?” Knabb asked.

The water feature that will be featured in Artivity is seen at only two other locations in America, and to Knabb’s memory, they are in Pennsylvania and California. At the middle of the park stand 13 towers that will spray a blast of fog for 1.5 minutes every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day. There are 420 jets that, when the fog is emitted, will also be illuminated from the ground.

“I was very impressed with the plans, and I’m very pleased with the work they have done so far because it is so innovative,” said Thomas J. Regan Jr., whose foundation provided the $2 million grant to AFAS to move forward with the project.

“The challenge was to come up with a space that was impactful from day one,” Sebastian added.

 

May 2 is the scheduled unveiling of the park, and there is still much work to be done at the site. Knabb said that this week the construction crews will come in to pour concrete for the sidewalks. Then the painting of the structures, a saturated red that will stand out at the end of the Arts District, should mark the final steps until completion.

One defining characteristic of this project, and one that Knabb and Regan both emphasized, was that the entire project is being started and finished by Winston-Salem companies.

“Out of the $2 million for the project, we have had to budget for maintenance down the road, but all of the money is staying in Winston-Salem,” Knabb proudly said. Alongside Stitch Design Shop, Stimmel Associates is providing landscape architecture, and Frank L. Blum Construction Company is handling the contractor duties.

“Nowadays, it’s almost unheard of for that to happen on an entire project,” Knabb said.

Knabb went on to discuss how the park works so well with what Winston-Salem has done to revitalize and reinvent itself as a city.

 

“Winston is historically a very arts focused town because you have big money families; The Reynolds; The Hanes; and they were very generous in supporting the arts,” he remembers. “Now the new blood, the Inmars, they want to be good corporate citizens, and with the Innovation Quarter, we went from a tobacco town to reinventing ourselves through innovation and research.”

That reinvention is also one of the qualities that attracted the architects and designers of Stitch Design Shop.

“The architecture here is safe,” Sebastian said, speaking to conservative styles of traditional, rectangular, brick structures.

“There is a shift in what’s going on in Winston. There is a shift in what people want, and luckily, we have clients we’ve been fortunate enough to work with in the past two years who allow us to really push it and make something amazing,” Schwab said.

In the two years that Stitch has been an official “firm,” they have carved out a niche in the city by working with the idea that the City of Arts and Innovation should live up to its name.

“The climate is changing, and some of these other cities haven’t adapted to that, yet. We are getting in at the forefront to drive that and move forward,” Schwab added.

“One of the greatest things is that this city is very accessible in terms of organizations and committees. Whatever you are in Winston, if you want to be apart of it, you just have to show up,” said Pete Fala, one of the other founding architects at Stitch. “There’s no shortage of architects here, and there is competition, so we strive to set ourselves apart.”

Stitch Design Shop was an idea long before it was a firm. Ben Schwab and Pete Fala were classmates at the University of Colorado, and Schwab recalls traveling to North Carolina to work with him on various projects in the years leading up to a permanent relocation.

In that same time, Fala built a relationship with Sebastian, and when they all came together they found that they were kindred spirits in their thoughts on what design is and what design could be.

The design part, though, is where Whitley comes into play. Sebastian and Whitley joined the Stitch team just last August, right around the time Artivity on the Green was getting started.

Whitley was, well, is, a teacher at Forsyth Technical College, although he’s currently focusing on Stitch as a full-time job. It’s his renderings that are getting everyone’s attention because they are, for all intents and purposes, as artistic as they are practical. Much like his coworkers at Stitch, he’s bringing a fresh approach to rendered designs, so much so that contractors are requesting his specific designs because of their complexity and art.

“I don’t have the experience from working in the larger firms,” Whitley said. “But being in the environment we are in, the studio environment, is fun for me.” Whitley admired the diverse work ethic of the architects at Stitch, noting that although they are all technically savvy when it comes to the nuts and bolts of architecture, they also possess the same affinity for conceptualizing.

“Melding those two and being able to do it at the pace that we are is mind boggling coming out of a school scenario,” he said.

 

 

Sebastian echoed Whitley’s sentiments by saying “We want people to recognize our skills as designers. We are all artists that instead of drawing pictures we design buildings and create interiors.”

By all accounts, Artivity has gone off without a hitch.

Even Knabb and Regan are quick to recognize how smooth the process has been, and how much trust has been earned by the guys at Stitch in bringing their vision to life.

Thanks in part to his “legendary impatience,” Knabb has been able to watch the project unfold as seamlessly as it came together. And it seems to only be getting better.

Although the property wasn’t even for sale when AFAS began searching for a location, through various connections, the non-profit organization was able to approach the Hanes family with the idea to sell it for the park space.

“The Hanes family said it was the best use of the property they’ve ever seen, and we closed at the end of September,” Knabb said.

Over the course of one month, give or take a few days, Stitch pulled out the concept of the park, and the features included, presented it to AFAS, and was hired.

“When we set this up we told Pete and Adam that we were dealing with them. It starts with Stitch and ends with Stitch,” Knabb said.

One of the other successful projects that Stitch has under its belt, and one that is also awaiting a ribbon-cutting ceremony, is the new green space park that is flanked by the Wake Forest Biotech Place and the under construction potential lofts between 4 th and 5 th Street just east of Patterson Avenue.

Bailey Park, which rests just north of the shadow of the Stitch Design office, is quite a trophy for the budding architecture firm to place on its mantle of success.

Fala calls it “Parkitecture,” and Sebastian takes it one step further in admiration.

“It’s something that none of us thought we would be doing, but we all enjoy it,” he said.

And although Bailey Park has the potential to be a great space for Triad-transplants to walk their new dog or take selfies in their new city, it’s mixed-use functions are what make it such a unique space.

Phuzz Phest, arguably the most prolific boutique festival in the area started by Winston-Salem’s Philip Pledger, will be hosting a music stage at the new park in April. Daddy Issues, Mac McCaughan and Ex Hex will be the first musical acts to play the new park, unless buskers find success there first.

“We are going to be presenting the first show there,” said Philip Pledger, founder of Phuzz Phest. “They wanted this space to be as community driven as possible, so I guess we are sort of the guinea pig.”

Stitch is able to stake a certain claim in Bailey Park, but Schwab did reveal that they weren’t involved with the public park from the beginning.

“We are doing exactly what we want to be doing,” Schwab said. “When we didn’t have these built projects, you have this vast backlog of experience, and we’ve never been organized in this fashion before. But all these new projects people can see and feel now.”

Outside the realm of “parkitecture,” Stitch also recently finished the interior of Linville Team Mossman’s new location at 206 W. Fourth Street. At first glance, visible from the sidewalk and from cars passing by, is a series of wood beams that follow a path from the front door, over the front desk, down to the floor and leading to the custom fabricated staircase at the rear of the room. It’s inviting, and forces the eye to trace the topography of the interior with all roads leading up, or forward.

 

“By and large the Triad architecture is pretty conservative as far as the style. You have very few modern buildings, and if you ask the four of us we are all modernists at heart,” Sebastian said, receiving agreeing nods from the rest of the Stitch team. “Why repeat something you’ve been building for 100 years? There’s no progression in that, and for us to be progressive is what feels right.”

Sebastian also holds a contractors license, which helps when it comes to outlining certain projects and recognizing the demands. But within the scope of Stitch itself, it requires that all four employees sometimes wear different hats in order to get the job done.

“Having design lead the project, we are involved with development from the beginning, to the general contracting, and at the end of the day, the final product. That’s the best way to do it,” Schwab said.

Also at the end of that day, whatever day it is, as the skyline of old downtown Winston-Salem casts a thrusting shadow toward the new blood of the City of Arts and Innovation, 13 fog blasting fingers reach for progress as well. !

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