The Design Sprint to the US Open Finish Line

August 15, 2018

An Exciting Project Opportunity

On October 26, 2017, we received an email from the USTA enquiring whether Michael Graves Architecture & Design would be interested in a project to design “state of the art, custom on-court furniture” for the US Open Tennis Championships. Knowing that a project as unique as this doesn’t come around every day, we jumped at the chance. Once we reviewed the RFP, we realized that the selected firm would have less than 9 months to design, develop and fabricate t­­he ­­new pieces of high-performance furniture. While 9 months is plenty of time to gestate a human, it is an exceedingly aggressive product development schedule for customized furniture.

At the same time, we understood that project constraints, including a breakneck schedule, would bring out our creativity, making the overall project more compelling and captivating. We were thrilled when we won the commission and eagerly excited on January 3, 2018, when we had the kick-off meeting at Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, NY. The countdown to August 27th had begun.

A Once In A Lifetime Economic and Cultural Shift

Once valued skills like consistency and compliance are being replaced with creativity, decision making and leadership.

In the 20th century, whether an organization was selling products or services, the general economic and cultural model was based on the assembly line. Workers were valued for uniformity of output and for compliance with the rules established by executives. Now almost 20 years into the information age of the 21st century, an economic shift is underway where organizations rely more on broad leadership and decision making.

Today, some of the most valued skills of employees are creativity and collaboration. Creativity is defined as making something new and valuable and is the essential ingredient to innovation. Teams provide a diversity of thinking, allowing creativity to happen more easily. It is for this reason that collaboration is so powerful. Design consultancies like MGA&D have creativity and collaboration in our DNA, and are therefore in demand by organizations of all kinds. The new court furniture for the US Open Tennis Championships is a perfect expression of this new paradigm.

Creativity & Collaboration within a Large Organization

While our client is the United States Tennis Association, as with every large organization, there are a lot of stakeholder groups: marketing, sponsorship, players, chair umpires, line umpires, broadcast, facilities, operations and of course, the spectators all needed to be considered. To manage the complexity of this network, we relied on the same creativity and problem solving that we employ when designing for any of our projects, in order to facilitate collaboration and efficient decision making by the USTA. We spent time mapping the information we gained from talking with all the different stakeholders to make sure the diverse range of needs were met. We also employed tools like virtual reality which allowed us to present the furniture designs in a contextual manner, supporting informed and expedient conversations about the designs without having to labor over physical models and mockups.

The team tested the user experience for each piece of furniture with each stakeholder in mind.

Selected Design

Inspiration drawn from classic New York City design like fire escapes and central park benches.

The final design brief could be summarized by these three goals: visibility, user experience, and utility. While we presented various alternative designs for the products, the USTA selected the “double cantilever” design for the umpire stand. Since the US Open is “of New York” we were inspired by the famous cantilevers of NYC. From classics, like the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, to the new Whitney Museum, to the soon to be completed 1100-foot-high observation deck of the new 30 Hudson Yard Skyscraper. In a town where space is at a premium, the cantilever is a useful technique to maximize real estate. In our case, in developing a solution for the “umpire tower” (as it became known), the cantilever, not only dynamic in its gravity-defying support, creates open sight lines providing low-seated spectators unencumbered views of the action taking place on the court. In addition, roused by the famous skyscrapers of NYC, we utilized the technique of forced perspective by exaggerating the taper of the Umpire Tower, making it appear taller and grander for its size.

The Michael Graves Design team collaborates with Landscape Forms to augment the player bench prototypes.

For the player seating, we wanted to create a performance vibe that would be purposeful and iconic. The wide airy repositionable seats hovering above a sturdy foundational bench that is an homage to the ubiquitous central park bench, while the sculptural flowing quality of the seat represents the fluid athleticism of the players.

Donald Strum and Vladomir Anokhin sit in the line judge chairs to refine the sitting experience.

The line judge chair’s design responds to the player seating and umpire stand, complimenting the overall design language: clean, contemporary, and composed. The flowing framework lines of the chair’s backrest, legs, seat, and arms emulate and reference the line judges’ duties of deciding whether balls are inside, outside or on the line.

And for the cooler corral, we wanted to create a symmetrical composition that would visually recede into the background, providing clearer sightlines for spectators and bringing visual purity to the court.

Collaboration with our Fabrication Partners

We knew from the beginning that finding the right manufacturing partner to tackle this project with us was imperative to our overall success. Fortunately, we connected with an accomplished partner that provided us the confidence that they would be able to deliver a quality product in the short amount of time they were given.

Landscape Forms worked with the Michael Graves Design team to illuminate the processes used in creating the furniture. Donald Strum, seen right, participates in ‘Weld Academy’ with Landscape Forms.

Landscape Forms was brought on to execute all the furniture pieces, and they did so with great aplomb. From day one, lines of communication between our two entities were clearly open. We worked seamlessly with their talented group of engineers, designers, and managers to overcome any manufacturing challenge that presented itself. Their collaborative nature matched ours completely, making problem-solving at every turn a breeze, thus improving the project outcome every time we engaged.

When we conclude a project, we always find a way to pontificate about how effective our design team performed and how they took on the task with fervor to bring a collection to life. That is all very true, but in this particular instance, we would be amiss to disregard the fact that we would not have been able to achieve such a feat without the exceptional partnership of the USTA and our fabricator Landscape Forms. All that needs to be stated now is Game, Set, and Match!

USTA US Open 50th Anniversary court furniture designed by Michael Graves Architecture & Design.

About Michael Graves Architecture & Design

MGA&D is recognized as one of the leading design practices in the world. We provide product design, graphic design & branding services, design research and design strategy consulting, as well as architecture, master planning, feasibility studies and interior design.

About USTA

The United States Tennis Association (USTA) is the national governing body for the sport of tennis and the recognized leader in promoting and developing the sport’s growth on every level in the U.S. Read more about USTA here.