Sculpting Infinity

Erwin Hauer’s enticing wall screens captivated the likes of Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, and Florence Knoll Bassett. Now the artist enters the digital age.

In December 2003 Enrique Rosado spotted one of his former professors while walking home on Chapel Street, in downtown New Haven. The professor, then 77 and retired in nearby Bethany, was descending the ramp from Yale’s Art and Architecture building using a pair of forearm crutches for support. “He was coming down very slowly, taking his time,” Rosado says. “I was glad to see him. I didn’t want to startle him, so I let him come down before I approached.”

The professor was Erwin Hauer, who had taught sculpture at Yale for 30 years before retiring in 2000. He was in rough shape, relying on the crutches to walk and nearly deaf due to a combination of war injuries and work-related noise exposure. “I was very, very bad on my feet at that time,” Hauer says. Nevertheless it was a warm reunion for the two men, who had kept in occasional touch since Rosado graduated in 1992 but hadn’t seen each other in years. Under normal circumstances, it may have stayed at that. “You know, typically you say, ‘Let’s keep in touch’ and things like that,” Rosado says. “But then there was a blizzard the next day. So I looked him up. I had never been to his house, but I tracked him down to go help.”

Rosado pulled up to the house just as Hauer was getting the mail, his driveway long since plowed by a local service, his routine barely disrupted by the snow. “He’s a resilient guy,” Rosado says. Hauer invited him in, and they talked—or he talked and Rosado listened. “It was a strain in the beginning because he couldn’t hear me,” Rosado says. “He said he would go on a monologue, and if I needed to leave I could just go.” But Hauer had something to show Rosado: proofs of a book that Princeton Architectural Press was getting ready to publish, Erwin Hauer: Continua: Architectural Screens and Walls, an extensively illustrated survey of work Hauer had begun in 1950 as a student in his native Vienna and later continued in the United States, where he arrived on a Fulbright in 1955. The continua were sculptural walls composed of intricately woven or looping forms that, when repeated across a plane, created a visual taste of infinity. In the 1950s and early ’60s they came to the notice of some of the most important architects and designers of the era: Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Florence Knoll Bassett. But by the mid-1960s interest waned and commissions dried up. When Continua was published in 2004, the screens had not been made in nearly 40 years, and many of the existing ones had been destroyed or were in disrepair. “It wasn’t meant to be a swan song,” Rosado says of the book. “But a lot of people took it that way.”

Rosado’s interest, however, was not merely historical—he wanted a screen. His longtime girlfriend was opening a frozen dessert shop (Tasti D-Lite) in New Haven, and Rosado thought of putting one of Hauer’s continua designs—there were 11, plus variations, documented in the book—inside as a ceiling or wall panel. Meanwhile he continued to visit Hauer, helping him with household chores, their cordial professor-student relationship slowly growing into friendship. They spent time in Hauer’s studio, a cavernous old barn rented from the local water company that houses a virtual catalog of Hauer’s career as a sculptor, from early continua molds to spiraling tendrils of stainless steel and tight, narrow labyrinths of cast resin—later products of Hauer’s lifelong fascination with infinity. When Rosado brought up the idea of installing one of the continua designs in the Tasti D-Lite, Hauer was amenable. “He said, ‘Go right ahead, if you can figure out how to do it,’” Rosado says.

This was the spark of what is now Erwin Hauer Studios (EHS), an enterprise dedicated to reviving his work through digital processes and production methods. It hasn’t been easy. The continuous surfaces that make the screens so visually appealing also make them incredibly difficult to construct. In the 1950s Hauer did so through a painstaking, laborious process of molds. “It was all very low-tech,” Hauer says. “But the quality of the cement was good. And, well, the engineering—it was just lucky.” When after five years in the United States on the Fulbright, Hauer was compelled to leave the country for Mexico, he had to bring his casting hardware with him to continue his work. “I had to go across the border every three months for visa reasons,” he says. “So I smuggled the hardware from there to Mexico City. I had only a few boxes in the car and a big peso in my pocket in case someone questioned it.”

This was 1959, just as the continua were reaching the height of their popularity. Johnson had been talking to Hauer about using one of the screens in a casino he wanted to build in Havana (a project that died after Castro came to power). The year before Bassett had used one of the designs for an installation in the First National Bank in Miami; in 1960 she used a screen of the same design in the Look magazine executive offices in New York. Now living in Miami, Bassett doesn’t recall how she first found Hauer’s work. “I must have seen a photograph of it somewhere and started searching for it,” she says. “And I was so in love with the screens, I couldn’t stop looking until I found them.” For the First National Bank she took advantage of the screen’s translucency, using it to filter light from the vaults in the center of the space, which she painted blue. “They’re wonderful textures,” Bassett says.

But the continua are more than just beautiful decoration. Hauer labored over the designs with a sculptor’s intensity and perfectionism, slowly shaping and reshaping molds by hand until the individual modules satisfied his desire to translate intangible notions about infinity into stubborn three-dimensional reality. When repeated across a wall or screen, these modules appear to flow seamlessly together, like a vast interlocking web. “This is my obsession,” Hauer says. “Tension in a surface—it’s almost like a life force.” In fact there is a mathematical basis to the continua that Hauer—whose primary education was cut abruptly short at tenth grade by World War II—was unaware of during the creation process. “What I stumbled upon is radically different from either the sphere or the flat plane,” Hauer wrote in an e-mail. “It is the saddle surface. Unbeknownst to me at the time, mathematicians had begun to explore this about eighty years earlier.”

One day in 1968, five years after returning to Yale, he received a phone call from NASA physicist Alan Schoen, who said he was interested in Hauer’s work and wanted to visit his studio. “He came with his station wagon full of models, and he stayed all day,” Hauer says. “When he left he had filled reams of paper writing everything down.” What Schoen documented was a type of three-dimensional surface he later named the Innercore-Wrapped Package (I-WP), which Hauer had intuitively discovered on his own more than a decade earlier. NASA scientists—interested in the potential material applications of synthetic microstructures—had tried to patent the I-WP only to find that one of Hauer’s patents for the continua had beat them to it. “They had to sharpen their own patent description until it no longer infringed on mine,” Hauer says. “It took them a year.”

For Hauer and Rosado—now working with Gregory Spiggle, a designer and one of Hauer’s former teaching assistants, and Spiggle’s wife, Christine Ingraham, also a designer—re-creating the particular three-dimensionality of the screens was a daunting task. Using the same molding techniques Hauer pioneered 50 years earlier would have been too expensive and time-consuming. “None of us wanted to become masons again,” Rosado says. Going digital was the obvious solution—although by no means an easy one. “When we started we had no idea,” Rosado says. “I had never even bought a CAD program.” Fortunately another of Hauer’s former students, a working sculptor familiar with digital methods, recommended starter software. For weeks Rosado struggled to master the programs while a frustrated Hauer looked on, unable to help; it took months to produce a prototype that Hauer could evaluate as a three-dimensional object. “When we first made the prototype and he saw it, he was very polite and said, ‘Well, what else are you going to do?’” Rosado says. “And it looked perfect to me.” But Hauer had exacting standards. “First of all, it must not have a sour note,” he explains. “So I check that it satisfies me—in terms of the line, in terms of the radii, in terms of the shape.” These subtleties of balance and proportion were difficult to translate into the software. “The computer wants to do what it wants to do,” Rosado says. “And if you’re fastidious, you really have to beat it into submission.”

It took EHS more than two years to produce satisfactory results, which they publicly unveiled at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May. The team had succeeded in digitally creating new versions of four of Hauer’s early designs in CNC-milled MDF panels. “ICFF was important in the sense that we needed to get out there,” Rosado says. “It gave us the strength to kind of soldier on.” One month later Knoll unveiled its renovated showroom in Chicago, which prominently features two installations of the digitally re-created continua. And now a massive 25-foot-high installation of an opaque bas-relief design by Hauer, cut in Indiana limestone from a digital model, is being installed at the Centria, a 34-story residential tower at New York’s Rockefeller Center, by Perkins Eastman Architects with interior architecture by Philip Koether Architects. “It’s like this knife edge coming at you,” says Koether, who was a student at Yale in the 1980s and knew of Hauer then, although he did not learn of the continua until years later. “It begins as an exterior piece that then moves into the building, on two floors. So you’re going to walk along these panels as you enter the building.”

But even as the Centria installation nears completion, EHS is having second thoughts about the process. The designs cut in MDF never quite achieved the depth of the cast originals—and more pressingly, ICFF revealed a demand for durable screens that are fire-rated and weather-resistant for outdoor use. At the same time, the MDF screens are hardly inexpensive to produce. “Milling these screens with the CNC machine turned out to be insanely expensive,” Hauer says. “We probably can offer a concrete version cheaper than an MDF version.” This is not idle speculation. After all its exploration of digitization, EHS is taking a long hard look at the nondigital alternatives they discounted at the outset. “Basically we are thinking of the old method,” he says.

Not that the efforts toward digitization were for naught. “None of it was wasted,” Rosado says. “The digital is still really the enabling part.” Computer modeling could, in fact, allow them to cast molds for entire panels rather than individual modules that have to be assembled on-site. But for now the enterprise rests in Hauer’s hands, as the self-described “predigital dinosaur” begins casting new copies of molds he first created a half-century earlier. “I’m doing something that I shouldn’t be doing anymore at my age,” Hauer admits. “But I’m good at it. And I’m still capable of doing it, so I’m going to do it.” Indeed the 80-year-old seems invigorated by the challenge: “Actually that kind of work I enjoy immensely. I’ve always held that a three-dimensional idea is, well—how shall I put it?—it’s wonderful. But it is not any more important than the means to bring it into physical existence.”

Recent Programs