The Artful Oasis

A socially conscious project turns a concrete jungle into a design destination.

A forest has sprouted up along the sidewalks of Times Square. But the 186 “trees” aren’t the gift of nature; they’re vinyl banners created by an international group of graphic designers and artists. Organized by Worldstudio Foundation, the Times Square Alliance, and AIGA New York, the Urban Forest Project temporarily adds some public art to an area where corporate signage usually rules the roost, and where trees are noticeably absent.

“When Mark Randall [principal of Worldstudio] said he had this idea to get hundreds of people responding artistically to Times Square…it just seemed too smart not to do,” says Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. “The notion of taking the most urban place in the world and populating it, even figuratively, with these natural elements is just great fodder for artistic imagination.”

Randall concurs: “It was a way to bring a metaphorical tree, and the idea of nature, into the middle of this very chaotic urban space.”

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The range of designs now hanging from lampposts is impressive. These include an illustration of a tightly packed city, a bold T filled with foliage, a tree trunk clad in retail bar code, and one very elusive banner.

In addition to established designers and artists students are also represented on the busy thoroughfares. Twenty-two banners came from students at New York’s High School of Art and Design, who were paired with professional mentors. “For some of them, it was their first time using a computer for design,” says Emma Presler, former co-chair of AIGA New York’s mentoring program. “But the public profile was a huge incentive….I think that’s what kept a lot of them powering through some of the challenges.” The students developed their designs over the course of six weeks while participating in group critiques, attending special lectures, and spending one-on-one time with their mentors. “Under no circumstances were the mentors to actually design [a banner] themselves or art direct it to the degree that the concept wasn’t the student’s own,” says Presler. “So all of the output you see is really from the students.”

The banners will remain on view until October 31, at which point they’ll be taken down and recycled into bags by Jack Spade. Those pieces will then be auctioned off to raise funds for future scholarship and mentoring programs. “It’s like we’ve planted this forest of creativity in Times Square,” says Randall, “and we’re going to take that forest and turn it into tote bags, which will sustain the next generation of artistic talent.”

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