Tension Fabric Interiors

The history of Tension Fabric Structures in interior space is rich and fascinating, to me at least!  So here is the story on the Interior Textiles, Part 1 as told by Nicholas Goldsmith and published in the IFAIs magazine, Fabric Architecture.

Interior textiles: Part 1

Laying out the context and history of tensioned fabric interiors.

Fabric Architecture | January 2013

By Nicholas Goldsmith

FTL’s performance structure for the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden in New York City during the center’s opening in 1988. Photo: Durston Saylor

History & survey: Origins

Psychedelic explorers of the early sixties noted a transformation of conventional space into vibrating space harmonies. Edges softened. Corners vanished. Boundaries dissolved along with the simultaneous dissolution of ego. Rooms were seen to rearrange themselves, breathe, flutter, and pulsate with mystic emanations or explode with preternatural cool.
—Alastair Gordon, Spaced Out1

Unlike exterior fabric structures, such as tensile architecture and textile facades, interior fabric environments are able to use a greater diversity of materials because they aren’t required to withstand the structural criteria of wind and snow loading on their surfaces. As a result, more than 20 different fabrics can be used in interior applications, and they generally employ some form of stretch knitted material to minimize wrinkling. However, fabric interiors can also be made out of standard woven fabrics and can use an infinite number of different materials, from silks to cottons, rayons to polyesters and even woven Teflon® fibers. In this two-part series, I will examine the origins, pioneers and future potentials of textile-based interiors.

With the advent of the be-ins and happenings in the 1960s, there was a departure from hard-edged architecture of the 1950s to more organic and softer forms inspired by nature, LSD and alternative spatial solutions. The rage in the mid ’60s was to create soft, pneumatic environments as shown in the work of Haus Rucker, Jean Aubert and Jean-Paul Jungmann (fig. 1) and EAT’s inflatable interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at Osaka in 1970.2

Along with these nonporous pneumatic skins, softer more porous fabrics began to be used as interior partitions. Some of the first documented interior environments using this material were conceived and built by the Lithuanian-born American artist Aleksandra Kasuba in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her “live-in environment” of 1971 beautifully shows the use of a double stretch nylon knit fabric that has both translucency and a degree of transparency. Using a ribbed underwear fabric called “two way stretch,” Kasuba was able to pattern the material to form three-dimensional warped spaces. She continued to design and build custom interior art spaces through the 70s and into the 80s. Her 20th Century Environment at the Carborundum Museum in Niagara Falls, N.Y. (fig. 2) in 1971 is a perfect example of multilayered complex spaces where wall, column and ceiling join into one sensuous enclosure, breaking down the traditional concept of building section and creating a fluid whole environment.

I met Kasuba in 1972 at Whiz Bang Quick City in Woodstock, N.Y., an event organized by Works, a group of architects, designers and educators, to bring people together who were interested in avant-garde design and architecture. Each invited group or individual was to build a dwelling in 24 hours and live in it for the duration of the event. I was a student at Cornell University at the time, and with my classmate and future business partner, Todd Dalland, we set up one of our first tensile structures made out of glued polyethylene film that we patterned and stretched into curve shapes. Across from us, a wild-looking, stretched cocoonlike structure emerged and, as curious students would do, we went to find out who designed this building. Aleksandra Kasuba, who at the time taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, set up this stretch fabric structure with her students and the 14 of them lived in the structure during the event. Although they tried to waterproof the structure with rubber compound, the water collected in spots and this clearly showed some of the limitations of this stretch fabric material in outdoor applications.

As I became friends and a colleague with Kasuba, I worked with her on a few occasions, including a three-floor interior installation in Paris for the Saudi Arabian Air Force in 1980, which was designed, built and installed in 60 days. Here I had a chance to watch her develop her modeling and formfinding approach. She followed signs of nature using an intuitive and spontaneous process that she applied to a series of physical models, allowing the shape to just “happen.” I was always struck by Kasuba’s description of how she saw the surface tensions as a liquid force that moved over the structure, much like water in a streambed. This description simulated the FTL finite element engineering approach to a T; instead of “water” we used element nets with digital strain gauges to create minimal surfaces. We eliminated wrinkling by having equal tensions in both directions.

In the 80s at FTL, we did many interior installations using all sorts of fabrics and generally worked with nonstretch materials, developing intricate computer cutting patterns and geometries. We designed the interior environments for a multitude of events including an interior of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York for Maurice Biedermann, a Moroccan who wanted to celebrate a “Midnight at the Oasis,” and a performance structure for a new Winter Garden at the World Financial Center.

These installations used many different fabrics including cotton muslin, velour opera drape material, stretch fabrics and even some outdoor materials such as PVC-coated polyester for reflective acoustic situations geared to music.

Besides special events, we (FTL) were interested in using tensile fabrics for office applications and in utilizing the lighting effect called “volumetric light” (an effect that is the equivalent of looking at the sun hidden behind a cloud: what is seen is illumination, but no light source). We used the effect in the design of Donna Karan’s first showroom in New York opposite. Based on this project, in 1985 we were commissioned by the Sunar Hauserman furniture manufacturer to develop our concept of a system of lighting that would eliminate office task lighting, replacing it with a diffuse luminous environment. We did a study with the lighting designer, Peter Barna, and found that we could eliminate the “veilant reflections” that create glare in the workplace and instead use lower light levels than the normal foot-candle levels recommended by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. This gave a warm luminous space, minimizing eye strain. We used a calendared nylon fabric with PL fluorescent lights that had just been introduced to the market. As Barna says, “Looking at the human reaction to the natural world, one tends to see surfaces in three ways: the surface mode, which is where you actually see the surface; the volume mode, where it is like water…you see into it; and the film mode, which is like looking into sky. In an office 90% of what one sees is surface mode. And this gives a feeling of enclosure that is possibly too strong.”

With the luminous panels we designed for Sunar Hauserman or any other backlit tensile system, the surface dissolves and one sees light as volume or sky. With less bright light, pupils dilate and a person can see more: if the glare is reduced, vision improves.

This system was called “Tensilight” and was prototyped and showcased in showrooms and magazines but never went into production.3 However, more than 10 years later, systems using fabric elements were seen in some office furniture systems by Haworth, Herman Miller or Knoll. The most developed ones include Knoll’s A3 Furniture System in 2002 by Hani Rashid and Lise Ann Couture of Asymptote, which was a workstation based on the interior design of airplanes. The outer shell is a translucent double stretch nylon fabric tensioned on an aluminum frame. Another system was designed in 1999 by Ayse Birsel for Herman Miller, called the Resolve system, that includes smaller fabric wing elements and panels. Both systems are on the market today but treat the lighted fabric panels more as reflective surfaces than luminous ones.

Part 2 and conclusion of Interior Textiles will appear in the May/June issue.

Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, LEED AP, is senior design principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York, N.Y.


1 Alastair Gordon. Spaced Out: Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties (Rizzoli, 2008).

2 Experiments in Art and Technology, Pavilion. E.P. Dutton & Co, 1972.

3 Henderson, Justin. “Volumes of Light: The Tensile Lighting System,” (Interiors, March 1986); Rae, Christine. “Designers Saturday Tent Show Goes on the Road!” (Leading Edge, June 1986).