Winter 2012

Creatively Constructed 
Kreysler & Associates Commissions Composites to Fabricate Artwork, Architecture
by Alexandria Lopez

At Kreysler & Associates, functional creativity is the name of the game. Practicality and ingenuity align at this custom fabrication facility located in American Canyon, California.

Founded in 1982 by Bill Kreysler, today, Kreysler & Associates focuses primarily on architecture and large-scale artwork. “Bill’s background was in fiberglass boat-building, but I think he always felt like there was this market for using composites in other ways,” explained Joshua Zabel, Kreysler & Associates’ director of digital fabrication. The company initially specialized in signage and small sculptures, but as the sculptures increased in size, it became apparent that there was a burgeoning architectural market for fiberglass.

Though renowned for some of their bigger works, the company’s projects vary in size. “We’ve done small projects like column caps, and we’ve built a whole house out of fiberglass,” Zabel said. “We had a history of doing historical preservation in San Francisco, replacing old stone façades with composites. We’re also looking at more modern architecture as well.”

Kreysler & Associates specializes in using composites to create unique buildings and sculptures. “We pride ourselves on being able to help determine if composites might be good for a project,” Zabel noted. Composites are particularly useful in architectural projects that feature complex geometry, due to their ability to be easily molded into shapes with compound curvature, a transmogrification that actually increases their strength. They are also highly durable, requiring less maintenance than many alternative architectural materials, and have a high level of corrosion resistance. “If there are unusual environmental circumstances, composites can usually be tailored to the needs of the project,” Zabel summarized. The company’s strong expertise in digital fabrication is also well suited to composites: “Digital tools allow architects to form really complex shapes, and fiberglass is a good material for realizing those shapes.”

Though every project Kreysler & Associates has worked on is distinctive, if one particularly stands out, it’s likely Blue Bear, a 42-foot-tall sculpture of a blue bear peering into the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado. “People seem to remember Blue Bear; it’s the show favorite because it’s an approachable subject,” Zabel explained. Kreysler & Associates worked with artist Lawrence Argent to transform a tiny toy bear into the larger-than-life sculpture that’s currently a hit with residents and visitors alike.

After performing a 3-D scan of the bear, Argent used animation software to adjust its pose and then sent the model to a design firm to get a print. The 3-D print influenced the final appearance of the sculpture in two critical ways. “They decimated the model, turning a smooth-looking bear into a bunch of big chunky triangles,” Zabel said. “When Lawrence saw it, that aesthetic appealed to him, and that’s where the look of the piece came from. The 3-D print also happened to be blue, which was also a fluke.”Kreysler & Associates used the triangulated 3-D model to cut EPS foam molds for the sculpture. These molds were used to shape the fiberglass that was then assembled into the bear sculpture. A project of this magnitude often experiences challenges during installation, and Blue Bear was no exception. One of the largest issues was determining how close the sculpture would be able to get to the glass walls of the convention center without its paws touching the window and breaking the glass. After much debate between the engineers, the artist and the client, they settled on the simplest solution: “The window-washer needed 18 inches of space to get his equipment through, so that’s what they went with,” Zabel chuckled.

Kreysler & Associates recently collaborated with Argent again on the 24-foot-tall Water Tree, installed in Vail, Colorado, in 2010. “That was a pretty ambitious project,” Zabel recalled. “It took a lot of coordination with the artist and a lighting designer to turn it into what it is.” Due to the sculpture’s design, the molds needed were unusually complicated. “A lot of people would consider a three- or four-part mold to be complex; this was well over 200 pieces,” Zabel said.

Water Tree originated as Argent’s digital conceptual model, given to Kreysler & Associates to represent the sculpture’s intended shape. Though the initial model successfully expressed the sculpture’s form, Kreysler & Associates made several modifications in close coordination with Argent to ensure that the sculpture would be able to be fabricated without surrendering his artistic intent. “One of the big things we did was make it symmetrical in quarters, so if you look at the tree from the top, one-quarter of the bubbles and branches is repeated 90 degrees,” Zabel said. “That allowed us to make one mold for four parts.” By reducing the number of molds necessary to construct the sculpture, the company reduced costs on the project and simplified fabrication without compromising the sculpture’s appearance.

Not only did the project require a 272-piece mold, but the mold-making itself was also a complicated process, taking nearly two months to complete. “We put the whole thing together upside down in our shop and shipped it to Colorado in four pieces, putting it back together on-site in Vail,” Zabel explained. From Argent’s final design to installation, the project took nearly a year to complete.

Kreysler & Associates has also enjoyed a longstanding professional relationship with sculptors Claes Oldenburg and the late Coosje van Bruggen. The company worked with the couple on installations including Floating Peel, Cupid’s Span and Balzac Petanque. Recently, Kreysler & Associates completed work on Oldenburg’s Paint Torch, installed at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2011. Though, like Argent, Oldenburg creates large-scale sculptures, the two artists’ processes differ. “Lawrence frequently starts coordinating with us with a digital file, while Claes starts from sketches and physical models, so there are a lot of iterations between the computer and the physical model to get to the right form that he’s trying to capture,” Zabel said.

Paint Torch began as a sketch that Kreysler & Associates used to make a 3-D scan. The sculpture consisted of two primary elements: a 51-foot-tall blue-handled paintbrush with an orange tip, positioned at a 60-degree angle between two buildings, and a 6-foot-tall orange paint glob on the ground. “To make the brush handle, we used a 65-foot-long CNC machine to cut EPS foam in two halves,” Zabel explained. “Inside the fiberglass shell, there’s a very thick steel column. The brush tip was an EPS foam male mold. We basically made the positive of that brush shape out of the EPS mold and covered it in fiberglass, then dug out the foam to make it hollow to put LED lights in the tip of the brush.” The glob was created from a fiberglass mold and was initially translucent.

As Kreysler & Associates looks ahead to the next 30 years, the company plans to expand further into architecture. “We like doing sculpture, but fiberglass is a relatively new material in architecture,” Zabel said. “Any architect could tell you what a two-by-four is and how that material behaves, but there isn’t that built-in knowledge yet about how fiberglass can be used in those ways. We built a house in Marin that’s all fiberglass. There aren’t any others in the United States that we’re aware of.”

In 2009, the American Composites Manufacturers Association (ACMA) lobbied to include a provision in the International Building Code that allows fiberglass to be used on the exterior of buildings up to 40 feet tall. Kreysler & Associates is currently focusing much of its research and development efforts on meeting architectural fire codes. “The real challenge is to get fiberglass to pass the NFPA 285 fire test for non-load-bearing wall assemblies. If it can pass that, we’ll have a product that we can use anywhere on the building, in any quantity,” Zabel explained. “We have the creativity to solve the technical aspects of making these projects, but it’s just as challenging to navigate building codes.” The company is also interested in assessing the environmental impact of fiberglass. To that end, Kreysler & Associates has worked with Stanford professor Michael Lepech on the life-cycle analysis of FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic) in several comparative case studies.

Though aspects of Kreysler & Associates have changed over the years, its warm relationship with North American Composites has remained constant. “Kreysler & Associates is really a unique company in the composites market,” Noel Rofoli, NAC’s district manager – California, remarked. “They’ve done a number of stunning art pieces that I think are cutting-edge. Artists continue to come back because they do spot-on work translating their vision into a very large piece of sculpture. As far as I know, they’re the only company who does that scale of work in composites.”

Rofoli also commended Bill Kreysler’s work to standardize composite use in the construction industry. “If you’re going to use wood, you can go through a certification process where you’re told to use a certain grade or type; it’s specified into the job,” Rofoli explained. “No one does that for composites, so if someone wants to use composites in construction, they have to get it certified for a specific project. Bill wants to be able to go through a certification board, so an engineer or architect will be able to use the product specified by the agency.”

NAC has provided Kreysler & Associates with a wide range of products, including fiberglass, resins and gel coats. “We have several jobs that are ongoing projects,” Rofoli mentioned, citing the P.F. Chang’s horses as an example. The two companies have been doing business together for nearly 20 years, a relationship that both parties expect to continue in the future. “Bill’s very open to new technology and products — things that will make his work stand out and answer a need that he or his client has. He relies on us to bring him that technology that’s going to make him a better manufacturer.”