Design Fugitives combines art and architecture

Made in Milwaukee

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:22 am

Design Fugitives
160 S. Second St., Milwaukee
Industry: Commercial art
Employees: 10

Walk in the main entrance of the new 833 East office building in downtown Milwaukee and you’ll be greeted by 300 copper tubes with LED lights held together by steel cables in a way that’s meant to seem random, yet very organized.

“It kind of reminds me of the business process that we go through in real estate development, which is chaos until it isn’t,” said Mark Irgens, chief executive officer of development firm Irgens, which developed the 833 East building.

A grouping of copper tubes lit with LED strips hang in the atrium of the 833 East building.
A grouping of copper tubes lit with LED strips hang in the atrium of the 833 East building.

The piece the team at Milwaukee-based Design Fugitives pitched to Irgens for the building was intended to be a counter to the sometimes seemingly random elements of life.

“Life is complex, yet in many ways is knowable,” the project statement said.

Had circumstances been different, it is possible Paul Mattek and his partners at Design Fugitives would have been coming up with plans for buildings like 833 East, not creating works of art to hang in its atrium. But when Mattek and the six other original partners in the company were coming out of architecture school in the middle of the Great Recession, their options were limited.

Those limitations, however, ultimately freed the group to pursue other lines of work that capitalized on their design skills and their desire to create things.
“We wanted to set up a hybrid practice,” Mattek said.

The group wanted to design and build things, while also bringing comprehensive special and product thinking to projects. They didn’t want their work to just be a piece of art; they wanted it to be a part of the building, Mattek said.

The reality of the first few years as a company wasn’t quite as glamorous, though. Mattek said the group did graphic design, web design, rough carpentry, tiling and pretty much whatever they could to stay afloat.

The group started to grow around 2011 and now has pieces throughout southeastern Wisconsin, the Midwest, and even in Hong Kong. Design Fugitives also is bidding on projects in Washington, D.C. and Kuwait City.

Some partners left, new employees joined and in the past year the company has added five employees. Mattek said more will probably be added in the near future as the workload continues to grow.

Design Fugitives found its way through experimentation, building its own tools, like a CNC router or plasma cutter, from a variety of components.

The copper tubes were fabricated with hundreds of pieces cut out.
The copper tubes were fabricated with hundreds of pieces cut out.

One of the company’s specialties is using architectural software to create rule-based geometric patterns on paneling. The result can be one continuous pattern spread over a 30-by-40-foot wall. As a result, Design Fugitives does a lot of work for atriums and hospitality settings.

Design Fugitives works with wood, metal and plastic. A lot of processes are completed in-house but sometimes, like when 300 copper tubes need to be fabricated with a complex series of cuts, the team looks elsewhere.

With time, the company has been able to refine its practice, learning how to experiment and build new tools. Mattek said Justin White, another partner in the business, is “an encyclopedia of how to make things” while Tuan Tran, a third partner, heads up efforts in digital fabrication and leveraging computers as tools for design.

Design Fugitives also looks to push its technical capabilities whenever possible.

“Our clients are coming to us more and more with more technically challenging design problems where it makes sense to have something like a robotic arm,” White said.

He said the group hopes to be in a bigger facility within a few years. While the company is growing, the partners said they don’t want to lose the entrepreneurial spirit that got them where they are.

“Keeping that studio feel, I think, means we’re going to stay a certain size,” Mattek said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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