Vancouver design team unfurls its revolutionary softwall

Molo design's signature creation operates as a perfect metaphor for a small company, and a brilliant idea, that has wended its way around the globe in a short time. The so-called softwall is an accordionlike, expandable divider that starts as an inch-thick stack of folded paper but pulls swiftly across a room in curvy patterns.

The appeal of Vancouver architects and designers Todd MacAllen and Stephanie Forsythe's product is that it can instantly change the layouts of living and working spaces. Soon after the softwall hit the market this spring, New York's Museum of Modern Art added it to its permanent collection. On the day Georgia Straight Living visits MacAllen and Forsythe at their sleek live/work studio in an industrial block of Venables Street, they're preparing to head to Denmark, where molo is to win an international Index Award-a new design prize to recognize art that improves life.

Clearly, molo is on to something big. At a time when space is at a premium in urban centres and when live/work lofts are on the rise, the company's stylish, collapsible walls are filling a need.

"We've been pretty surprised by the response," says Forsythe, as MacAllen unfurls a curvy white wall to create an impromptu meeting room. "We weren't sure if people would just take an interest in the softwall, and that would be it, but they've gone the extra distance and they're actually purchasing it."

"People are calling up and saying things like, 'This is going to change the world,'" says MacAllen. "Now we're realizing that we've done something that could have a big effect, and we want to make sure we do it right. We're realizing that we could be working on this and variations on it for the rest of our lives."

The softwall had its genesis in a housing project that MacAllen and Forsythe were designing in Japan, where they were looking at ways to create flexible spaces for living. It also sprang from their own experiences searching for a live/work space when they arrived here from Halifax, where they had taken their master's degrees in architecture at Dalhousie University.

"There's a current movement in modernism...that looks at the idea that space changes by its occupant-that buildings would last longer if they were made more flexible in the first place," MacAllen explains. "When we moved out here in 2000, we started looking around at what was being built and realized we couldn't really do much with it because it was full of walls and columns and small rooms."

And so began months of playing with folded-paper studies. "At first it was different accordion styles, and then we moved to the honeycomb idea," recalls Forsythe. Eventually, they came to a stage where they had to work with wall-size pieces. "We started with 50 layers of paper, and that many actually [makes the wall] spring shut," Forsythe continues. "What we found was as we added more layers of paper, we realized it held itself open. So the friction and weight and gravity actually combined so that it became more sculptural. In the end it's a thing that's 400 pages." The team put long, thin tabs of wool on each end of the accordion, finding that material had enough stiffness to act as handles.

The softwall now comes in two heights-six feet and four feet, with custom versions up to 10 feet. Prices range from $690 up to $990 (via Eighty percent of sales so far have been to the U.S., with European orders on the rise. Forsythe and MacAllen are already experimenting with new and more durable materials like paper-and-textile hybrids.

The wall filters natural light without cutting it out entirely-diffusing it enough to, say, put over the window that causes a glare on your computer screen. It has acoustic effects, too, muffling ambient sound when you use it as a divider. Best of all, it rustles and undulates when you whisk by it.

Applying architectural rigour to household objects is not exactly new for the duo. Last spring, the pair came up with an ingenious, votive-warmed teapot they now ship as far away as Europe and New Zealand. The tall, seamless column of transparent glass sits in the middle of their coffee table now, the ochre tea swirling with leaves, the candle in its base bouncing golden light off the softwall's zigzags. "We started becoming interested in the ways objects can be used for ritual, as a point of gathering, which in a way is what architecture does," says MacAllen.

From teapots to walls to entire buildings, MacAllen and Forsythe defy categories. "For us, whether it's architecture or products or music or environment, it's all design," says MacAllen, "and as we put molo together we're designing a company." One that's flexible, adaptable, and easily expanded-sounds like another metaphor is coming on.