Architects conclude designTHUNK season


Matt Gerard. Photo via

Design is at the forefront of architects’ minds every day, and Matt Gerard wants the general public to think about design more often, too.

Gerard, an architect with Visbeen Architects in Grand Rapids, has coordinated the last two seasons of designTHUNK, a series of discussions centered on the design world.

Gerard will host his last session when CWD Real Estate Investment Managing Partner Sam Cummings presents “Design Matters” at noon tomorrow in downtown Grand Rapids at Kendall College of Art and Design, at 17 Pearl St. NW.

DesignTHUNK is an outreach program of the American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids chapter meant to provide an arena for discussion among the region’s architects.

Gerard picked up the program after several years of dormancy, and while he has enjoyed programming the discussions, he looks forward to passing on the responsibility.

“It’s been fun, and I’ll miss doing it, but it’ll free up time for other things, like paying clients,” Gerard said.

This year was his second season of the series, which consisted of eight discussions. During the first series, Gerard said it took a lot of calls and emails to generate interest and a crowd at the events. This year, 30 to 40 people regularly showed up without much more than a monthly newsletter.

Many of the attendees are architects, but students from Grand Rapids Public Schools Innovation Central High School and KCAD also attend, he said.

Gerard scheduled Cummings to cap the second season to help generate interest outside of the regulars and help gain momentum for the next season, which will start in the fall, assuming the replacement he has found is fully committed.

“(Cummings) is a very eloquent speaker on design and history,” Gerard said. “I could listen to him speak about the history of Grand Rapids for hours on end. I parked him at the end, because I hope there will be interest outside of architects.

“I can talk about a house I’m working on, and my friends might care, but the broader community won’t. Sam Cummings can draw a wider audience that will care about what he has to say.”

With a title like “Design Matters,” Gerard hopes an audience of non-architects will show up and be convinced design plays a role in their lives and that they might continue to show up at future designTHUNK programming.

He supported statements by Visbeen Architects principal Wayne Visbeen in the Business Journal recently about how design affects people every day, whether they realize it or not.

“As architects, we design a building and talk a lot about philosophical things and context,” Gerard said. “At the end of the day, there’s no sign on the building that explains those things. People experience them, and they either like it or they don’t. Sometimes they know why and sometimes they don’t.”

This season’s designTHUNK speaker series featured three developers and five architects. Gerard hopes the variety can be diversified and expanded in the future.

As he was looking for venues for the series, he chatted with representatives from the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, and he’s continued the discussion about the possibility of adding artists. He also hopes creative fields such as furniture designers may be included in the mix.

“I love having architects talking about architecture, but it’d be fantastic if there were artists talking about a piece or a furniture maker presenting a piece they’ve made.”

Ultimately, he wants design-oriented professionals to be able to present a work in progress and have a constructive dialogue about the design. It’s a tough sell to many professionals, he said, as most don’t like to show off unfinished work.

Gerard said it’s hard for professionals to open up to criticism like that, but just as he hopes designTHUNK will carry on because of the effort he’s put in, he hopes the participation of presenters so far helps encourage others to keep design dialogue moving forward in Grand Rapids.

“It’s about putting a project out there that’s not just a high-gloss image that everyone should love,” he said. “If they present one finished project and one in the works, with the idea someone could look at it and have a dialogue about some part of it and influence the design, it’d be fantastic if we could get there.”

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