To look at Erwin Hauer architectural screens is to see the past, present, and future. Weaving in three dimensions, and employed as ceilings, partitions, and even load-bearing walls, their light-diffusing patterns of repeating, parabolic geometries are as mind-bending as anything conjured by the digitally assisted designers of today. Except that Hauer's earliest structure, called Design 1, dates to 1950.
Born in 1926, Hauer grew up in Vienna in "hard times, and on the wrong side of the tracks," he recalls. At 16, his formal education was interrupted by compulsory military service during World War II. An accident during that time left him with a bad leg and hearing loss in one ear. But by 1955, having completed studies at Vienna's Academy of Applied Art and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, Hauer arrived at the Rhode Island School of Design on a Fulbright travel grant. A year later, Josef Albers invited him to study at Yale University, where he went on to teach sculpture from 1957 to 1990.
Now based in Bethany, Connecticut, Hauer is a sculptor-designer who has been both of his time and ahead of it. His sculptural explorations into biomorphic forms and "potential infinity," as he calls it, began in the '50's and led to perforated, bas-relief panels that all fall under the name Continua and captured the design world's imagination. With architectural screens back in vogue, Hauer's Continua are doing so once again. Now the 82-year-old Hauer has returned to the fold, establishing a new company, Erwin Hauer Studios, with Enrique Rosado, a former student.
With their intertwining complex shapes, Hauer's screens flowered in America's postwar heyday. Florence Knoll installed Design 5 at the First National Bank & Trust Company of Miami in 1958. Two years later, she chose the same pattern but in a smaller 4-inch module rather than 8-inch for the New York offices of Look magazine. The screens also wrapped the Coca-Cola Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Philip Johnson planned to use a Continuum for a new casino in Havana-that is, before Fidel Castro's revolution intervened. Hauer even outdid NASA: In the late '60's, the space agency tried to patent a pattern it developed, only to discover Hauer had beaten it to the punch.
Inspired first by Henry Moore, and later the Constructivist sculptors Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, Hauer had begun his Continua while still in Vienna, where they were installed in two churches. But it was in the U.S. that he caught the attention of Murals, the company which would produce and sell his designs. Merging modularity and formal rigor with a kind of mathematical expressiveness-"though I'm not a mathematician," he states-Hauer's patterns, one evolving into another, became embedded in the modernist lexicon just as the latter was expanding its rationalist vocabulary.
By the mid '60's, when production stopped, Continua screens could be found not only in New York and Miami but also in Montreal, Mexico City, and Caracas, Venezuela. "They helped trigger a big fad," says Hauer. "But eventually, the screen ran its course, much like the Hula-hoop."
Over the years, Hauer would quietly continue his work at Yale. Yet his screens were destined for a comeback. In 2004, Princeton Architectural Press published Erwin Hauer Continua: Architectural Screens and Walls. A year earlier, Hauer had become reacquainted with Rosado, who convinced him to revive Continua for commercial production, but using new technology. Installed at the Knoll showroom in Chicago and shown at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in 2006, Hauer and Rosado's Continua can now be found in such New York sites as Centria Condos, Elie Tahari headquarters, and the soon-to-open Standard Hotel.
But the full circle doesn't end there. The original Continua were cast from molds in materials such as concrete, gypsum, and acrylic resin using processes developed by Hauer. The new screens were CNC-milled in MDF and limestone. But the old method, it turns out, still has functional and aesthetic advantages, so Hauer and Rosado are revisiting it. In the case of Hauer and his Continua, nothing beats the original.