How this designer turned job panic into productivity

As a principle, New York-based sculptor Sutton Murray embraces periods of downtime between jobs.

Intermittent employment can’t really be avoided in the design industry, “so I opted to treat freelance like a philosophy as opposed to a liability,” Murray joked to Ladders. “It’s not that I don’t get worried before I land my next gig, of course, I get worried. But you have to make panic productive.” A conviction we can all use in our careers.

Making panic productive

Actualizing a  constructive appreciation for provisional work seemed to begin with a trained effort to expect very little from the unexpected. “It could be a month before my next project, could be a week. I’ll be here,” Murray continued.

This way of living does well to urge an eudaimonic outlook. When you’re beset by limitations, every decision, be it financial–be it existential, is echoed by the contrast of wants and needs. If you commit to privileging the latter you’ll eventually find yourself in a rotation of fulfillment; nurturing the things that contribute to your well-being, disposing of the things that don’t, and discerning meaning in every hour of work that comes down the pike. 

Perspective not only tempers Murray’s appraisal of sustainability, but it also defines what kind of projects interest him most. His latest venture, titled New Circadia, is a living embodiment of his bare necessity credo.

In early 2019 he was recruited by Professor Richard Sommer and the innovative folks over at Pillow Culture, to cultivate a space at the Daniel’s Institute of the University of Toronto. The team hoped to test the degree to which atmosphere revises the way individuals receive and deliver information. 

If you’ve ever attended a concert hall  you know that the layout is meant to draw attention to the performer: lights, an elevated stage, and seats facing their direction. However, at New Circadia, a contrary approach was put to use.  All of the formal qualities of a recital are melted away and reforged into a sleepy Eden.

Photo credit: Gabby Frank

The crew said of the inspiration behind the experiment, ‘We have transformed the new Architecture and Design Gallery into a soft utopia to conjure a greater sense of geological, mythical, mechanical, and biological time, and to explore how we might nurture a more sustained interior life by incubating dream-like states of rest, reflection, and reverie.’

Crimson pillows and angular settles align the walls, couches of various shapes welcome guests beneath silk banners. Chairs subtly vibrate and even crow soft lights when interacted with. In an arena contrived for disengagement, speakers are forced to employ inventive ways of conveying information to a room robust with somnolent attendees.   

“We invite academics in to give talks. We invite musicians and dancers to perform. They enter this space that’s like 75 feet by 30 feet and there are pillows everywhere. The relationship listeners have with an audience is suddenly altered. Changing the way ideas are shared by changing the place where they’re shared ,” Murray explained. 

Objects and things

The success of New Circadia smiles at the power of limitations.  CBC Spark raved, “Walden, revisited!” a handsome reference to Henry David Thoreau’s landmark opus in which the late author meditates on finding simplicity in one’s surroundings.  

“New Circadia unfolds across three zones, beginning with a subterranean ‘cave mouth’. Visitors don ‘spelunking gear’ before passing into the belly of the cave – a dark space strewn with soft, rock-like formations,” The Spaces wrote on the back of the installation’s debut. “It transforms the gallery into a series of cave-like spaces where visitors can unplug from the digital world and relax into ‘states of repose and reverie.”

The longest tenure of Murray’s career had him teaching architecture in New York City. It only took a couple of months before the allure started to diminish. “Yeah, it was in the neighborhood of the things I’m passionate about, but rinse and repeat. I mean going to the moon would get boring if you did it every single day.”

On a whim and with  a modest amount of savings, Murray stepped down from the position. Even though the horizon had yet to materialize, the choice was a liberating one and he hasn’t looked back since. He re-imagined unemployment as a canvas made of days. He formulated a budget and an itinerary in order to optimize a wealth of hours; he made a website, framed cicades and filled his Chinatown apartment with the most house plants you’ve ever seen in one place.

After a couple of months, Murray realized that this was the best version of his life. “If you have a concept, every experience becomes richer. Even bad ones. You’re much more conscious of things, including how much time and money you’re wasting.”

By the time Professor Sommers called, Murray was more than ready to sink his teeth into something. And how lyrical that-that something was a vacant room premised by the pageantry of restrictions. Murray and his team intended to challenge the vernacular of ingenuity by fitting reigns on it. Ultimately asking,

“Have our tech-infused lives caused us to forget the benefits and pleasures of losing ourselves in states of repose and reverie? What would happen if we disconnected from standard time and external stimuli within a dream-like space specifically designed for relaxation, reflection, and repose? The biology that undergirds our well-being presumes being at rest during at least one-third of our lives. Nevertheless, the mechanization of life has evolved to an extent that we can be “plugged-in” at all hours. A central feature of this pursuit of an optimized state of productivity is a reciprocity between architecture and technology.”

New Circadia, not unlike Murray himself, means to sketch the line that separates objects and things. Things exist on one plane, while objects have agency, they lend purpose to our lives. Unemployment has a wily way of accenting the distinction. On a  sidewalk a couch is  just a thing, but in a lecture hall it’s a modifier.  Things take up space, objects enrich them.

Murray adds,  “It’s really important that I don’t spend my time just making stuff. Making things. I think freelancing helps me be much more mindful  of making objects with value.”