Shawn HibmaCronan: Design in Three (or More) Dimensions

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Surprise! You’re browsing the shops in Terminal 2 at SFO, San Francisco International Airport, with a half-hour to kill before your flight boards. In a bookshop window you come upon a printing press, no, a semi-abstract sculpture of a printing press that also looks a bit like an old-fashioned school desk. A sign printed on Arches paper in beautiful Trajan-style lettering reads:


You stop, as I did a few weeks ago, and ponder it. You are surprised and grateful that this beautiful object and those words are in the airport, and snap a photo with your phone.


When you get home, you study the picture and read the fine print. Ah, the exhibit was made by Shawn HibmaCronan, the son of designer, artist and entrepreneur Karin Hibma and the late, great graphic designer Michael Patrick Cronan, who died in 2013, much too young. You pick up the phone and call Shawn. After the usual greetings and niceties, the following conversation ensues:

I bet you were building things ever since you were a little kid?

I’ve always built things, everything from skateboard jumps to tree forts.

Where did you get your formal training?

I went to CCA, California College of the arts, a double major in sculpture and the wood furniture program.

And you were inspired by your parents? Especially about typography?

Of course. They’re superstars. Everyone in the family is a graphic designer. I’m the outlier.

Can you support yourself as a sculptor?

Yes, one large commission a year will sustain me.

Fantastic. How did you get this commission?

Michael Tucker, the owner of Compass Books, approached me before Terminal 2 was built. They wanted a sculptural piece for the window. Michael is a special person. He is very art-conscious and was president of the American Booksellers’ Association. And Compass Books is a wonderful general-interest bookstore — not like the usual airport shops that have best-sellers and snacks. You can order any book and it will be there when you get back on your return flight. And, realistically, sculpture brings in more traffic.

How would you describe the theme?

The theme is Freedom. It’s designed to remind all the people walking by glued to their iPhones and iPads where our society came from and where it is now — all thanks to the printed book. It’s especially relevant now that our freedom of the press is being challenged.

Freedom Press

The Freeedom Press, inspired by the forms of antique presses, represents the impact the printed word has had on the history of civilization. Steel, bamboo, oak, cork, rope, paper and ink.

Does the press actually work?

Yes, it prints one word, the word Freedom. it’s a machine designed to be hand-inked and operated by a single person, producing one unique print at a time. Anyone can walk up and see what it’s doing. To me, a work isn’t complete until you have at least one person looking at it and interacting with it. This kind of work rewards the curious.

How do you describe your work in general? Mixed-media?

Yes, mixed-media, steel primarily, interactive, with kinetic elements that can move or be adjusted. I’m always exploring new forms, new shapes, seeing what can be bent, welded, bolted.

Do you make this work with assistants?

It’s all me, everything is a one-man job. No assistants.

What is your process working with clients?

Usually I do a proposal. There is a fixed budget and timetable. Sketches go back and forth. So in that sense it’s not that different from the graphic design business.

Press Sketch

Original sketch for The Freedom Press, 2011, Collection of Compass Books, Inc., Terminal 2, SFO Airport.

What are you working on now?

I’ve had a great couple of years with several commissions. I completed a 20-foot mobile in Compass Books’ other store in Terminal 3, a series of birds/planes inspired by hummingbirds, called Aeriform Aviary. Each bird has an 8-foot wingspan. Some other works are in private collections.

What about in museums, the Whitney Biennial?

I’m working on it (laughs). SFO Airport has more foot traffic than any museum in the world.


The Freedom Press’s functional gears, close-up.


Toolbarrow, 2007. Maple, brass and tools. Designed and made by the artist. Don’t you wish you had one?


The Angler, 2010. Wood, steel, cast iron, and a light bulb. Private collection.

Working on Plane

Shawn HibmaCronan working on Aeriform Aviary.

Aeriform Aviary

Aeriform Aviary, 2015. Steel, stainless steel, muslin. Collection of Compass Books, Inc. SFO Airport, Terminal 3.

Boiler Heart

Shawn HibmaCronan with Boiler Heart, 2014. Built from the building’s original 1907 boiler at 460 Bryant Street, San Francisco, the piece is on permanent view to the public during business hours, complete with glowing lights that “beat” 24/7.

Bird Charm

A limited series of stainless steel hummingbird
sculptures based on Aeriform Aviary are available via HibmaCronan’s website.