Design With a Purpose: Catch & Release Opens in Lower Manhattan

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By: Zachary Petit | January 10, 2014

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy fell upon the South Street Seaport neighborhood in lower Manhattan, bringing with it a destructive 7-foot wall of water. Apartments were devastated. Shops, bars and restaurants ruined. The community at large—one of the worst-hit areas of New York—was battered.

And now, alongside the other ongoing projects in the area, AIGA/NY is launching a new design installation this weekend to help rebuild in its own way. “Catch — & — Release” is part of the organization’s Design/Relief initiative established to support areas hit hardest by the storm.


All images courtesy of AIGA/NY Design/Relief-Seaport

In a vacant space under the FDR at John Street, the installation (which runs through Feb. 2, and is backed by an innovation grant from ArtPlace America) invites visitors to come together and share thank-you notes in a conceptual and visually stunning design for those who impacted their lives following the storm.

“Catch — & — Release aims to capture, make visible and celebrate the resilient spirit and agency of the South Street Seaport community,” program director Laetitia Wolff says. “We hope [it] helps the Seaport community imagine a shared vision for its future while celebrating its roots—cultural, historical, social, architectural, etc.—in ways that can make this place a more attractive, vibrant, desirable destination.”

After visitors pen their notes, the thank-yous are hooked—“caught”—and suspended in the air on a system of pulleys—a design inspired by the area’s deep maritime roots. As more notes are added, the cords will link and cross within the installation, which Wolff says will create a dynamic illustration of people’s connections to one another. The team also plans to set up a camera to document the changing space, and the associated concept of positive evolution.


“As messages accumulate, this installation will become a visible symbol of the unity, shared visions and social network of the South Street Seaport community,” explains Yeju Choi, the project’s lead designer.

Alongside the physical thank-you note system, Wolff adds that the project will blossom digitally when the team collects data to “visualize the connections that were made during the efforts post Sandy,” and plots them onto online maps.

Moreover, the installation represents only the dialogue-centric “Catch” phase of the project—“Release” will follow. Wolff says the collected stories and testimonials will inform the next phase of design and engagement.

Overall, “We hope to demonstrate design’s potential in defining and expanding creative place-making to positively transform communities, reinvigorate and re-establish their sense of place and identity, one site at a time,” she says of Design/Relief. “We truly hope that the trust we’ve gained over the past three months with local community organizations will build into a better understanding of design’s capacity to respond to community needs.”


Catch — & — Release was developed by Yeju Choi (designer), with Francesca Birks and Josh Treuhaft / ARUP (community engagement strategists), and Cristian Fleming and Stephanie Lukito / THE PUBLIC SOCIETY (storytellers). This installation was built by Yeju Choi, with Chat Travieso, Heechan Kim and Chris Fox.

The opening party is set for 2–6 p.m., Jan. 11. Opening remarks and presentation are scheduled for 3 p.m. The installation will be open regularly 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

The Design/Relief Creative Placemaking Winter Roundup will also be held 6:30–8:30 Jan. 14 at the Theresa Lang Auditorium – Parsons. The event is free for AIGA members, and $5 for nonmembers.


For a roundup of other proactive community-baseddesign projects—and how you might start your own—check out HOW’s Changing the World With Design: Inspiration and How-to Advice for Design Activism.