In the Studio with Stephen Schaum: Planetary Geometries and the New Transcendentalism


Stephen Schaum’s studio/living space is the former finishing room of the Bedi-Makky Foundry, sited on a short industrial street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Schaum gives me a tour and introduces me to its director Istvan Makky before we settle down to discuss how Schaum incorporates neuroaesthetics, philosophy, algorithmic processes, geometry, instruments that measure nature, and computer milling to projects that range from a villa in Spain to time-based art. His collaboration on the ESSM Project in Madrid, Spain transforms a four-story villa into a unique dwelling filled with ever-changing natural light. This collaboration with architects Kenneth Kim/Paula Rosales of MOREMAS architects unifies and opens the interior spaces with an L-system pattern of hexagons that creates an ethereal overall design. ESSM employs innovative materials, computational design, CNC milling, and Moorish influences.

ESSM Project, Exterior view, Madrid, Spain. architects: MOREMAS.  photo: Jesús Granada

ESSM Project, Exterior view, Madrid, Spain. architects: MOREMAS. photo: Jesús Granada

“We wanted to introduce a sense of timelessness through light and pattern,” the artist related. “Neil Katz, a computational designer based in Chicago, assisted me with the algorithmic processes. I studied computational design as well as neuroaesthetics at Harvard, and I wanted to introduce a natural transcendental experience by connecting the rhythm of L-systems with Islamic tiling geometry. Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau used nature more as an escape from modern life. New transcendental energies are about moving through the world and time (in a new way). Objects, patterns and the sensations of the world are vehicles and catalysts for this experience. All art is a transmission — a direct energy transfer.”

ESSM Project, Second floor South view, Madrid, Spain. architects: MOREMAS. photo: Jesús Granada

ESSM Project, Second floor South view, Madrid, Spain. architects: MOREMAS. photo: Jesús Granada

First the interior was totally gutted to open up all of the spaces inside and around the spiral stairwell. The villa’s interior was treated as a continual surface, and Schaum helped to design a nonrepeating pattern of hexagons to encircle the entire interior space. “Whenever there was a door or window,” Schaum explained, the pattern would increase in depth and perforate the surface so that light would penetrate through the geometry. When the sun crosses the building overhead, it creates an ephemeral dynamic pattern that moves throughout the space – kind of like how light shifts through the canopy of a forest. It was an interesting opportunity – using light and triggering different experiences of the space over time.”[i]

The villa’s south façade was all windows that used CNC milled Corian,[ii] a translucent nonporous material, on the whole south facade. According to Wikipedia, “Corian is the brand name for a solid surface material created by DuPont. It is composed of acrylic polymer and alumina trihydrate (ATH). Corian can be thermoformed by heating it to 300 °F (150 °C), allowing unique shapes to be created.” Although its primary use is in kitchen countertops and domestic settings, Corian is used for surface treatments by high end designers including Chanel and Louis Vuitton and also is featured in Japanese artist Mariko Mori’s solo exhibition at Japan Society. As Schaum described it, the Corian material and the overall patterns themselves produce different gradations of light and also suggest the hexagon’s use at The Alhambra and in southern Spanish architecture.

Schaum’s education, travel, and other projects have all contributed to the creation of ESSM. “The real education for an artist begins on the inside … developing a strong connection to and identification with one’s source of intuition,” Schaum related. “My practice is about observing the sensory patterns and energies in my environment and transducing them into different forms and states of energy, in a way becoming those states and creating vehicles for others to connect with them. Objects, environments, sounds, light are just prisms through which these patterns and energies express themselves…We are the same. What is it like to be the wind, the planets, the ocean, the unknown space? They are all inside of us…we are nature, as Pollack said. Art can be seen as a type of activation or transmission in this way…becoming those states, and achieving a sense of openness to the irrational, to space…Conceptually, it’s about transferring from a conceptual perspective to a felt presence…letting the mind go…and becoming that which we observe. That is the discipline. Art is a practice and expression that allows the observer to connect to and identify with these other states of consciousness…astralcathetic in a way.”

Schaum was born in Santa Monica, California in 1970. Between 1986 and 2000, he served as an assistant and apprentice to Greg Wyatt at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the Bedi-Makky Art Foundry known for it lost wax and French sand casting methods over its 80-year history, stone sculptor Minoru Niizuma (in Japan), and Marisol. Schaum helped construct large scale public sculpture and became adept at fabricating and finishing wood, stone, metal, and new media.

Four Suns Quanta, 2011. 4--channel video installation, Still image.

Four Suns Quanta, 2011. 4–channel video installation, Still image.

Between 2004 and 2010, Schaum’s self-directed studies took him to the Gallatin/I.T.P. program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, which specializes in interactive multimedia technologies, where he focused on the translation of dynamic patterns in nature into sound, form and light. This led to spending the next spent two years in Stockholm at the Royal University College of Art (KKH) where he was as a resident artist in sculpture, while he also participated in Stockholm’s Institute of Electroacoustic Music (EMS). In Sweden, continuing his focus on dynamic patterns in nature, he spent a week on Oja, a small island in the southern archipelago. Using an Edirol 4-channel sound recorder, video camera, ananometer (wind sensor), and photo cells that measure sunlight over time, he captured environmental data during a storm; he then transferred these patterns into sculptural reliefs and sonic compositions. At Harvard University, Schaum earned his Master’s degree in neuroaesthetics and philosophy in a self-directed program in the Graduate School of Design. One project, Four Suns Quanta, compressed a year of sunlight into an hour-long rhythmic gray scale video designed to move one’s awareness from the conceptual mind back into body awareness/consciousness. Schaum has been eager to form deeper understandings of neural and other measurable human bodily responses in relation to nature and art. During travels in Bhutan, he observed that the rhythmic variations of patterns throughout the constructed and natural environment developed certain frequencies of sensory stimulation which were captured in the art forms and aesthetic choices of the culture.

Schaum is also part of an experiential design collective called studioeika, which is based in New York. Through these practices and collaborations, whether in art or design, he hopes to elaborate his vision of a new transcendentalism. His art is in public collections in Stockholm, New York, Nashville, and Iwate-Machi, Japan, and he has exhibited at these and other locations. His websites are and A version of this essay appears at: 

By Jan Garden Castro

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[i] From studio visit/interview with Stephen Schaum, October, 2013. Used with artist’s permission.

[ii] CNC is a water-based computer numerical cutting system usually used on aluminum milling.

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