This episode features Robert Petty, Associate Principal at ZGF Architects in Portland, Oregon, and Robin Oglesbee-Venghaus, Associate Industrial Designer at the firm.

Our guests chat with hosts Dallas and John on their unique “maker-focused” in-house fabrication service. They also share their innovative and creative approach to the creation of a display at the Portland Winter Lights Festival, where they used toaster ovens to heat and form Corian Solid Surface into a backlit installation.

Take a look at the pictures below to view their make-shift toaster oven set-up and some of their final installations. Listen to the podcast now to hear the full story and visit to learn more about the architecture firm.

Full Transcript

Dallas (00:00):

Welcome to More Than Materials. I’m Dallas Gabriel, President at Willis.


John (00:12):

And I’m John Topic, Director of Marketing.


Dallas (00:15):

Each episode we’ll be joined by special guests and dive into material design trends on solutions,


John (00:21):

We’ll discuss exciting design ideas, inspirational concepts, technical aspects, and so much more so let’s explore.


John (00:35):

Hey everyone. Welcome to today’s podcast. Super excited on two special guests we have today that are joining Dallas and I – Robert Petty, Associate Principal at ZGF Architects. He’s in charge of prototyping for the firm as well as Robin Oglesbee-Venghaus, who is an Associate Industrial Designer for the firm. Just to give you a little bit of highlight on who ZGF is, they’re a firm based out of Portland, Oregon with a diverse portfolio, including healthcare and research facilities, which includes academic buildings that they design and help build mixed-use developments and so on and so forth. So guys, welcome to our podcast today. Really excited to have a conversation with you all.


Robert (01:30):

Happy to be here.


John (01:32):

Let’s start off and give you guys an opportunity to tell us a little bit about ZGF, what services you bring to property owners, developers, and general contractors.


Robert (01:47):

Yeah, I can dive into that. ZGF is very diverse. Our practice covers everything from architecture to interior architecture. We do urban planning and eco districts. So anything from micro to macro scale. The designers, we have love to focus on the whole project. So we get into the weeds with details on stuff, and then we go out to real big scale. Everything we do has an ethos of being functional and responsible to the environment as well as creating wonderful places to be. Our roles here are kind of focused more on how we bring things to life physically. So we’re shop focused. There’s kind of a maker ethos that we operate in. And there’s a lot of wonderful discovery that happens when you get hands-on with ideas.


Dallas (02:41):

Yeah. One of the questions that I had you know, you guys are very unique as you do have in-house fabrication service. Can you tell us how this helps the design process?


Robin (02:55):

Yeah, I can jump onto this a little. I think what makes the in-house fabrication unique and where it can really help the design process is when we get involved early in some of the design process and we work with the architects and designers to solve a problem that they’re coming up against. So, you know, traditionally it seems like an architect provides a set of drawings as a final deliverable, and then the contractor takes that and builds the building or, you know, whatever the design is from there. But we work in the physical realm. You know, we work in the shop, we’re actually building things. And when we get to partner with these, with the designers, we get to solve some of the problems with them that they run up against, you know, traditionally you hand that off to the contractor and the contractor makes a lot of decisions that may or may not reflect what the designer’s original thinking was. And we’ve found that the actual act of physically making the things really crystallizes the design thinking. And by doing that in conjunction with the designers, they get to be part of the design decisions that get made while you’re building something.


John (04:19):

It seems like having that in-house fabrication hands-on portion of the firm really would speed the project along post-design. Do you guys find that that really helps the general contractor and all the other subcontractors to really make the project go even faster?


Robin (04:42):

I think it goes both faster and it goes more how the designer is hoping it will go. I think one of the examples we give a lot of times is that the designers have an idea and it’s complicated. It’s something someone hasn’t done before. And if you give that to a contractor or put it out for a bid there’s going to be some thinking. And if the contractor is not totally comfortable, if they’re going to add a lot of money to that bid, right… and rightfully so, they’re going to need to put some time into figuring it out and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. So no one ever gets to find out if that worked or not. And when we get to do it, we get to make a prototype. And when we hand that to the contractor, they say, oh yeah, I see how that’s done. Okay. No problem.


Dallas (05:34):

That’s a really great point. How does it also help like with client buy-in, does it make that process easier too?


Robert (05:42):

It definitely does. Some things that ZGF has done for decades is we go into win a competition or a job, and we bring a lot of collateral with us and part to that as always a physical model or a physical prototype or something that can act as a catalyst for conversations where everybody gets to gather around this physical object, there’s almost a ritual to it. And at the end of the day, we’re building physical manifestations on this planet, right? So all your renderings and all your drawings can help explain what the intent of the project is, but having an artifact in front of you really makes it real. And so even if it’s just a model we’re doing, we’re using real materials, we’re doing metal, we’re doing glass, we do the different types of woods. There’s this real materiality to that. And I think that the effort we put into making beautiful objects that are functional, that tell a story, even if they’re just a prototype or a scale model, you know, magnifies all the way up to what the end product would be. And so that, that can from, from a client facing perspective, you know, just tell them that we know what we’re doing with material. We know what we’re doing with, with physical objects.


Dallas (06:54):

Yeah. I can imagine that that is very helpful in the process, even just for the client, to be able to understand what the intent is. And can you maybe just talk a little bit about how you’ve used your in-house fabrication shop to work with Corian Solid Surface?


Robert (07:10):

Well, Corian is an interesting one because we’ve been specking this material in healthcare for years, we have it in our office as our countertops and traditionally it’s a countertop type material. They find it in the kitchen, you find it on a work surface. And I don’t remember what really, what the project was that really did this for us, but I think we had a signage opportunity to do a donor wall. And we had a CNC Mill that we bought, and we were using it to do, to typographical basis for models. So we said, well, what happens when we carve into Corian, let’s play around with that. So we started carving Corian and we realized my goodness, you can get really fine resolution with text in Corian. And if you put a light behind it, lights up and isn’t that cool. And and then that kind of, that kind of went into like, well, what else can you do with it? What if, what if I borrow a toaster oven from my wife and throw a piece of Corian in there and melt it over a form? Oh, wow. Look at that. That’s pretty interesting. And Robin and I spent hours just kind of playing around with what you can do with the material without necessarily an end goal in mind, other than just rocks fermentation. And we really made some great discoveries, which led to some of our first fabrication projects with a solid surface.


John (08:24):

That’s amazing. You know, I think about the service and the value that the fabrication portion of what you guys offer, and I think back to, you know, here at Willis, we offer fabrication training. But I know that Gary Ness [at Willis], you know, on a daily basis is talking to architects and designers, trying to explain how the end piece of whatever was designed, how it’s going to be built. And he sits in boardrooms with the architect and the fabricator who was chosen to build the product to help them kind of build it properly so they can understand the vision. So you guys have kind of jumped beyond that and just provided that service in-house. So again, something that’s really unique and I think maybe something that other architect firms might look into to provide that service, because I really do think it speeds up the process and probably saves money in the end, right? To your to developers and contractors.


Robert (09:22):

Going back to what Robin touched upon earlier in what we were talking about, what the value is of doing this in-house, is that if you go, if you would you sub it out, if you’re going to get a sample back, you may get one shot. You know, so here’s what we think is going to work, here’s a physical proof, and maybe we make one alteration. Whereas doing that in-house means you can run through dozens of different ideas. One case in point to this, which is related to healthcare and cleanability is if you’re milling in something into Corian that you want backlight, traditionally you’re front milling it so there is a relief in the surface, and then it gets thin enough and light comes through, but you end up with a real hard chime, you know, kind of 90 degree inside corners that can collect dirt and grime. And we’ve actually seen that on some of our projects, healthcare, it’s very hard to clean. So something that we really got into was like, well, how do you chamfer those surfaces to a 45 or 60 degree angle so that there’s always a nice draft that you can get in there with a cleaning wipe, and actually clean those inside surfaces. And even beyond that, we discovered we can mill it on both sides so that you don’t have to go as far in, you can still have something that’s tactile that you can touch, but it’s really being backlit from behind. And there’s a bigger pocket behind it. And all that just happened because we spent several hours in front of our mill, just kind of iterating back and forth in real-time.


John (10:45):

Fantastic. You know, talking about playing with the material, a few years ago, I think it was back in 2017, we were approached by the Portland Winter Lights Festival to do some pro bono work. I think that’s when we really, on a closer level, started connecting as a team. We decided to obviously donate some material and said, you know, “Hey, do what you want with it? Let’s see what you guys come up with.” Tell us a little bit about that project. I know that the end outcome of that project was wonderful, so I don’t know if you guys want to touch on that a little bit.


Robin (11:23):

I can jump on the start of that. You know, I think Robert touched on this with playing with the toaster oven and like you said, that wasn’t really for our project, there was actually a model I think that was being proposed and maybe it had to be made out of some white material, futuristic material. And we were like, well, Corian is very cool futuristic. Let’s see what we can do with that. And we made a couple of little pieces and then that model didn’t happen. And that was right when you guys, I think, approach this about the Portland winter lights or when the Portland winter light started coming up. I think that was the key, right there, it was like, here’s an opportunity, we can do something really cool with this. And so we kept playing with the toaster oven and milling, like Robert said, you know, we have a CNC, so we are milling and lighting. Then we started designing, you know, we are also designers, and so we started designing this cool backlit installation. And we were thinking, you know, Corian, we can heat it, we can bend it, we can twist it, but we had a toaster oven at that point. One of the things that kind of sets our shop apart and what, you know, kind of goes back to this value-add, we looked at it and we said, okay, well, there’s purpose-built solid surface forming ovens. We don’t quite have the budget for that… but we have a toaster oven.


John (12:55):

So let’s explain to the listeners, are you literally like a four bread toaster oven or maybe just a little bit bigger?


Robin (13:01):

No, this was literally off of Robert’s countertop. I think he had to buy a new one at the end for his wife. Then what we did,we went to a Walmart or Home Depot, I think it was Walmart or Target and bought four of the biggest toaster ovens they had and cut the backs out of them and bent some sheet metal and made a seven foot long toaster oven.


Dallas (13:31):

That’s pretty innovative!


Robin (13:31):

It was kind of one of those, you know, well, what can we do, we want to build this project? And this material is so neat. So then we were able to actually form up to seven foot long pieces of Corian and that turned into this Portland Winter Lights installation.


Dallas (13:47):

Oh, that’s incredible. So now have you guysactually gotten your industrial thermoforming oven yet? Or are you still working with the modifed toaster oven?


Robin (13:57):

Yeah, we have another project that came out of the Portland Winter Lights project, you know, we did that project and we leveraged what we accomplished in that project to get another paying project and that necessitated a real size oven. We needed wider than the toaster ovens could be. We do now have the real thing. We still have the old toaster oven set up also.


Robert (14:22):

Which blows circuits when you turn it on because it draws quite a lot of power.


John (14:28):

I think we need a picture of that.


Robert (14:35):

I’d love to go back to touch on the beginning of the winter lights festival again too, because you know, ZGF has been a patron of the arts in Portland for a long time we’ve been around we’re institutional, and we have some of our senior members are on the board with the winter lights festival. And so it kind of came in the door, it’s like, Hey, what we do. And it wasn’t just us, it was Willis, it was DuPont that got on board with us and there was a couple of technology firms Uncorked Studios got on board and Dot Dot Dash, which is a local tech integrator who just knows how to bring things to life with technology. And then a local singer songwriter, Megan, McGeorge was involved as well. And so there was a group of seven or eight, very different people here that got together probably 30 stakeholders for the team and Corian was the vehicle to bring that all together because we were able to make something that was touchable. We have those pedestals that you could get your hand close to. We figured out how to do a sensor in there that would read the proximity of your hand before you even touched the material. And then, you know, it was programmed to come to life with individually addressable LEDs. And then we had a speaker system throughout it that was actually playing this original soundtrack by this musician. And that whole thing was choreographed against the backdrop of Portland in February when it hits 30 degrees and 35 mile per hour winds. So this material was being buffeted by winds, it had ice build-up on it, part of the installation collapsed, at one point we had to resurrect it. It was, it was real trial trial by fire for this material to go through. But it, it really, it performed very well and it really came to life with light and came to life with music and came to life with a touch and interaction.


Dallas (16:30):

That’s really a great story, and I was wondering if maybe you can touch on how that experience sort of shaped the, the Metro Pediatrics project that you all worked on.


Robert (16:43):

Yeah, so we, we got involved with this local pediatric clinic and they, they love the idea of just bringing life and fun and something to set their clinics apart. And they didn’t really have a specification for that. So we got, we got to kind of make it up over time with them and we’ve done, I don’t know, Robin, five or six clinics at this point for them? And part of what they wanted to do was this storytelling where you come in and you see the scene and then you get to follow character actors from that scene to your room. So maybe you see a rabbit in the waiting room, you see the rabbit in the hallway, and then there’s the rabbit again in your room. So depending on who you’re seeing and where you’re going, you can connect with that as a child. And all this kind of cumulated with this, with this big installation we did for them which was this big tree of life. And the whole trunk system and branch system was made out of Corian and plywood together with all these backlit elements that were sequenced to light up an animated. So there was butterflies fluttering through the canopy, there’s a swirl running around the trunk of the tree, and the whole thing was to be touchable and cleanable.


Dallas (17:52):

Well for our listeners, we will absolutely make sure to share photos on our social media of both the Portland Winter Lights Festival project and the Metro Pediatrics project, because I mean, really they are both just absolutely incredible, even the way that you just described the Metro Pediatrics project really kind of brings it to life in your mind. So being able to see those photos, I mean, it is incredible. It’s magical really for the children.


John (18:20):

It’s a great installation and you’re right, bringing some of those creative ideas to a space like that for children and even parents, it just is a little more uplifting versus a sterile room. So congratulations on that project, it was awesome.


Robert (18:38):

Yeah. And I know we can add a little to that. I think Robin, maybe you could talk about, because this goes back to what we were talking about earlier about doing some of this in house, the proof, the validations that this can be done, we did that for this project, but then we work with a vendor to actually do most of the fabrication.


Robin (18:57):

This is exactly what I was talking about with having a proof of concept and our ability to take the material and mill it and backlight it. Robert touched on this a little in the beginning to develop the the process of front mill and back mills, so that we’d get a shallow relief with a cleanable edge, something that’s soft to the touch, you know, a lot of this stuff, we did some under counter art in addition to the tree, it’s all at kid level. And it’s meant to be climbed on and touched and, you know, and that’s the wonderful thing about Corian being durable and fixable. It lends itself to this. So we did a proof of concept where we made a very small section of every part that was going to go into the clinic and then we worked with a local fabricator to actually do the production work. They have a bigger CNC, and then we have, they had more people to be able to, you know, pull it off in time. But what we were able to do was provide them physical samples along with digital files and you know, a spreadsheet breaking down which process for which section and carving. And we still had to go back and forth with them for a couple of samples to get the fidelity exactly how we wanted it, but they said multiple times, you know, we would have never taken this on if [Willis] hadn’t shown us it was possible.


Robert (20:34):

And then we did the installation. So they did a lot of the fabrication. And then we partnered with them on the major installation. We had a couple of their people come help us with the actual physical installation.


John (20:47):

Amazing. Now certainly an added value, like I had mentioned to your developers you work with and your end users and contractors, certainly something that is very unique. I don’t remember hearing of any other architect firm, Dallas, you may be a little bit closer than me.


Dallas (21:04):

No, I haven’t either. This is very unique. And, really John, I think you touched on it earlier, but you know, you would think that more and more firms would be looking to do something like this.


Robert (21:17):

Yeah, absolutely.


John (21:19):

Well guys we could probably talk for another hour, but I don’t think our listeners would appreciate that, but maybe we’ll talk to you guys in the near future and talk some more on newer projects you’re working on and something cool with Corian Solid Surface or other materials. Love to have you guys back on again.


Robert (21:38):

Thanks so much for having us.


Dallas (21:42):

Thanks so much for joining us today and really, too, we want to thank our listeners.We really hope that you enjoy today’s podcast.


John (21:50):

Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. For listeners who are unfamiliar with Willis, we are curators of premium design materials. Our portfolio includes Corian Solid Surface, Corian Quartz, Corian Endura, Lapitec Sintered Stone, ARPA high pressure laminate, Fenix and Kohler branded sinks and faucets.


Dallas (22:11):

Find out more about who we are and how we can assist you in your next project. Visit us at