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Piece Work

tangram International puts it all together



Steel Swift sounds like the name of a super-hero, although the man who goes by that moniker declares he’s anything but. “It is my name, it was my middle name, it comes from my grandmother’s maiden name, which is a Boston tradition,” Swift says. “I come from a long line of whalers from New Bedford. Now I’m in good old Bedford.” 

 
Swift and wife Tricia, whose desks have been side by side for 28 years, are principals in Tangram International, an award-winning design shop specializing in retail environments, trade shows, and special events. Their company designs and produces environments that present clients’ products in remarkable ways. Their top-notch client roster includes, among many others, CNN, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Sony Pictures Television, Vanity Fair, Variety, Bravo, and—locally—Katonah Museum of Art and Rippowam Cisqua. “Brands come to us looking for ways to connect with consumers,” Steel says over coffee at the Bedford Post. “Our approach is experiential. We create environments that directly connect with people on a gut level, where they live. We’re looking for a response that is visceral.”
 
“Every great project is a collaboration,” Tricia says of the brainstorming that goes on with clients. While the Swifts live in Bedford, Tangram lives in a 25,000-square-foot space in Pleasantville. Employing 30 people, it also has offices in Los Angeles and Cannes, France. Tricia is CFO; Steel is in charge of sales and marketing; and a third partner, Aiden Corish, who originally hails from Dublin, is chief designer. The work happens, um, swiftly. “From concept to completion, the average job takes six weeks,” Steel says. 
 
The company name is inspired by a popular Chinese puzzle game called a tangram, where seven flat pieces, including different-sized hypotenuse triangles, a square, and a parallelogram, can be turned into an uncountable number of shapes—animals, people, and everyday objects. Steel describes what Tangram does as “creativity delivered. We articulate modern culture through new forms at the intersection between art and production.”
 
After 25 years in business, Steel says the biggest impact has come, not surprisingly, from the computer-science industry. “Computers make it easier to produce complicated things,” Steel says. “They push harder at mimicking the craft of hand finishing.” He might be speaking of the 25-foot-wide-by-eight-foot-tall paint-by-numbers mural Tangram produced for Converse. The firm was recently featured in an issue of Event Design in the “Best Practices” section; and at a trade event last spring, their work for Nike took a “Best in Show.” This past summer, an installation for Havaianas sandals appeared in Bendel’s tony Fifth Avenue window.
 
Having produced environments displayed around the world, Tangram is just as proud of its efforts close to home, such as the children’s learning center created for the Katonah Museum of Art. “We designed and built it 15 years ago and it still looks great,” Tricia says. “The museum does an amazing job of maintaining it.” The Swifts also produce environments for Ripp, handling the school’s biannual auction as well as internal events. “At some point, all of our four children have gone there,” Tricia says of her brood, two of whom are now in college; two more enrolled in the Bedford Central Schools. 
 
So can what happens at Tangram technically be called art? “I call it flexibility within a framework,” Steel says. “Origami with a purpose.”  

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