An Interactive Fence Design Combining Privacy and Discovery

Advent narrative fence concept sketch

I got a call towards the end of February regarding a potential ironwork commission in Wicker Park. The client wanted a fence to enclose his front yard, creating a private space and screening the yard from viewers on the street. In the course of talking about the project, it was also decided that a rust finish would complement the color of his brick home, and that the design should in some way appeal to the kids, since the ultimate goal was to make the yard into a safe play space.

I’ve been playing with various concepts, looking for ways to bring visual interest and playfulness to a solid steel wall. Here’s a drawing of an idea I’m quite happy with.

Advent narrative fence concept sketch

The two drawings above are of the same fence—one version with doors closed and one showing several of the doors open. The design is based on the Advent Calendars I remember from childhood—every day leading up to Christmas we were allowed to open up a new door to reveal the image inside. The surprise and suspense were always very exciting. I love the idea of a privacy fence which allows people on both sides to open up doors and look into the fence, without actually compromising the privacy of the yard! Unless doors were open on both sides simultaneously, it would not be possible to see through the fence into the yard or street. If desired, the images inside the fence could have a backing to make it impossible to see through the fence.

The images I used for the open door version are pretty much random. In the final version, each panel might tell a story using images in sequence like a comic strip or fairy tale book. Or the images could be based on each family member’s favorite things, whether sports, animals, etc.. There’s quite a bit of potential to customize the design to fit any taste.

Although the actual fence will have a fairly uniform rust finish, I’ve used different colors in the drawings to make the images easier to read. To get a good idea of how the project would really look when realized in steel, check out the shaker style steel furniture made by Jim Rose. The face construction of the fence would be very similar to his cabinets, which have always been some of my favorite work done in steel.

The drawing below comes from an idea I’ve been playing with for years… the images used for each panel are carved wooden doors made by the Dogon, a tribe which lives in the Homburi Mountains in the southwestern portion of the Sahara Desert in Africa. I’ve always wanted to do steel replicas of these doors for the entrance to my metal shop. This would be a simpler project than the Advent Fence, because the relief images could be simple cut shapes attached to each side of the fence… no moving parts, no double wall construction. Essentially a relief mural in steel.


Dogon door narrative fence concept sketch


Again, as with the Advent Fence design, the images for the final project are open to a wide selection. I think the fence would look great as a straight-up recreation of the Dogon granary doors, but it might be even more interesting to do a fence which tells a story of a family or to try to capture the local myths of our own culture.

But I spent all day yesterday thinking about what the driving story of our culture is, and I have to admit I didn’t find any easy answers. Is it Star Wars? Apocalypse Now? The Westward Expansion? The Bible? The Age of Science? the Immigrant Experience? The Wizard of Oz? I think almost everyone would choose a different story as their touchstone for the American cultural experience… Which is actually a pretty interesting thing to think about, even if it didn’t help me get the drawing done…

So for the preliminary drawing I’ve just used images of the traditional doors. If this design were chosen, then the goal would be to decide what stories the family wanted to tell and find ways to express those tales visually. Once you know what story you are telling, this becomes a much easier process. Trying to come up with a story just as a guess can take quite a while.

One of the best things about both these designs is that they fit my criteria of being adaptable enough that I could make endless multiples of them without repeating anything but the basic concept… Because anyone who commissioned a project would likely want to tell their own story, or fit the design to the local setting, the overall concept becomes a device that can be site-specific and oriented to the local community. Which means that if you like the idea and would be interested in talking about a similar project in your area, you should give me a shout!