The Kalakala: An iconic 20th century vision of our maritime future

This piece begins with a historical overview of the Ferry M.V. Kalakala, a fascinating piece of living, floating retrofuturism from the U.S. Northwest. Then, we learn about creating a one-of-a-kind Kalakala sculpture with Rik Allen, a renowned glass artist and sculptor, and Ted Lagreid, who commissioned the sculpture.  

Introduction: Ted Lagreid

Archival image of the ship The Kalakala on the water.

Launched in 1935, the Ferry M.V. Kalakala is believed to be the world’s first streamlined ship. It was the result of a visionary owner of a ferry system that operated in Puget Sound, the body of water that the City of Seattle was built around. It was considered Seattle’s iconic object from its launch until the erection of the Space Needle in 1962 for the “Century 21” world’s fair.

While in many ways an experiment, the Kalakala was most often perceived as a sign of forward thinking, progress, and a desire to embrace the future. It came on the scene just as commercial aviation (with Seattle-based Boeing being a major player) was making important technological leaps. Designed by a Boeing draftsman, the Kalakala was issued the first-ever commercial radar license in the U.S. Its aerodynamic configuration and silver-colored skin was striking and unprecedented.

The Kalakala operated for 32 years, until the service demands of the ferry system (now operated by the State of Washington) required much larger vessels. It was 276 feet long and 56 feet wide and carried both automobiles and walk-on passengers. Due to a series of questionable decisions, the ship suffered through a period of ignominy until it was eventually scrapped in January of 2015. But even in its demise, it had a haunting presence, and an unwillingness to succumb to the ravages of time and neglect.

The encouraging news is that the City of Kirkland, WA, where the Kalakala was originally built, is undertaking a renewed vision for the Kalakala. It was able to secure key parts of the ferry’s unique pilot house and bridge, and is currently in the midst of a process to re-envision this portion of the ship and create an adaptive reuse of it. Hopefully, this reuse will communicate provocative ideas about technological innovation and scenarios about the future – an entirely appropriate task for what was in its time a strikingly bold and futuristic creation.


Interview, Sculpting the Kalakala: Rik Allen and Ted Lagreid

Joey Eschrich, Project Hieroglyph: How did you two become inspired to work on this Kalakala sculpture?

Ted Lagreid: I was always fascinated with the Kalakala, from the first time I saw it. It’s the first art deco ship ever built and it was the first non-military vessel licensed for radar; it had Radar License 001. And it was such an exciting thing as a kid to see the Kalakala streaming across Puget Sound.

Side view of Rik Allen's sculpture of The Kalakala.Rik Allen: I’m not a native of the Northwest like Ted, but I’d seen images of the Kalakala and it’s incredible, and it was just kind of waiting down at the waterfront for me to look at and begin working on. I was immediately attracted to it aesthetically; it’s a beautiful and very unusual ship.

And when I learned how old it was, it baffled me, and I thought it was amazing that they built it at the time they did, in the 1930s. It’s stunningly ahead of its time: it looks like something that came out of the 1960s. The sleek steel hull, and the lines on it, are gorgeous. Finding out later that it had an arc-welded hull, which was unprecedented, and learning about the radar and its other unique features, it became even more intriguing.

Joey: Rik, you usually work with speculative rockets and spacecraft. Did you approach the selection of materials and techniques differently for the Kalakala, because this is a real object that came out of a particular historical moment?

Ted: When I asked Rik to do the piece, I started by saying that I didn’t want a replica. I wanted Rik’s interpretation of this iconic vessel – something recognizable, but not an exact copy. I wanted Rik to have plenty of latitude in bringing the Kalakala to life.

The Red Chair from Rik Allen's sculptures.One of the signatures in Rik’s work is a small red chair located, sometimes almost hidden, at a key point within the object – whether it’s a starship or a ferry. I asked Rik if he could include a red chair in this piece, and he agreed to do it. That was important to me because it’s one of the connecting messages of Rik’s work that resonates with me, this notion of the red chair and what it symbolizes.

Rik: Technique-wise, my sculpture is very different from the Kalakala. The piece looks mostly metallic, but it is in fact mostly glass. I wanted to bring out the ship’s unique shape. The lines on it are unusual and quite beautiful, and they just happen to be conducive to the way I work in glass. So I pulled that iconic form out of a glass form, and then built it up piece-by-piece, and replaced what would normally be the pilot house with a glass bubble and the little red chair.

As for the little red chair, it’s come to mean a lot of things to different people. I think of it as a placeholder for your consciousness to sit down, place yourself inside the vessel, and capture an imaginative moment or an adventure. I also feel like sometimes the vessels I create, including the Kalakala, are kind of a representation of your own body, human life, the little red chair behind your eyeballs experiencing life and looking forward.

Rik Allen's sculpture The Navigator.
Navigator, 2009

Ted: Years ago, I remember reading something that said, next time you’re looking at the stars, don’t just think about looking at the stars; think of yourself as the captain or pilot of spaceship Earth, a large spherical vessel that’s moving through space. I never forgot that image. And when I first saw Rik’s red chair on another piece called Navigator, which is really stirring when you’re in its presence, that image really came through.

Rik: One of the reasons I chose that particular style of chair is that it’s so common – almost everyone has sat in that simple style of chair. When I was in junior high school, we sat in a very similar type of stackable red chair.

I remember the moment in my first biology class in junior high, when we were talking about how flies develop from embryos all the way up to complex flying creatures. I grew up in a Catholic household, and nobody in my family really had a science background. Everything scientific was tinged with mystery. I assumed that flies just popped into being out of the ground somehow. Learning about the development of the fly through all of these stages blew my mind. It was that moment where I became curious about science and began to imagine all sorts of things. That was a pivotal moment, and I was sitting in my own literal little red chair when it happened.

Joey: The Kalakala was the first vessel that was built using arc welding, which gives it a sleekness that you wouldn’t be able to achieve using traditional riveting. There is such a fluidity to the glass sculptures that you create. Does the Kalakala lend itself to being rendered in glass, because of its unique shape?

Rik Allen and his sculpture of The Kalakala.Rik: One of the wonderful things about working in glass is that liquidity: that it can flow and take on forms in ways that would be difficult to realize in metal or other materials. It would take a lot more effort, and you’d really be forcing the material into those shapes. With glass, it very naturally falls into the Kalakala’s teardrop form – the edges of it are just like a teardrop cut in half. I did use some metal in this piece; it’s worth noting that the glass Kalakala is covered in a silver veneer.

Ted: There’s an engineering and physics aspect to the shape of the Kalakala, too. The ship doesn’t have a draft behind it – there is no air draft, like when you’re driving down the freeway behind a semi truck, and it pulls you down the road. The unique shape of the ship eliminates that draft, which is part of why it was so beautiful and fluid in motion on the water, despite being very much a utilitarian vessel. The guy who designed the Kalakala, Louis Proctor, was an engineer at Boeing, and you can really see that connection to innovations that we were making in the aerodynamics of aircraft in the 1930s.

Joey: Rik, can you tell us a little bit about how you conduct research for your sculptures? We’ve talked about your role as an interpreter of these historical vessels, or a creator of speculative starships. How do you gather the information you need to create something new, or interpret something that already exists?

Rik Allen's sculpture of the Starship Enterprise.Rik: With something like this, or with the sculpture of the Starship Enterprise that I did for the Roddenberry family, I was able to look at a huge number of images, letting those soak into my brain, and then get my sketchbook and see what the vessel would look like as it’s interpreted through my lens. And that reflects my working style more generally: I start by looking at images of technological and scientific creations and phenomena related to the project, and then I sketch forms and try to see how the forms take shape, without putting too heavy of a burden on my brain to render them in any one particular way.

Joey: As you’re translating these huge vessels into small sculptures, I imagine you have to be careful about the details that you have to lose as you miniaturize, while still retaining a sense of the grandeur and complexity of the object. How do you balance the overall emotional feel and aesthetic impact with a desire to capture small details?

Rik: In many cases, I get interested in one aspect of a craft I’m sculpting, like a massive starship engine, and try to make that the visual focus of the piece. I’m not constrained by realistic technology in many of my projects, which is nice; it gives me the freedom to pursue things I find interesting, and see how they work out as I integrate them into larger pieces.

For some pieces, parts of the form are made separately, in the glass shop. In those cases, I’ll build up the larger piece gradually, using almost an engineering approach, and try to get the form to stand up, and work out the kinks as I go along. Other pieces are made entirely in the glass studio, and then it’s almost like improv jazz, where you’re working with different people and you often draw in chalk on the floor, or on chalkboards in the studio, and work out the details of the form as it’s being made, and see where it goes. That’s when the most exciting things happen, when you evolve your process as you go and make decisions on the spot.

Joey: Many of your pieces are mixed media, incorporating a variety of materials, especially metals along with the glass. Is it important for you to keep glass as the dominant, primary form in your sculptures?

Rik: Yes, exactly. In the mixed media pieces, it’s important to build around the little theater that’s created in the interior, so that the red chair becomes amplified by a glass bubble – an atmosphere that’s built all around it. Ideally, you have this little atmosphere within the vessel, so you can peer inside and find the red chair, and see what’s going on in there.

The Red Chair in the sculpture of The KalakalaThe metal work is aesthetically interesting, but it all goes to support the interior. I want the vessels I create to be very cool and interesting to look at from afar, but hopefully you’re drawn to the interior. Sometimes I go overboard on the exterior because I can get too nerdy about the process, especially if it’s a technique I’ve just figured out. The danger is that the piece gets bogged down in too much metal detail, which distracts the viewer from the interior of the vessel.

Ted: I think that one critical element of Rik’s work in glass is the unique way glass interacts with light. Obviously we use glass for lenses and all kinds of other things, but glass also has these astounding refractive and reflective and absorptive capabilities. Building these pieces in glass enables them to capture and transmit light in strikingly unique ways that capture the imagination.

When you watch the process of dealing with a material that goes back and forth between a liquid and a solid in about ninety seconds, and is shifting over several hundred degrees in temperature in the process, you need to have both the technical and improvisational abilities that Rik is describing, and that he manifests in his work. You’ve got to be able to manage the heat that changes the nature of the material, and control its natural fluidity, and I think that Rik’s skill with channeling that fluidity is carried right into the finished object once it cools.

Joey: I think that the way these sculptures interact with light connects to what we’ve been discussing about the little red chair and the sense of an interior, imaginative journey.

Ted: Yes, I agree. At my house, where we have some of Rik’s work on display, people will try to look through the back ends of the sculptures, so they can see the insides. The way Rik designs many of his space-themed pieces incorporates a thrust component, so there is an opening that not only represents the thrust and launch process, but also lets viewers see inside. It’s like you’re sneaking a peek at the cockpit, and it absolutely captivates people. You’re drawn to the sculptures by the form and the appearance of the overall object, but what really hooks you is when you start thinking about being inside it, and thinking about why you’d be inside this magnificent futuristic vessel. And the reason is, to go out and embark on a voyage, to pursue exploration, whether it’s personal or scientific.

All images courtesy of Rik Allen. To see more of Rik’s work, visit his digital portfolio.