Mario Gentile melds modern form and green function, as on this roof deck he designed using Fairmount Living Tiles.
Living a green lifestyle has its pros and cons. It brings deep satisfaction in having done something good for the environment, but it often means sacrificing aesthetics for the sake of functionality. Mario Gentile has found a way to provide Philadelphians with both.
As the founder and CEO of Shift Space Design (or Shift_Design, as the company styles it), Gentile wants to meld modern form with green function: sleek tanks that harvest rainwater for reuse, a combination fire pit and ice chest made of durable stainless steel, even living roof tiles—DIY modular units complete with soil delivered in recycled burlap La Colombe coffee bags.
“Design is always paramount,” says the architect, product designer, and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “However, we really love working with the limitations of keeping our designs sustainable: What materials are we using? How much waste are we producing? How are we shipping our products? We’re cultivating a whole design ethos around these ideas.”
Appropriately, Shift_Design started organically, so to speak. After being laid off from his architecture firm in 2008, Gentile sat in his local coffee shop, 5-week-old son on his lap, and thought about his next career move.
“I was always interested in product design, but I was still into architecture,” he says. “So I started to look at the changing landscape of product design, architectural design, and sustainability. I tried to figure out where Shift_Design could fit in the world, and I realized, Let’s focus on the three largest systems”—rainwater capture, living walls, and green roofs—“but let’s also have complementary products, all the while keeping our focus on local economy.”
Fast-forward five years and Shift_Design has become an integral part of Philly’s eco-landscape. When Shake Shack opened its doors locally, patrons were as struck by the beauty of its lush trellis and green roof as they were by its sinful fries. When Urban Outfitters wanted to put a green roof on its corporate headquarters at the Navy Yard, the fashion brand called on Shift_Design to create a plan. When the University City District wanted to shield commuters from the noise and unsightliness of construction going on around 30th Street Station, it asked Gentile to install a custom modular green wall and planters, turning an eyesore into an urban respite.
And if you stop by the Independence Visitor Center, be sure to check out the living wall in its education center—Shift_Design was responsible for that as well. Gentile’s latest mission: create parklets in University City, just in time for summer. “We’re taking over a couple of parking spots and creating seating,” he says. “People can dine alfresco, and since we design them to be modular, it all can be mixed and matched.”
His eco-consciousness notwithstanding, form still leads the way in everything Gentile creates. “Design is always first,” he says passionately. “We keep the limitations of sustainability, and how we can design around these limitations is what makes us different.”