Fiera Q&A: Studio Swine

For the first installment in our extended online coverage from this year’s Salone del Mobile Milan, an exclusive conversation between Design Anthology editor in chief Suzy Annetta and Japanese architect Azusa Murakami and British artist Alexander Groves of Studio Swine about their much-talked-about collaboration with COS at this year’s show.

Design Anthology: I’d like to talk a bit about you two first, your methods and the materials you work with, before we talk specifically about the installation here at Cinema Art in Milan.

Without going too much into the politics, how are you feeling about Brexit? Because you are of mixed nationalities and you travel quite a bit, it seems likely to influence your work. Obviously London has always been a very multicultural city, which adds to the creative scene. What are your thoughts?

Groves: Well, it just feels incredibly backwards, really. What we love about design in Milan is it so international and so open, and that’s something we want to celebrate with this piece actually. We found London very enriching for its mix of cultures — that’s what makes us like the place. It’s quite scary because we already, in the very few days since we’ve been here, have met four or five people that had galleries, or magazines, or whatever all based in London, but they are all now or already have moved back to Europe. So I think it’s going to be hugely damaging. We haven’t seen the effect of it yet, I just find it quite sad.

London has always been such a creative city, and that’s really quite shocking — I hadn’t heard of it  happening so soon.

Murakami: Even when we were students, there were maybe five British people in our class of about seventy-five. So, everyone was just from different countries. That’s what we enjoyed about being in college. We took a lot away just through conversations and learning about different cultures. So that’s inevitably going to drive people away, which is very sad. I’m originally from Japan, and I find it very hard to find a way of residing in the UK.

You studied in the UK, so you’ve been here for a long time now, right?

Murakami: I did, I’ve been in England for twenty years, but I still don’t have permanent residence. It’s a constant struggle, I have to renew my visa every two years.

Really? But you two are married, right?

Murakami: Married, but then every two years I have to renew my visa. It’s getting harder and harder every year, with the law changing all the time.

So, if you weren’t in London, where do you think you would base yourselves?

Groves: We think about that a lot, actually. We’d love to be based in America for a while, particularly in New York. We find that a really inspiring place, a lot of great energy. But we’d love to be based in Asia at some point, maybe either China or Japan. But we never really know where we’ll  be six months on. Since we started the practice, we’ve never really known. We make plans, and then just end up somewhere: we’ve lived in São Paulo, we’ve lived in Shanghai.

You just took off after you graduated. I read, that you were in São Paulo quite early on after graduating.

Murakami: That was the decision that we made because there was a lot going on in London, but at the same time it was very hard for us to realise what we really wanted to do and with everyone coming out of college, the competition was very intense. So we decided to go away and do our own thing and then coming back to London and kind of launch that project.

You’ve talked about feeling like an outsider. Is that part of being in a foreign place?

Groves: Basically, we like that feeling. We go somewhere in order to be out of our comfort zone because we find that what we love about travel is that you’re constantly reminded that there’re so many different ways to live and different perspectives that you can have. We just really like getting out of that kind of comfortable mindset and being somewhere where you don’t know anyone, you kind of have to start from scratch.

Murakami: I think when we said we feel like outsiders I was referring to the fact that we come from a non-traditional design background; I studied architecture and he studied Fine Art. So, going into design and operating in the design world feels like we’re slightly different from everyone. I think through that, we find our own way of expressing design.

Do you think that’s a hindrance or a positive thing? Obviously you look at things differently because of your backgrounds. I think it’s a positive…

Groves: Yeah, I think so. It’s positive thing.

Murakami: We like to challenge ourselves to do new things every time, so we always try something we have no preconception of with every project. I suppose that sense of naivety really pushes us to innovate, so in that way I think it’s a positive thing.

Interesting. So I’ve been reading a bit about your previous projects and it seems like some of them are inadvertently political but also very poetic. Is that something that you deliberately try and balance in the work that you do?

Groves: Yeah, I’d say we don’t set out to be overtly political. I mean, we’re interested in making things that engage with the world and various problems or situations, so I think by nature it can be quite political. But we try not to push an agenda; we like to keep our work open for interpretation. And yes, it’s always really important to us to engage, particularly with sustainability. But it’s equally important is to engage with, like you said, that kind of poetic expression as well because I think sustainability can be kind of quite dry, and un-engaging. We really think that it should be the starting point for a designer in a way — that kind of environmental constraint. We wouldn’t like to be in a kind of ‘green’ category, but I’d like it to be the starting point for design.

So would you say then that those challenges and limitations are behind what drives you?

Groves: Yeah definitely. I think that constraint really breeds innovation, so we love having certain constraints. We give ourselves constraints on each project. We try not to go for obvious materials that are already beautiful and valuable. And in general with our projects, we try to find materials that are maybe overlooked or undesirable, then use design as an agent of transformation. Because we love marble and brass and bronze all these things, but then…

Everyone is working with those…

Groves: Exactly. The thing is they are already beautiful materials, so for us we’re excited by the challenges of human hair or plastic from the ocean, for example.

They must be quite challenging to make beautiful, but you have certainly succeeded.

Groves: Thank you. The way we see it, the world doesn’t need more stuff and as designers, we are kind of responsible for making more stuff. So, let’s try and find something that at least doesn’t add to the problem and maybe can even help. Every chair that is removing three kilos of plastic out of the ocean — it’s a tiny difference, but at least it’s not adding to the problem.

So then is the narrative of what you are doing as important as the end result?

Murakami: I’d say so. We don’t really set out to, or we don’t think about, ‘Oh, we’re going make this object’, or ‘We’re going make a chair’. What we like is to create a world that people can be immersed in, so everything is working together in harmony to create this thing. And that’s the same with film, installation, object. Ultimately, I would like to create an immersive theatre performance, so it doesn’t have to be an object or design, it could be more experiential.

That’s interesting. I think you guys are really pushing the boundary between art and design, and many other disciplines actually. You’ve already talked about materials. Is there anything you haven’t worked with that you’re fascinated by and would like to experiment with?

Groves: There’s actually a few things that we’re working on, materials-wise, that we’ve been wanting to work with for a while. But we’re not really ready to talk about that further.

Murakami: We worked with this material called ebonite last year for the ‘Fordlandia’ project — it’s hardened rubber.

It looks amazing actually.

Murakami: Thank you. It used to be used quite widely before the invention of plastic, but now it has a very niche application, like clarinet mouthpieces or smoking pipe mouthpieces. We made furniture with it, but we haven’t really pushed it to the extent or fully explored potential of the material, so I think we want to continue working with it.

For the New Spring installation with COS, what was the process like? I’m quite curious to know what the brief was from them, if there was a brief and how collaborative the process was.

Groves: We were really excited to be invited to propose something to COS for Salone. They told us their core DNA, which was timelessness, modernity, simplicity and tactility. It was really a natural fit for us because a lot of those resonated with us anyway and particularly their interest in materiality. It was an incredibly open brief that really gave us space to come up with something, whatever we want to do. But they did want it to be democratic — a kind of inclusive experience.

What we really love in Italy is that public spaces have quite a lot of beautiful fountains and there’s a lot of craft and design going into the public spaces. We really love that everyone can enjoy a fountain so we saw this as an opportunity. It’s an homage to in Milan in many ways, this piece. We’ve been looking at the city, we always look at the place because we really love things with strong regional identity, so we were looking at the palazzos with their baroque chandeliers all the way through to post war industrial designers like Castiglioni, who we really love. All that has really gone into the project.

I don’t know if it was deliberate, but I get the feeling of cherry blossoms and a sense of the ephemeral — that sense of short-lived and of time slowing down. I took a video yesterday and it’s quite strange because looking at it now, it feels like as if it was filmed in slow motion but it’s all real time. It really did remind me of hanami in Tokyo, so I’m wondering if that was at all part of your thinking?

Murakami: Yes, definitely. Well, first we were thinking about Salone and the time of the year because we always work with the theme nature and industry. How can nature and industry combine together to create something new? So we definitely wanted to kind of bring in this idea of seasonality and changing of the season — so what cherry blossoms and being under cherry blossoms makes you feel. It’s only this one time, one week in the whole year that you get to enjoy cherry blossoms. It’s there and then it’s gone, and you are really in the moment and you’ll enjoy this moment and it’s slightly melancholy because you know you’re here and nothing lasts forever — that sense of impermanence. We wanted to also work with the idea of wabi sabi and bring in that as well.

I hadn’t really considered the Milan connection, but that is also a really nice connection for Salone. So how did you actually go about, I guess, creating bubbles that would interact in the way they do and the way they actually disintegrate very slowly?

Groves: Yeah, that’s the hardest question we get actually: ‘Where did you come up with the idea?’ We just have very wide interests and are very curious and really I think designers are kind of synthesizers, where you might pick one thing and you take it out of that context and you create another context for it.

So, really we were looking at a way of replicating nature, not in any direct way but in like the expression and feeling of ephemerality. We really love how bubbles are impermanent, but then we wanted to kind of transform the bubble and give it a bit more of a presence and weight. So we were looking at different ways of infusing it with mist.  We tried dry ice and various other things, but then what we really wanted was to make something very low power. So in the end, it just uses a little water vapour, then it disappears in the atmosphere and it kind of has the right way to fall quite slowly. There was a lot of prototyping and experiments to get that point.

How long was that process then?

Murakami: We got the commission in October, and we were prototyping and experimenting a lot.

Really? Wow, I thought we’re going to say a year or so at least…

Murakami: No, it was quite quick because we didn’t start properly doing the project until February this year. So all this building and prototyping, and it’s not just the device but the solution for the bubbles as well. We went through a lot of different ratios and ingredients needed to make the bubbles strong to bounce on certain fabric.

So that was something that you had in mind,  that you wanted some of them to be able to survive intact?

Murakami: Yes

Okay, wow, I can’t believe you could do that in such a short period of time. It’s incredible! And then with the actual building of the device, how involved were you in that process? Or do you work with fabricators?

Groves: Yes, we worked closely with fabricators in London because we like to keep our studio totally flexible. So it’s just Azusa and I, and then we have some people we work with a lot like a Dutch filmmaker, a German editor and we work with London-based fabricators. We wanted it to be made out of industrial material that was pre-existing with just a tiny thing to transform it. It’s aluminium scaffolding, but then we’ve had it rolled, which gives it the arches and its shape.

So, it was already tubular?

Groves: Yes, and then we also changed the colour. We had it powder-coated white so was, again, a small transformation, just to give it a softer quality. And it’s all modular. So the idea is that although we designed it to exist for a week and to make all these bubbles that disappear, we also designed it to be able to pack down easily. It can come out in different sizes — it can be bigger, it can be smaller. So after here it’ll go into storage and well, we haven’t got any plans, but the potential is there to have it come out again.

Wow, that’s great.

Groves: We didn’t want to make something that was just here for a week.

Or something that’s just going to be thrown away, that doesn’t seem like how you or COS would work. I have to say, it’s been really fun watching people interact with it over the last couple of days.

Groves: Oh good.

The kids particularly. I think there’s something about bubbles. I think we all feel like kids with bubbles. It’s quite an emotional response that people have been having — it’s a very basic kind of emotion that I think is sheer delight.

Groves: That’s nice. It’s changed a lot from what it was. You know, we’re never quite sure what it’ll be like. We just had them as pods dropping in the studio individually in a small space. So it’s really interesting seeing it completed. Also seeing it in the morning when no one’s there,and then seeing it when its absolutely packed — it’s all a different feeling.

I can imagine. How involved were you with the whole space where it is installed, and the lighting as well?

Murakami: We oversaw everything and decided this is what we wanted. Because the site, Cinema Arti, is an old 1930s cinema that is disused, we wanted to translate that feeling of, that kind of cinematic and immersive experience that people have when they come here. We want them to feel transported and not really aware of anything else. That’s why we wanted to black out everything so there’s complete darkness, so you just focus on this central structure and you are living in the moment.

The lighting is perfect as well, and the bubbles themselves feel almost otherworldly — it’s almost like they are internally illuminated.

Groves: Great!

Murakami: Actually, the music as well — we had it composed especially for the installation. It kind of symbolises the surface tension of the bubbles, so the sound kind of holds and then sways very slightly back and forth very slowly.  And there’s also scent inside the mist as well.

It’s all really quite incredible. I don’t know that there are many installations that I’ve seen that are so multi-sensorial. The smell is, it’s very subtle which is nice, yet it’s certainly something that you notice straight away. So well done, and congratulations!