Sustainable but Beautiful—Studio Swine Transforms Unusual Materials Into Objects of Desire

Sustainable but Beautiful—Studio Swine Transforms Unusual Materials Into Objects of Desire
  1. Sustainable but Beautiful—Studio Swine Transforms Unusual Materials Into Objects of Desire
    Human hair from a specialist market, plastic from the Atlantic, rubber tapped in the Amazon are some of the materials Studio Swine…

Human hair bought in a specialist market in China, plastic rubbish fished out of the Atlantic, natural rubber tapped from trees in the Amazon—these materials are hardly typical of luxury design. But that has not stopped the London-based practice Studio Swine from making furniture out of them.

As its name is meant to suggest, Studio Swine—founded in 2011 by Azusa Murakami, a 32-year-old Japanese-born architect, and her 33-year-old British artist husband, Alex Groves—likes to subvert. “The word swine is not especially desirable or glamorous,” Groves says. “Sometimes we think, Why couldn’t we call ourselves something nice? But then we are interested in taking things and changing the perception of them.”

Chief among the perceptions they want to change is how we all regard sustainability. Studio Swine aims to dust off the cardboard-and-self-flagellation reputation of sustainable design and turn it into something desirable, not just for the way it looks but in the way it’s made. They’ll be taking another step in that direction in early April, at Salone del Mobile, the gargantuan design festival held annually in Milan.

03_31_Swine_01 (2) Mist opportunity: Murakami of Studio Swine, whose Salone del Mobile installation will feature a tree “blossoming” with mist-filled bubbles. Mark Griffiths for Newsweek

As part of clothes retailer COS’s installation at the fair—in the past six years, its stand has become a favorite of the cognoscenti—the studio is using scaffolding poles to build a tree-like sculpture, titled New Spring , inside a decommissioned cinema. This tree will “blossom,” as Groves and Murakami call it, with mist-filled bubbles that then float down around visitors, bursting when they contact human skin. It’s typical of the studio’s central principle: to create what Murakami calls “maximum effect with minimal resources.”

Two weeks before they are due to ship their creation to Milan, Murakami and Groves are sitting in a fabrication unit under a railway arch in Peckham, south London. Despite the adventurous nature of their projects, the two are almost timid in conversation. Softly spoken and thoughtful, they answer questions reticently, looking to each other for support. They’re articulate, but when they can’t find the right words themselves, they quote others: Winston Churchill, Henry Ford. Even The New Yorker makes a showing.

They met at London’s Royal College of Art, where they’d both enrolled for a master’s in product design. It was a case, they say, of opposites attracting. “We wouldn’t have sought each other out, that was the interesting thing,” Groves says before Murakami interjects, “Our work was very, very different. But because we didn’t come from a traditional design background, we both had a level of naïveté about what design could be.”

03_31_Swine_02 Double Bubble: Together, Groves and Murakami would like “to design the whole world.” Mark Griffiths for Newsweek

Perhaps because of this, Studio Swine’s output is multilayered. For their graduation show in 2011, titled “Sea Chair,” they collected plastic rubbish from a beach in Cornwall in southwest England, then melted and remolded it to produce three-legged stools. Their intention was that English trawlermen could make their own stools from plastic they pulled aboard in their nets.

As well as producing furniture for each of their projects—most of which can take more than a year of research, travel and manufacturing—they create films, printed matter and, occasionally, immersive spaces. “We love designing a world,” Groves says. “In fact, we want to design the whole world. But that’s not possible.”

03_31_Swine_05 Gyrecraft, 2015. Five sculptures made of maritime debris. A touch of the high school art project or seaside souvenir shop—but still desirable. Petr Krejčí

The most complete example of this is “Fordlandia,” a project they showed at the London Design Festival in September 2016. The duo had spent over a year researching the history of an industrial town called Fordlandia, which was built in the late 1920s by American industrialist Henry Ford in the rubber-rich Brazilian rainforest and abandoned in 1934 after the development of synthetic rubber made it obsolete. Studio Swine questioned how the town might have developed had Ford’s experiment been a success, and produced a set of furniture and a film on the subject. Inspired by Brazilian tropical modernism, the furniture collection was designed for the kind of home they imagined would exist in Fordlandia today, had Ford’s project survived. For this collection, they developed a relatively environmentally friendly way of producing hardened rubber, which they used to make their furniture.

03_31_Swine_04 Fordlandia, 2016. The Studio’s Amazonian homeware collection included an armchair, chaise and lamp that were all equally funky and timeless. Petr Krejčí

As a project, it was typical of both their magpie-like working process and their commitment to sexing-up sustainable design. “When we started in college, sustainability was very frumpy,” Groves says. “But we realized it was vital that we address sustainability as designers. You can’t carry on making new stuff.” So they set about traveling the world to find new materials. In 2011, they made a series of five stools out of tin cans they picked off the streets in São Paulo, Brazil. In 2014, they took a boat from the Azores to the Canary Islands, passing through the North Atlantic Gyre, a revolving ocean current topped by what Groves describes as a “plastic soup” of floating detritus that covers thousands of square kilometers. They scooped up tiny fragments …

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