For Alexan­der Groves and Azusa Mu­rakami of Stu­dio Swine, de­sign be­gins with in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Their ex­per­i­men­tal, of­ten melan­cholic work seeks to un­cover sto­ries and feel­ings lost be­neath the sur­face Text by Gio­vanna Dun­mall

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Every project by Lon­don’s Stu­dio Swine be­gins the same way: by ac­cu­mu­lat­ing a mas­sive amount of re­search By Gio­vanna Dun­mall

at this year’s Mi­lan De­sign Week, you were handed a sin­gle fab­ric glove. In­side the dim room was an il­lu­mi­nated white tree with curved branches pro­duc­ing lightly scented bub­bles every eight sec­onds. If you tried to catch them on your bare skin, they popped in­stantly, but if you were care­ful, you could hold one on a gloved hand for a few mem­o­rable mo­ments. Al­lur­ingly sim­ple yet de­cep­tively rich and lay­ered, New Spring – a po­etic and sculp­tural col­lab­o­ra­tion by Lon­don-based Stu­dio Swine and min­i­mal­ist Scandi fash­ion brand COS – de­lighted young and old for what, in the so­cial me­dia age, felt like an eter­nity.

Founded by Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Azusa Mu­rakami and Bri­tish artist Alexan­der Groves, Stu­dio Swine has made waves with its ex­per­i­men­tal, thought­ful and re­search­driven work ex­plor­ing such di­verse top­ics as marine waste, sci­ence fic­tion, the hu­man hair in­dus­try in China and a for­got­ten city in the Ama­zon. For New Spring, the ref­er­ences the hus­band-and-wife duo drew on were equally wide-rang­ing and eclec­tic.

One source of in­spi­ra­tion, they tell me, was Ital­ian cin­ema. An­other was the mes­mer­iz­ing foun­tains and rich pub­lic spa­ces of Ital­ian cities. “One of the things we re­ally love in Italy is this great sense of lux­ury you get in the pub­lic realm,” says Groves. The tree also paid trib­ute to the large chan­de­liers found in Mi­lanese palazzi as well as the tra­di­tion of mod­ernist de­sign born in the north­ern Ital­ian city, ex­em­pli­fied by the Castiglion­i brothers’ fa­mous arched Arco floor lamp. The de­sign­ers likened the evanes­cence of the wa­ter, air and vapour glob­ules to the flow­ers of Ja­panese cherry trees that blossom for only one week a year. “We were in­ter­ested in the melan­cholic side of the ex­pe­ri­ence, this ac­knowl­edge­ment of the im­per­ma­nence of things,” ex­plains Groves.

This multi-faceted ap­proach is typ­i­cal of Mu­rakami and Groves, who have an open­ness and cu­rios­ity to­ward other dis­ci­plines and ma­te­ri­als. Groves stud­ied fine arts at the Ruskin in Ox­ford, whereas Mu­rakami – who moved from Ja­pan to a U.K. board­ing school at the age of 12 in a bid to “learn English and more about the world” – stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture at the Bartlett. They met while do­ing an M.A. in prod­uct de­sign at Lon­don’s RCA, where the course proved re­ward­ing but largely con­cep­tual. “We are still just as bad at mak­ing things as be­fore!” they both ex­claim, laugh­ing. Un­der the tute­lage of the likes of Jur­gen Bey and Tord Boon­tje, their eyes were opened “to how rich in nar­ra­tive de­sign is, and how it can en­gage with peo­ple and pub­lic space in a way that changes be­hav­iour and per­cep­tions.”

Stu­dio Swine’s work is in­fused with this sense of nar­ra­tive, driven by an al­most ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ap­proach and a de­sire to ex­pose so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. The duo’s 2012 Sea Chair project – which in­volved at­tach­ing to each chair the co­or­di­nates of where the plas­tic to make it was fished out – be­came not only an ur­gent com­ment on the “plas­tic soup” our oceans are fast be­com­ing, but also a tan­gi­ble way of hon­our­ing place. By mak­ing the chairs at sea, the de­sign­ers also ref­er­enced the car­pen­ters who trav­elled with sailors and whalers in or­der to re­pair ships; in their down­time, these car­pen­ters would turn pieces of drift­wood and whale tusks into boats and sculp­tures.

“In a way, what we do is a form of jour­nal­ism, but the end re­sult is an ob­ject,” ex­plains Groves. Mu­rakami agrees that there is an ob­jec­tiv­ity about their ap­proach. “Of­ten we don’t re­ally have an opinion at the end of do­ing some­thing, we just want to present peo­ple with an idea or ex­pose some­thing that hasn’t been seen this way be­fore.”

Like old-school re­porters, Mu­rakami and Groves use as many ana­logue as dig­i­tal sources, be­liev­ing that “the best re­search isn’t nec­es­sar­ily pos­si­ble through dig­i­tal chan­nels.” They knew they were on to a great story with the hu­man hair in­dus­try in China when they found “made in China” hair­pieces in East Lon­don but couldn’t find any­thing about the man­u­fac­tur­ing process on­line. The ac­ces­sories, vases and mir­rors they ended up mak­ing out of strands of hair en­cap­su­lated in bio-resin show the duo’s un­canny abil­ity to trans­form dis­re­garded, ugly or waste ma­te­ri­als into beau­ti­fully crafted and cov­etable pieces. “We’ve al­ways thought of de­sign as an agent for trans­for­ma­tion,” says Groves. “It’s re­ally ex­cit­ing when you can change peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of some­thing.”

Their in­ves­ti­ga­tions are open-ended, al­ways ready to trans­form or to ac­cu­mu­late lay­ers. Ford­lan­dia, the most re­cent ma­jor project by Mu­rakami and Groves, is still evolv­ing. It be­gan in the Brazil­ian rain­for­est, where they

in­ves­ti­gated the trou­bled legacy of Henry Ford’s pi­o­neer­ing but ul­ti­mately doomed vi­sion of com­bin­ing in­dus­try and na­ture in a utopian city. Ford­lan­dia’s first phase re­sulted in a se­ries of lav­ish seats and ob­jects made from hard­ened nat­u­ral rub­ber and other sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als found in the area, but the work con­tin­ues. “We never just want to do a chair on its own; we want it to be a prod­uct of a land­scape or the cul­tural his­tory of a place,” says Groves. The next phase will see the pair head to New York and Detroit to work with the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. “What we do won’t nec­es­sar­ily re­sult in a car,” he con­tin­ues, “we are go­ing to use ar­ti­san pro­cesses used in cus­tom car work­shops and ap­ply that to other pieces.”

At the mo­ment, Groves and Mu­rakami are busy putting fin­ish­ing touches on a seven-me­tre Corten steel sculp­ture that will be re­vealed in Lon­don’s City Road in late au­tumn. The piece is their sec­ond project for a prop­erty de­vel­oper; Benches of Tra­di­tion, the first, paid trib­ute to the his­toric mak­ers, mer­chants and tai­lors of St. James’s, in Lon­don’s May­fair dis­trict. Mu­rakami and Groves say they are very se­lec­tive about the com­mer­cial projects they take on, yet it’s in­evitable af­ter the crit­i­cal and so­cial me­dia suc­cess of New Spring that they will be of­fered more. As the COS and St. James’s col­lab­o­ra­tions at­test, the pair is un­likely to com­pro­mise on its ex­ploratory ap­proach and unique aes­thetic. As long as that holds true, the re­sults will con­tinue to be re­ward­ing and un­ex­pected, tap­ping into ma­te­ri­als, sto­ries and lay­ers we hadn’t con­sid­ered. stu­

← ← The Ford­lan­dia col­lec­tion ex­presses its au­to­mo­tive her­itage through ex­ten­sive use of Ebonite (a hard­ened rub­ber that pre­dates Bake­lite) made with sus­tain­able ma­te­ri­als from the Ama­zon. This Ebonite lounge chair also uses fish leather. ← Alexan­der...

New Spring, a tree that re­leases scented soap bub­bles, was an im­mer­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Stu­dio Swine and fash­ion brand COS. It was a break­out hit dur­ing Mi­lan De­sign Week.

The Gyre­craft se­ries trans­forms waste plas­tic re­moved from oceans into beau­ti­ful new ob­jects. The plas­tic was melted down with a por­ta­ble so­lar ex­truder and com­bined with other found ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing green abalone shell, brass and rope.

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