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Features / Furniture Design

Digging on Swine: Studio Swine tell us about how a sense of place shapes their design approach

First published in Printed Pages Winter 2014

Words by

Madeleine Morley

Photograph by

Tom Cockram

I get lost on my way to meet with Studio Swine. I can’t find their studio – or I think it’s their studio – which is where we have arranged to meet. It’s in a place called Yard House which doesn’t appear to have a number and is one of those few places that doesn’t come up on my Google maps. It’s supposedly situated somewhere along the A road of Stratford High Street in east London. Trucks and cars are whizzing past me to my left, and to my right are wire-fenced scrap yards and anonymous London-brick buildings, as well as a Porsche shop and the looming golden arches of a McDonalds.

Eventually, after exploring random cul-de-sacs littered with rubbish, I find it tucked behind one of the industrial buildings; a fragile-looking structure that looks like a cartoon house made from pastel coloured, overlapping scales of wood. Azusa Murakami and Alex Groves – the pair making up the award winning design studio who have been nominated for Designs of the Year – stand outside, dressed in geometric layers of colour and lumberjack patterns. They look a bit like a 21st Century re-imagining of designer dream team Ray and Charles Eames. Like Eames, Azusa and Alex are a couple; they’re pioneers of new technologies and materials; they’re interdisciplinary and create films and exhibitions that correspond with their designs; and they’re interested in everything from ecology and philosophy to poetry and machines.

Alex explains to me that this is a temporary workspace, and that they can’t show me any of their work because it’s scattered in different places. Then, before I have a chance to turn my tape recorder on and sit down, he’s already telling me about their latest project. “We’ve recently won a competition to make a series of benches for a public seating area in the new St. James’ market, so we’ve just come from seeking advice from an outdoor seating specialist.”

Alex talks quickly and knowledgably, eager to share as much information and as many stories as quickly as he’s able; “It’s our first big commission. Each bench is inspired by different crafts on Jermyn Street and we’ll tell the story of say, shoemaking or tie making in St. James through a bench. So it’s not just a bench, but also an exploration of the area, and there will be some really surprising materials that hark back to local traditions. We’re interested in how design and material can give a sense of place.”

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Azusa chimes in, she’s composed and thoughtful, and she continues Alex’s trail of thought as if she’s done so many times. “The material is important, because instead of getting material delivered to us, we’re investigating the source – the root of the thing.”

Azusa and Alex have been many places and dealt with many materials – from human hair gathered along the Silk Road in China to discarded cans picked up on the streets of São Paulo. In the fast-paced internet era, a sense of place seems to be liberating, connecting people not to their cyber surroundings but to their physical ones instead, grounding people in their unique time and location. Studio Swine sees design as having this localising power, and Alex, who is always carefully collecting data and relishes information, believes that it’s achieved through the combination of cultural history, craft tradition and available resources.

“We’ve found that this approach gives us a really interesting constraint. You’re looking around and seeing what’s naturally abundant, and these surrounding constraints mean that you can innovate.”

In 2011, after graduating from the RCA where they met on the Design Product Course, the pair embarked on a design exploration trip to San Paulo. It was not only their first collaboration together, but also their first collaboration with a geographical place. Their philosophy emerged from necessity, and from an engagement with their local surroundings. “Every day we walked around the streets for 10 to 15 hours, in this blistering heat. We were trying to understand San Paulo, and we were looking for inspiration, for things that we could do.”

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“We were walking everywhere because we didn’t have anywhere to go,” says Alex. “We were recent graduates and we’d applied to everything but everyone had said no.” An architect by training with particular enthusiasm for Rem Koolhaas, Azusa honed in to the spatial layout of the city and how its inhabitants interacted with public space. Alex became interested in the abundance of materials littering the streets, scattered around as if waiting to be found and re-configured into something new. He’s intrigued by things like the fact McDonald’s in different countries sell products specific to local tastes – macaroons in France and dumplings in China – and they always make sure to check the McDonald’s menu when they’re in a new country.

While in San Paulo, and without a studio to think or build in, the pair realized that the street could become their studio space – this was the beginning of Can City. Inspired by the locals’ food carts made from materials found in skips, Studio Swine built a mobile furnace which they could use to melt down aluminum cans. They’d then use the melted metal to make stools right on the spot – producing a product that was also a kind of portrait of the streets, and melding together the unwanted debris and fragments of modern city life into something beautiful and unifying: connecting time with place, the old with the new, local crafts with contemporary design.

The resulting stools are solid and silver, slightly uneven like the streets they were built on and evocative of palm leaves, pipes and movement. Azusa sees the form and setting as inextricably linked; “We couldn’t do anything too complicated because we were doing it on the street, on the move. The form was dictated by the things that we could find. All our designs are informed by the process.”

The potential for their system is transformative, as it provides locals with a cheap way to harvest their own resources and create their own products without the need for studio space or costly materials. The design doesn’t just change unwanted junk into something of value but has the potential for social change as well.

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“We’re interested in design as an agent for change,” Azusa explains, and suddenly the connotations of the curious name Swine become a little bit clearer to me. Pigs eat waste and turn it into fine meat, and the word ‘swine’ itself has negative, unpleasant connotations. Azusa and Alex want to see if they can change those associations, just as they attempt to change the perception of materials by turning waste into luxury. “We’ve got finite resources, and we don’t want to cause a worse problem, so we try to be sustainable and use what we’ve already got around us.”

The search for resources takes Azusa and Alex on long journeys to distant corners of the world – from the uninhabited South Pacific to crowded markets in the Shandong province of China. Their ideas are born not inside Mac-lined coffee shops or in the wooden Yard House we sit outside for our interview, but rather on trains and planes and along the highways of distant continents – and most recently, when aboard a ship sailing across the remote ocean.

Azusa and Alex have just returned from their most recent design exploration in the North Atlantic, where they were on board a sailing ship with a group of scientists, ecologists and philosophers. During hours spent watching the horizon for other boats, their shipmates taught them about the importance of plankton in sustaining the earth’s eco-system, and the terrible effect that discarded plastic is having on the plankton’s livelihood. Alex recounts what they learnt first hand: “It’s so dire what we’re heading towards ecologically – it’s a proper human apocalypse. Especially if our oceans die.”

Onboard they continued their ongoing project, Into the Gyre, for which they re-configured the dangerous discarded plastic found at sea into a tar-like material. With this, they handcrafted small stools they call Sea Chairs, inspired by a stool in Moby Dick made from Narwhal tusk. For the recent expedition, the pair built a parabolic mirror that concentrates sunlight, allowing them to melt and re-form their harvested plastic scraps more efficiently at sea. “It’s like a 3D printing machine but you operate it manually with a winch that I got from an old boat,” Alex explains, with a touch of Ahabian monomania. “Out at sea, you’re so remote and it really makes you question resources. That’s what’s so interesting about sea plastic, even in these completely remote places where the nearest person is in orbit, there is still all this material. We wanted to think about how you could harness it.”

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Sorting through the plastic in the North Atlantic Gyre, Azusa and Alex would come across little fragments of human interaction – luggage tags from Portugal and ambiguous green and orange shapes belonging to unknown objects from faraway places – all coming together in the remote ocean to converge in the currents, to be resurrected as the Sea Chair. “You can’t help thinking about the past lives,” Azusa remarks. The Sea Chair, a dense, 4kg accumulation of all these fragments, seems to ask whether, if even in the remotest edges of the planet you can find resources swirling around in the abyss, why make more synthetic material when we already have so much? The results could be fundamental, and beautiful at the same time.

Studio Swine’s designs come about through their exploration of place and tradition, and the research that goes into each individual object is rigorous and extensive. Their work is almost like a wordless piece of New Journalism made tangible, containing a personal journey but relating to something greater at the same time. Azusa sees it this way too: “We always say that the way we work is similar to journalism; we investigate and research through design making.”

Their work cannot be categoraised by a design philosophy of the moment, but rather belongs to a greater movement, one of overarching curiosity that’s becoming increasingly prevalent; finding its voice in podcasts like Radiolab and This American Life. It’s a movement that relishes knowledge and storytelling as an antidote to era defined by meaningless information, and it finds value in the narratives that exist in objects.

“We particularly like things like A History of the World in 100 Objects,” says Alex. “Today, there is so much stuff and so much unknown stuff. We don’t know how so many things work, and that can make you feel quite detached. It’s important to bring meaning in, and that’s one of the roles we’re interested in with design.”

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So Studio Swine do what all explorers have done since the beginning of time; they go out into the world and discover the unknown. This approach means that their work isn’t only appreciated by the design world but has broken out from the genre into other areas as well. The captivating Hair Highway, one of their most challenging research projects, has even been picked up by National Geographic and The Discovery Channel. Like all their work the project began with curiosity, and a few questions that Google didn’t have the answer to.

“We were in a Dalston cosmetic store one day looking at hair extensions and we read the label ‘Made in China – 100% Human Hair’. We wanted to know where in China it was made, and who the women were who sold their hair,” Alex explains.

“But then it was really hard to find the information online,” Azusa adds. While there is a lot of information in the world about where things are made and how much they cost, context and meaning can be very difficult to locate.

Eventually, they learnt that the largest hair manufacturer was located in the Shandong Province, so they went there to find out more.

“There were all these bikers with sacks of hair on the backs of their bikes. They’d go to remote villages where girls sell their hair,” says Alex. After tracing their material back to its source, Azusa and Alex then worked in a hair factory while the workers were away, pouring natural resin over the hair in order to make sheets that they’d cut up for their creations. The resulting objects are evocative of 1930s Shanghai-deco, and champion a material that is sustainable and increasing rather than diminishing with population growth. “We were interested in hair as a future resource,” Alex says, “and also as a way of telling a story about what is happening in the world right now.”

Studio Swine know that there are still many other stories and resources out there, and they have an endless list of places they’d like to explore. “We want to go Papua New Guinea” says Azusa, “and the roaring 40s – as in the degree of latitude. Basically it’s a part of the world where you get massive waves and there’s not much land interrupting it,” adds Alex. Ideally though, the couple agree they want to go to space. “It could be possible,” says Azusa.

As I leave, I realise that I never actually arrived atAzusa and Alex’s studio in the way I thought I would – I didn’t see any tools or materials or notebooks, or any sketches or fragments of plastic or strips of hair. All I’ve seen is a bench, some strewn-about saw dust, three cups of steaming hot tea and industrial Stratford looming in the background. Yet this lack of a singular working environment has told me more about Studio Swine and their curious, provocative and explorative ethos than any four-walled room ever could. It’s an ethos where place dictates; where the shape of a street or the curve of a wave inspires form, rather than function, comfort or style. “We live in our Dropbox,” Alex says, “We carry our studio with us.”