It always begins with a captivating idea. Then, the husband-and-wife team behind Studio Swine spend months researching a project, often travelling to remote locales, before producing high-concept work that speaks to the fragility of the planet and our role in helping or hurting it. Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami will headline the DesignTO festival in Toronto, which fills the city with pop-up exhibitions and events from Jan. 18 to 27. As part of a keynote talk on Jan. 25, the duo will discuss the issue of water scarcity and our laissez-faire attitude to conservation.
In the past, engineering marvels such as aqueducts and architectural landmarks such as fountains delivered water to cities “giving water a symbolic significance as a source of life and central to urban life,” says Groves, who met Murakami at the Royal College of Art in Britain. “Now, where it comes from and where it goes is out of sight, out of mind.”
Studio Swine’s discipline-crossing designs intend to change that. In 2013, they produced Sea Chair, a film about their journey to make stools out of ocean debris. And last spring, they unveiled Infinity Blue, a 20-tonne sculpture in Cornwall that pays homage to cyanobacteria, one of the first and smallest ocean organisms that accounts for 70 per cent of the Earth’s atmosphere. The ceramic piece shoots out scented rings of fog from 32 cannons.
Other notable works include New Spring and Fordlandia. The former, featured at Milan Design Week in 2017, is a six-metre-tall tree made out of recycled aluminum that shoots bubbles that release a delicate mist when they pop. The latter, presented at the London College of Fashion in 2016, is an installation of furniture made out of materials sustainably sourced in the Amazon rain forest, placed in an environment emulating the utopian city Henry Ford conceptualized in the 1920s.
Murakami, an architect, and Groves, an artist, explain why they feel it’s their duty to approach design with a social conscience.
How do you decide if you take on a project or commission?
Alexander Groves: We work a lot with instinct. There is such a limited amount of time we all have anyway, and we’re very aware of our mortality, so why waste life doing something you don’t really believe in? With Infinity Blue, for example, we became fascinated by cyanobacteria, a property water has at the molecular level that is invisible to the naked eye, but is [one of] the largest biomasses on our planet. We envisioned it as a fountain for the atmosphere. Water and oxygen are miraculous things and we try to restore wonder and awe about them.
Studio Swine’s crossover between art and design and other disciplines seems so natural.
AG: Essentially, we don’t really think about a discipline because we just do what we’re passionate about. We’re doing more immersive projects, ones that create a kind of feeling or impression. With New Spring, we were inspired by public fountains in Italy, things of beauty and utility that celebrated the life-giving nature of water. We’ve found over the last few years that our installations are more ephemeral. With New Spring and Infinity Blue, we used delicate materials like soap bubbles or mists to create something that lasts only for a moment, which make it all the more powerful, like the cherry blossoms in Japan that last one week each year. Moments in time are more precious.
You love to blur the line between object and image.
Azusa Murakami: Our work always tries to create a sense of an environment or a world that we can inhabit. Fordlandia, for instance, was about creating a feeling. We used the objects we created to transport us into a different world. The end result was like two worlds colliding. We created an imaginary setting, a fantasy world, from Ford’s failed experiment. The point being to ask questions such as: If it were thriving now, what would it have done? How could things have ended differently?
You’ve been quoted saying that what it means to be a designer is changing as we speak. How so?
AG: The definition between different disciplines is dissolving all the time. I am always uncomfortable with generalizations anyway. Mark Twain said all generalizations are false, including this one. So I don’t think it’s accurate to have a distinction between art, science, architecture, fashion, etc. They’re all massively overlapped. The truly interesting thing for us are those that are not readily definable.
Do you aim to change people’s perceptions or points of view with your designs?
AM: Our work is not so much about raising awareness of a problem as it is about posing different scenarios or what ifs. We don’t attempt to solve problems, but to look at them in different ways.
AG: We don’t set out with the intention to teach people anything. [But] one of the greatest powers that art has is to effect change. When we started Studio Swine we were told sustainability was a really frumpy idea and that nobody would work with us. It had a bad image and was the polar opposite of anything edgy or desirable or beautiful. Over the last eight years, that perception has changed completely. If we’ve had some small part in that, then that’s great. We always say sustainability without desire is not sustainable.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Studio Swine isn’t the only firm thinking about design beyond floor plans and paint chips. These other DesignTO shows explore the discipline’s impact on everything from housing affordability to future cities. For more information, visit designto.org.
A dozen local and international artists and designers showcase work that explores the many dualities of water: its force and magic, lightness and dark, stillness and movement. The show engages visitors to think about water from a broad point of view, including topics such as waste, habitat, climate change, access, survival, power and beauty.
Jan. 18 to March 3 at Harbourfront Centre’s Artport Gallery (235 Queens Quay W.).
Experiences of Affordability
So many forces batter housing affordability, with income inequality, rapid urbanization, global warming and geopolitical fragility at the top of the list. The rapid pace of technology is changing how we think about home, and this exhibition explores how designers can be at the forefront of helping to shape a more humane and inclusive world.
Jan. 19 to Jan. 26 at Institute without Boundaries (230 Richmond St. E.).
Sight. Smell. Touch. Sound. Taste. This project uses the five senses to anticipate what the future may hold for five cities (Shanghai, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston). Taking into consideration factors such as potential energy, ecology, climate, transit and food scenarios, researchers found New York might get brighter, Los Angeles quieter, and Shanghai spicier.
Through to Jan. 26 at Urbanspace Gallery (401 Richmond St. W.).
Ideas Forum: Watershed to Waterfront
The Ideas Forum features fun and fast-paced presentations of 20 slides that flash every 20 seconds exploring water and all its facets. The speedy pace is designed to get you guessing and thinking about water’s relationship with humans and its impact on everything from aesthetics, culture, politics, poetry and ecology.
Jan. 24 at IBI’s Multipurpose Room (55 St. Clair Ave. W.).
With the eco-crisis unfolding all around us, ecological design has never been more important. Architects, engineers, designers and students begin with the premise that each action we take has a dramatic impact on fragile ecosystems and biodiversity. Participants share examples of how smart and sensitive ecological design can positively and directly intervene.
Jan. 19 at the Bakery (2 Fraser Ave.).
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