Japanese architect Azusa Murakami and British artist Alexander Groves are behind Studio SWINE, a London-based design duo that travels the world turning anti-luxury resources and waste materials into desirable pieces of furniture. A clue of their practice is in their name, an acronym for Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers.
While their chairs, tables, lamps and objets d’art are produced in limited or single editions and often exhibited in non-commercial contexts, Studio SWINE communicate their ideas and processes more broadly through beautifully composed videos, which have reached audiences in the hundreds of thousands.
Here, they tell us about three of the pair’s recent projects, which saw them exploring remote locations to produce art from unexpected sources. From the North Atlantic Ocean to the streets of São Paulo, and Henry Ford's abandoned rubber plantation town in the Amazon, we chart the various influences and create processes of this visionary couple.
Xerxes Cook: How did the idea for your collection of furniture Fordlandia come about?
Alexander Groves: We were working on a project in São Paulo in 2012, where we heard rumours of this deserted American town in the middle of the Amazon. Fordlandia was an old rubber plantation town established by the car manufacturer Henry Ford in the 1920s to serve his company but it was a big failure. But it wasn't until years later that we discovered this material, ebonite, and learnt that it was a hardened form of natural rubber, that is still used for mouthpieces of smoking pipes today. Once we knew about this material we really wanted to work with it, so when we then discovered that rubber was from the Amazon, we could connect a place to the material. We then started researching how we could create a collection made from natural rubber inspired by Fordlandia.
Azusa Murakami: Ebonite is quite an amazing material in that it’s a composite of rubber and sulphur, which is baked and then becomes very hard. By heating it very slowly, you can bend and manipulate it into shapes, and it’s hard enough, like a hardwood, that you can actually make furniture that is stable.
XC: Why did Henry Ford’s plans for Fordlandia never take off?
AG: There were a lot of factors stacked against him. At the time, he was the richest man in the world and Ford was the biggest company in the world, and he poured half a billion US dollars into the project and they really tried for 15 years to make this place flourish. One of the reasons it failed, was that rubber is native to the Amazon, so it carries all the pests and diseases that attack the trees. It’s healthy and fine when it’s naturally integrated within the forest, but when you begin to create a plantation, it becomes an incubator for all these bugs and diseases and the rubber plantations at Fordlandia were vulnerable to these diseases. When the British planted these same rubber trees in Southeast Asia, there weren’t any natural predators attacking the trees, so they competed and were able to destroy the rubber economy in Brazil overnight.
AM: The plantation management also tried to enforce the American way of life on the locals - of working nine to five, eating hamburgers and going for a square dance every Sunday. It was very American, and regimented. It was not the locals’ way of life and so the workers rebelled, broke the work clock and fled. It was like one disaster after another.
AG: Later, during the Second World War, Germany made advances in synthetic rubbers, so that once the war ended, synthetic rubber was flooding into the American market and that was the end of Henry Ford's dream of Fordlandia. What attracted us to the project was that there were so many interesting histories. Generally with our work, we love looking at places, resources, culture and everything that goes around that. For us, design is a tool for talking about and exploring these things.
XC: You’ve just come back from Detroit, where you visited another abandoned Ford factory. Are you planning on producing a sequel to Fordlandia commenting on the socio-economic situation of today's America?
AG: We’re really interested in the automotive industry, particularly in the West, where we might be losing more of these jobs and skills. When we were at the Ford factory in Detroit, there was an amazing aluminium UFO-looking house designed by Buckminster Fuller, the Dymaxion House, which was the result of Fuller looking at how the technology of the aeronautics industry could actually make buildings and homes for people. So we’re interested in making things other than cars, but using the same materials, aesthetics and skill sets.
XC: Buckminster Fuller is best known as the architect of the geodesic dome, and for developing scientific theories and solutions based on humanity living in synergy with nature. Eighty years later, that all seems particularly relevant, no?
AG: Definitely, Henry Ford was interested in this as well. He saw industry and agriculture working hand-in-hand and he developed the first plastic car in 1925, using soya bean plastic. He also wore a soya bean fibre suit and his factories would turn waste wood shavings into artificial leather.
XC: Is this kind of alchemy, of creating new materials from waste products, something you deliberately explore in your work?
AM: When we set out as designers we questioned our role. We consider design an agent for transformation, we want to not only work with beautiful materials, but take overlooked, or undesirable materials, and turn them into something desirable. So that’s why we’ve always been against using marble, brass and luxury woods - they’re already beautiful, where’s the transformation? That’s part of the reason we call our practice 'SWINE', we wanted to transform people’s perceptions. Swine is an undesirable word, so we set ourselves that challenge from the very beginning.
XC: By demonstrating that waste can be used to create desirable and sustainable objects, you are also educating people about how resources are used. Can you explain your thinking behind this?
AM: Yes, for example, our Gyrecraft project. There are floating gyres or whirlpools of plastic in each of the world’s five oceans where the currents converge to create a very strong swirl, which is where the world's discarded plastic ends up and breaks down into tiny pieces. We didn’t manage to explore all five gyres, but we went through the North Atlantic Gyre for eight days, and we collected plastic and made objects on the boat.
AG: To do this we invented a machine we called the Solar Extruder. It’s basically a parabolic mirror that creates a very hot spot, about 440 degrees, which melts the plastic.
AM: It concentrates the sun’s heat into this one spot, and you can feed the plastic from the top, and by cranking the handle it extrudes it onto a hot bed. It's like a very crude 3D printer, but manual.
XC: So you’re not making the final object on board, but creating composite lumps of material which you’ll later use to design those beautiful objects?
AG: Exactly. And other than it being a rudimentary 3D printer at sea, it was also totally off-grid, as you’re just harnessing sunlight. We really like the poetry of that idea, but it’s not like we’re trying to solve the problem, we’re just showing something that is possible to do in our time now.
XC: You’ve done a few projects in Brazil where you’ve referenced Tropical Modernism – a mid-century aesthetic movement best typified by the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer and Paulo Mendes Da Rocha. What is it about the style that’s so enduring and relevant for today?
AM: When we first went to São Paulo, we started walking through the streets and we were really interested in the vernacular design you get in Brazil that is very improvised, where there isn’t a designer behind it, but it’s still innovative – if not more so because of that. And then within the city there’s also this very refined, chic design that’s from Tropical Modernism, which influenced our first series, Can City.
AG: We really love crossovers and juxtapositions. That’s the same with our backgrounds: I’m from fine art and I’m British. Azusa is Japanese and from architecture. Which is why we like Fordlandia – it’s the ultimate crossover of small-town America and the Amazon. Also with our sea plastic projects, this idea of disposable plastic waste in the ocean – which is a modern phenomenon – is then crossed with ancient maritime crafts, like what whalers would do with whale teeth.
XC: Are you interested in ever mass-producing the furniture and objects from your projects?
AM: We talk about ourselves as designers of feelings rather than designers of objects, so we use whatever we can to express the ideas or feelings we create. It happens to be furniture at the moment, as it is a very effective way of creating an immersive world.
AG: Often we don’t necessarily see the solution as scaling up our ideas, because there is already so much stuff in the world. We’re always juggling with the contradiction of being designers that are interested in sustainability – we definitely don’t need more chairs, so we usually have very small production runs – but there is always room for more stories and ideas out there. We’re more about mass communication than mass production, which is why we make films too. We always design the film at the beginning of each project, so while there may not be many Sea Chairs out there, the film has been watched half a million times.