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.