Studio Swine Gives Us a Glimpse of Design's Future

Courtesy Studio Swine

With help from its fashion friends, the London-based studio is bridging the worlds of art and design.

During Milan’s design week and the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in April, a stream of art students, journalists, and important-looking creative types entered the small, Deco-era Cinema Arti. After being given a pair of woolen gloves, they passed into the main theater, which had been covered in a black material. Standing at its center was New Spring, a 20-foot-tall installation that resembled a weeping willow crossed with a streetlamp. At the end of each “branch,” a large bubble filled with smoky mist formed like a magical fruit. When the bubbles grew too big, they fell to the wool-covered floor. Some burst into clouds of smoke. Others bobbed intact on the floor. Wearing the gloves, mystified visitors were able to gingerly catch some bubbles as they jiggled like underinflated water balloons. “Is it a lamp?” someone asked. It’s not.

The right question might be: Is it design? In fact, the work of London-based Studio Swine’s Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves reflects the best of the discipline’s bleeding edge. The pair, who designed New Spring, met at the Royal College of Art in London and since graduating six years ago have created a distinctly millennial breed of work. They’re not concerned with building a résumé of sofas and chairs. Instead, their projects bridge the worlds of art and design, revealing their obsession with cultural context, social messaging, and sustainability. “Some said New Spring brought them back to childhood; others just said it moved them,” says Murakami, 32, after the work’s opening day. “We’ve had a varied response.” Groves, 33, adds: “We hadn’t anticipated that it can be—somber isn’t the right word, but melancholy. It’s like this awareness of impermanence.”

A falling bubble bursts in the hand of a model at a Studio Swine installation. Courtesy Studio Swine

Danish fashion brand COS was the patron of New Spring, which was inspired by Japan’s cherry blossom season. “The blossoms are a moment of joy—a week in an entire year,” Murakami says. “It makes you appreciate the life of things. The bubbles are a metaphor for that.”

The installation was made from minimal materials—bent scaffolding that they powder-coated white—a nod to COS’s “clean and timeless” fashions, Murakami explains, as well as to the late Milan-based product designer Achille Castiglioni, known best for his white-colored lighting designs. It’s also meant to invoke inverted Murano chandeliers.

COS, in a bid to increase its design presence, has been commissioning such installations since 2012, working with names like Japanese firm Nendo, New York’s Snarkitecture, and architect Sou Fujimoto. “I refrain from saying it because it sounds like promotion,” Groves says, “but, genuinely, I shop their stores. And it was great working with their values of materiality and tactility, but with timelessness and minimalism.”

Metallic Geology: For Pearl Lam Galleries, Studio Swine foamed molten aluminum to create a Chinese-culture-inspired cabinet that resembles pumice; Gyrecraft: Studio Swine is “obsessed with materials,” Murakami says. For this project, they used plastic debris found in the oceans to create “luxury” objects; Hair Highway: Also for Pearl Lam Galleries, human hair harvested near Shanghai was encased in resin to produce items inspired by the Qing dynasty. Courtesy Studio Swine

This kind of seamless synthesis of ideas and influences is clearer when you look at their other projects. For 2014’s Hair Highway, they tracked down where human-hair wigs, sold near their London office, came from—close to Shanghai—then encased strands in resin to make decorative objects. For an upcoming project called Fordlandia, they visited the town of the same name in Brazil’s Amazon. Now a ghost town, it was created by the auto company in the 1920s to extract rubber. Swine will use the region’s rubber, as well as fish leathers (instead of endangered hardwoods), to produce sustainable objects. “It’s about stimulating a forest economy,” Groves says. “We’re really interested in where nature and industry collide.”