Artist Alexander Groves and architect Azusa Murakami are Studio Swine, a husband-and-wife duo with a truly innovative approach to product design. From the Sea Chair made from plastic dredged from the ocean to sunglasses made of human hair, their genre-spanning initiatives take them all over the world on fact-finding missions. Indeed, you’ll rarely find Alex and Azusa at home in east London. Their next stop is the Amazon rainforest to ponder what we might all learn from Fordlandia, the strange utopia dreamt up by industrialist Henry Ford a century ago.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Did you do your first collaboration before you formed the studio, or did you first form the studio and then collaborate?
Alexander Groves: Well, we first started going out as a couple, and then we began to interfere with each other’s projects, which were originally very separate. We didn’t have the intention of working together, but then, one summer holiday, we made Pig Truck, a mobile food stall. Actually, we called ourselves Studio Swine because we liked the idea that pigs are seen as disgusting but then they find truffles. We chose the name as a challenge, almost – to create something desirable. Sometimes we’ve regretted it, but in the long run, it’s been okay.
HUO: Can you tell me about this first project? What was it, exactly?
AG: It was a very small taco truck, and it had this way of cooking a pig’s head using rocks that you heat first. You put the pig’s head in the sand, with the hot rocks, so it’s cooked Pacific island-style. It was all about creating this little island on the streets, as it were.
Azusa Murakami: We were interested in food stalls because they’re mobile. We wanted to, one day, create an entire city where each shop is just a mobile stall.
AG: Yeah, a totally nomadic city that can just assemble and then disappear overnight. As soon as we graduated from the Royal College of Art, 2c we decided to move to São Paulo. We went there without any contacts, and because we didn’t have anywhere to go each day, we began walking around São Paulo, just studying the streets. We became really interested in the catadores, the waste pickers with these hand-pulled carts made from car parts, who go around collecting items like cardboard and aluminium cans, which they then sell by the kilo.
AM: We were really interested in the idea of the vernacular – how a design is formed out of a situation, rather than through an industrial process. The catadores inspired us in many ways, but in particular because they were working in a way that was very nomadic. We realised that, in order to make our work, we needn’t have a fixed space or workshop; we could use the streets. Our Can City project was made from scratch out of items we could source from the streets in São Paulo. We collected aluminium cans, then made a furnace that could melt the cans using waste vegetable oil that came from all the fried-food stalls. We took sand from construction sites, because São Paulo is never finished – it’s always under construction. And then we cast the metal in the sand, using objects we found on the street – like palm fronds or hubcaps – to make an impression in the sand. So you’re really making aluminium furniture – on the streets, from the streets. It’s a total portrait of the place, and it’s got a regional identity. It’s very different from the industrial way that aluminium is used in our everyday lives.
HUO: Obviously, given the challenges that exist, we need to hope that design can change the world. When you work on these collaborations, how do they connect to politics?
AG: Well, another reason we were particularly interested in the catadores is that, at the time, there was quite a right-wing mayor 2e in São Paulo who wanted to remove them from the streets, because they made São Paulo look untidy. The catadores were telling us that they were facing a lot more regulation. In São Paulo you’ve got the most helicopters in the world, the most skyscrapers in the world, and it’s super-modern, and yet you’ve got these hand-pulled carts ducking in and out of the traffic. Anyway, we wanted to do something to celebrate the work that they do. Because the irony is, of course, if you removed the catadores, there’s no efficient, organised waste-collection service to replace them, so it’s actually going to be a much untidier city. Of course that’s political, but in a way, it’s more important – or just as important – for us to be poetic.
HUO: You’ve explained where the name Swine came from, but it also stands for Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers, doesn’t it? Can you talk to me about this idea of being interdisciplinary?
AG: Basically, we don’t really think about disciplines when we’re making work. We don’t think: “Is this art? Is this design? Is this architecture?”
HUO: One of the first times I heard about you was through your Hair Highway work, which really caught international attention and seemed to be about the blurred line between what’s alive and what’s not alive…
AG: We live in east London, so we visit places like Ridley Road in Dalston, which has a number of hair and beauty shops selling a vast selection of hair extensions. We’d go into these shops and just read these labels that would say, “100 per cent human hair, made in China”, and we dreamt of actually going to China to find out who is growing the hair, who’s selling the hair, and the whole process behind it. We see it as a modern Silk Road. We were really interested in the idea that you’ve got a growing human population and diminishing natural resources. What resources can we actually create ourselves? And, when you look into the ways hair has been used... There is a tribe in the American Southwest, which didn’t have a sheep-farming culture, so they used to use hair to knit socks, for example. And in China, they used to actually collect hair clippings and extract L-cysteine from it, an amino acid we’ve all consumed, kind of. When you go into a supermarket, there’s a spray they put into the ovens to make the bread sections smell very “bready”, and that’s often extracted from human hair. It’s really interesting when industry and nature have this crossover.
HUO: The project seems to have evolved a lot – like hair itself, which also grows over time.
AM: Well, when we first began the project with hair, we were experimenting on a very small scale. We wanted the hair not to look so much like hair, but to mimic the aesthetics of luxurious materials like tortoiseshell or horn. So we were doing a lot of hands-on experimentation with the materiality of hair.
AG: We tend to return to projects biannually, often because a huge amount of time goes into fundraising, or research, and then production. You move on to another project, and then you come back to this one. In connection with the hair, we were aware that, while Jean-Michel Frank had made beautiful objects out of sharkskin in the 1940s, it’s not beautiful to use it now. Beauty isn’t just what you see, it’s also what you know. Design has an ecological context.
AM: Our time in China was largely spent on co-ordinating how to progress the project. We went to a town that revolves entirely around the hair industry, with ten different hair factories, and we went to visit...
AG: ...all of them.
AM: All of them, and it was a very, very interesting process. They were washing the hair and weaving the hair. At the beginning of the project I didn’t feel comfortable touching the hair, but by the end, it had become so dehumanised by the industrial process of making wigs and extensions that it was just another material, like silk or wool.
AG: Yeah, you appreciate that it’s such an incredible resource. It’s so strong, and we’re all growing it, all the time.
AM: We started to appreciate the quality of the material, rather than the meaning of hair.
HUO: Your design practice seems to be a case of mondialité, because you go into these local contexts, but don’t impose your own design idea. Do you agree?
AG: One of the reasons we love to travel is the culture shock you experience when you arrive somewhere, because you are reminded that there are so many different ways to live. And then, on your way home, you get a different kind of culture shock, because – to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton – you look at your own land with foreign eyes. We’re very drawn to crossovers. For example, what fascinates us in Brazil is Tropical Modernism, 2g which involves the adapting of European machines for use in a much more relaxed, informal society, with tropical temperatures, and with tropical hardwoods. So something might have an industrial aesthetic, but it’s actually hand-made with local hardwoods. It’s always the crossover that really excites us, actually, which is why we’re fascinated with Fordlandia, 2f this kind of crossover between a tropical rainforest and the American Midwest.
HUO: And that’s what you are working on right now?
AM: Well, we’re about to complete a project creating public seating for the St James’s area near Piccadilly Circus in London. As part of the research we went into lots of different craft stores around Jermyn Street. There are shoemakers, shirtmakers, tiemakers, pipemakers, so we’re making four benches, each one inspired by a different craft found in that area. It was via that project that we discovered a material called Ebonite, which is used in pipe mouthpieces, and we became really interested in it. At first we thought it was plastic – it’s jet black, and really hard – and when we found out that it was actually made out of rubber, we were really fascinated, and couldn’t believe that this super hard, shiny material with a quality that is almost totally the opposite of that of rubber, is rubber. So that led us on to a project that we’re doing now, called Fordlandia, inspired by this abandoned American town in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, which was created by Henry Ford in the 1930s to secure a source of rubber for the motor industry. And it’s a total mirror image of a Michigan streetscape, and the workers there lived on a diet of hamburgers and were forced to adopt a nine-to-five schedule. It failed for various reasons, and now it’s totally abandoned. What really excited us to learn about Henry Ford, was that he believed in industry and agriculture going hand-in-hand. So Fordlandia had farmers who were not only producing soya beans for food, but also for artificial leather, for plastics. He created a car in the 1940s that made was entirely out of soya bean plastic, you know?
AG: So, in our studio we’ve got lots of Ebonite samples. We’ve also got a project that we’re working on for a hotel in Los Angeles…
HUO: Do you have unrealised projects? What are the unbuilt roads of Swine?
AM: Well, we would really love to create an immersive theatre performance, and take over a whole town, especially on the theme of Fordlandia.
AG: The idea is that you’d go by boat. You’d lose the sense of the time and place that you came from, and let go in this theatre-type immersive world.
AM: It’d be like being immersed in one of our films. When we first started doing research for our Sea Chair project, everything felt like it would just be bombarding people with bleak statistics. We felt that film was the most effective way to communicate a large problem like plastic in the ocean, but we wanted to make a film that also gave you a sense of the romance of the sea and the traditions of fishing. Part of the reason we don’t have dialogue in our movies is so they can be international.
AG: We’ve always felt that there are two spaces for us to design for. One is the real space – a chair you can actually sit on – and then another is an imaginary space. That’s a fantastic space to occupy as a designer.
Alex and Azusa met on the Design Products Programme of the Royal College of Art in the Kensington district of London. They graduated in 2011.
Gilberto Kassab was mayor of São Paulo from 31 March 2006 to 1 January 2013. During his tenure, Kassab proposed the famous Cidade Limpa law that prohibits outdoor advertising throughout São Paulo.
The birth of Tropical Modernism is widely attributed to a series of lectures delivered by Le Corbusier in Rio de Janeiro in 1929. Both Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer attended those lectures and went on to become leading lights in Brazilian Tropical Modernism.
Henry Ford’s utopian vision came to an end after riots by dissatisfied plantation labourers and a botanist’s assessment that the industrialist had been sold a plot of damp, hilly terrain that was unfit for the successful propagation of rubber trees.