This article titled “From human composting to decluttering glassware: the latest trends in design” was written by Anna Burns, Killian Fox, Mark Hooper, Alice McCool, Alice Fisher, Bethan Ryder, for The Observer on Saturday 11th January 2020 14.00 UTC
Philippe Malouin’s desirable, practical glass
“I don’t just have nice stuff – I have ugly stuff, too,” admits the 39-year-old French-Canadian designer, who has lived in London since 2008 and runs his studio in Homerton, east London. “Everyone has ugly stuff, like the remote control or that weird present your friend gave you. And since people of my generation live in smaller flats and have less storage, we need somewhere to put all this stuff.”
Malouin’s rebuke to clutter is , a collection – entitled Kuru, Finnish for “gorge” – of “home displays”. Spill the contents of your pockets into one of the grey or green pressed-glass key bowls, the idea goes, and things immediately start to look better.
The Kuru collection may appear simple, but according to its designer it took two and a half years of hard work and to-ing and fro-ing to get right. Malouin, who was Wallpaper* magazine’s designer of the year in 2018, has spent years honing his design approach, which he says favours “a simple, geometric language that everyone can understand”.
Born in a small town in south-west Quebec, he studied industrial design at the University of Montreal before completing his bachelor’s degree at the Design Academy Eindhoven. An internship with the British designer Tom Dixon brought him to London and soon afterwards he set up his studio, going on to create work for furniture companies SCP and Hem, and skincare brand Aesop. (Malouin, whose imposing height and bearded good looks belie a down-to-earth geniality, has also modelled menswear on the Prada catwalk.)
This project was nostalgic for Malouin, as the first bit of serious design he ever bought was a set of Iittala glasses by Alfredo Häberli. He loved working closely with the company’s glassblowers and ceramicists. “Visiting factories and understanding the production capacities and problems, having discussions with manufacturing, is something we don’t always get to do,” he says. “This was really a hands-on, collaborative experience, which was great.”
Furniture with a literary bent from EJR Barnes
The EJR Barnes furniture business had practical beginnings: having moved into an unfurnished flat with nothing to sit on, Elliot Barnes decided to design his own seating. An autodidact who dropped out of art school, Barnes educated himself with the internet: “I watched a video of a Hans Wegner chair being made,” he recalls, “and found a forum post about a guy who made the same chair with hand tools. I figured that I could probably do something similar. The result was pretty wobbly and uncomfortable, carved from 2×4 pine with a chisel, but I had came to understand some of the mystery in making a chair.”
Barnes’s approach is heartfelt, designing from need rather than want. Six years on from his plan to build his own furniture rather than buy mass-produced, he has a loyal fan base happy to pay a little more for his original works. Often his clean mid-century lines are disrupted by unusual material combinations; a classic surrealist trick Méeret Oppenheim used to perfectioned with her 1939 fur teacup. His aesthetic quest is to challenge reason and trigger poetic associations. “I’m very aware of how pretentious it is to make this type of ‘arty’ furniture, and how privileged I am to be able to do so,” he admits. “My natural defence is to mock it, as I do with almost everything else in my life.”
Barnes is heavily influenced by “the insane but also quite calming” work of Japanese designers Shiro Kuramata and Masaki Morita, and the idea of feeling being built into design. One of his pieces – A Wild Sheep Chaise: Dolphin Hotel Club Chair, inspired by Haruki Murakami’s novel A Wild Sheep Chase – does exactly that. The chair is covered in woolly fabric, with an office blind on each side. “I find these blinds quite beautiful and filmic but also ominous and claustrophobic, as they represent offices and meeting rooms and other terrors,” says Barnes.
Despite the concepts, Barnes remains true to his roots: these are all pieces you could sit on in an unfurnished flat. “If you can only look at something rather than use it,” he says, it quickly becomes invisible and impotent, I think.”
Ace & Jig’s ethical clothing with long-term commitment
While many clothing brands scramble to sort out their supply chain and eco credentials, Ace & Jig celebrates 10 years of life as an environmentally aware, slow-fashion label that aims to produce zero waste and prolong the lifespan of their clothes. The Brooklyn-based company has an impressive history with their Indian textile workers, offering free childcare and fresh vegetables to staff (90% of whom are women). Their latest initiative is to foster Ace & Jig communities for customers by organising meet-ups. Join if you’d like to resell old styles, clothes swap or pick up scrap fabrics for patching. For a recent project, customers worked together to make squares from scraps and create quilts.
Recompose: getting serious about the circle of life
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – on a densely populated planet, it is hard to achieve this without serious environmental implications. It is not only our existence that is costing the earth, but also our demise. Traditional burials are the worst culprits, with toxic embalming fluids and copious concrete and timber usage. Cremations produce high carbon dioxide emissions and even natural burials, which are on the rise, require land.
But what if we could swiftly and naturally become human compost that could nourish new life? This sustainable option will become a reality in Seattle in spring 2021, when the first Recompose facility offering “natural organic reduction” opens in the city’s SoDo neighbourhood. Washington State is the first US state to legalise this process, which uses one-eighth of the energy of cremation.
Founder and CEO of Recompose, Katrina Spade, invented the system taking cues from farming methods used for recycling livestock. “We’re using nature – which has perfected the life/death cycle – as a model for human death care,” she says. “We saw an opportunity to both give back to the earth and reconnect us with natural cycles.” Early prototypes were designed in collaboration with Olson Kundig, and now the Seattle-based architecture firm is transforming a 1960s-built warehouse into the inaugural 18,500 sq ft facility.
The process is coffin-free. Corpses are wrapped in a cotton shroud and placed on a steel cradle filled with straw, wood chips and alfalfa. A “laying-in” ritual follows that the family can attend, during which more of these ingredients are added, before the cradle slides into a hexagonal receptacle. Staff remove the shroud and seal the compartment to allow the 30-day process to begin.
Renderings of Recompose: Seattle reveal a futuristic-like hive, with a central gathering space for ceremonies, surrounded by hexagonal-shaped storage for up to 75 bodies. The design deliberately references nature, “specifically, the collective community of a beehive”, says architect Alan Maskin, a principal of Olson Kundig. “It has good structural properties, enabling us to vertically stack the vessels, which is important because Recompose’s focus is on providing a sustainable death-care alternative for our cities, where space is at a premium.” After a month, the rich, dark, newly created soil is removed and can be donated to local forest conservation projects or taken home by relatives and used to plant new life.
Paraa’s community-led urban design in Bangladesh
“When you grow up in a place like Dhaka, you know something in the city is not right,” says Kazi Arefin, an architect who works in the Bangladeshi capital. Dhaka is a sprawling metropolis of extremes. In the centre, the rich hide from smoggy traffic jams in the back of air-conditioned cars, while the poor balance on the narrow seats of elaborately decorated cycle rickshaws. At the wrong time of day, a 10-minute journey can take hours.
Arefin decided the best way to find a role for his work was to start a “design and architecture studio focused on enhancing communities”. The result was Paraa, founded in 2011 with urban planner and artist Ruhul Abdin. Their projects, often for charities, include training centres, children’s homes and hospitals. Workers and residents are involved in the design from the start. This way, says Kazi, they “feel ownership of a space and that the project suits their needs”.
When Paraa designed a homeless shelter in 2015, for example, they quickly found that the priorities of its users – mainly women with children – were not always the same as those of the charity running the project. The users “wanted a space in which to play, to wash, to cook”, says Paraa’s co-founder, Ruhul Abdin. “And lots of bathrooms!”
Managing and supporting these initiatives through good design can play a vital role in spotlighting the issues many city dwellers in Dhaka face. Paraa’s 10m high Bamboo Playspace, which won a Berger award for excellence in architecture in 2017, shows how buildings can forge bonds.
While the public structure is used by children across the local community, it is connected to Leedo Peace Home, a refuge for street children who are often disabled. “It’s become a bridge between those children who might otherwise be seen as troubled and local communities, who are now their friends.”
Designing for the art world with Apfel
From the gate of their east London studio onwards, you get a sense of graphic designers Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas’ approach. Their agency name is written in letters sketched specifically for the metalwork, and produced according to the proportions of the golden ratio. The name spelt out is Apfel which stands for A Practice For Everyday Living, a nod to the title of French scholar Michel de Certeau’s 1980 book, The Practice of Everyday Life.
Carter and Thomas started the company in 2003, after meeting on the Royal College of Art’s communication, art and design course. They were inspired by De Certeau’s description of “a way of making sense of a place by collecting materials, subverting existing patterns and drawing together new stories”. As Carter says: “We loved the connection of De Certeau’s writing … the references you gather from your daily rituals of everyday life.”
Now Apfel is the art world’s favourite studio, working with institutions such as the Tate and individual artists, designing posters, art books, exhibition signage and invitations – encompassing everything from the micro to the macro.
Its breakthrough moment came in 2011, overseeing the visual identity for The Hepworth Wakefield, the museum dedicated to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, creating new typefaces, signage and wayfinding, as well as website and permanent exhibition graphics. “It was unusual for them to trust a single design agency, let alone one so young,” says Thomas.
The project is typical of the space they like to work in: that intersection between art and design in areas involving what Carter describes as “a closeness and a conversation: a sense of collaboration”.
This attention to detail is clear in all its projects. Apfel makes books and catalogues for Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes. All feature exposed binding, which echoes the stitching in Antunes’ work. The packaging Apfel created for the shoe brand John Lobb has a speckled pattern inspired by the shavings and spatters found on the company’s workshop floor.
The duo seem particularly proud of their work creating artist monographs, which they have done for names including Lee Krasner, David Hockney and Jeremy Deller. “Printed material is a space in the same way an exhibition is,” says Thomas. De Certeau couldn’t have put it better.
Skating and educating with Skateistan
This week brought BAFTA and Oscar nominations for the delightful short film Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (if you’re a Girl). The documentary features the amazing work of Skateistan. This not-for-profit organisation works in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa to give local children a safe space to develop. As well as learning to skateboard, children can access education, arts programmes and even clean water. The project was started by Australian Oliver Percovich in Kabul in 2007 when he moved there with his girlfriend. When he saw how much local teenagers enjoyed using the skateboards he lent them, he set up Skateistan. The organisation grew, opening Afghanistan’s first skate park but also building classrooms so visitors could learn, too. Street workers were offered accelerated learning programmes so they could graduate to public school. Special classes for children with disabilities were also added, giving opportunities to girls to develop became a key mission. Skateistan has four schools – in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Johannesburg, South Africa – and this year a fifth is opening in Bamyan, central Afghanistan. Outreach workers are already in the area working with children to design their ideal skate schools – spaces where they can be safe but also have fun.
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