Designers: April 2020

Self-isolation is proving tough for some, but designers are finding ways to readjust – from studio Bingo on Google hangouts, to some deeper thinking about the role of design.

By Anna Sansom / 15th April 2020
Studio Nucleo, 'Presenze Vase 6', 2014-2020 COURTESY: Nilufar, Milan / PHOTOGRAPH: Pepe Fotografia

Studio Nucleo, ‘Presenze Vase 6’, 2014-2020
COURTESY: Nilufar, Milan / PHOTOGRAPH: Pepe Fotografia

“I FEEL LIKE a prisoner living in a jail,” exclaims the Italian designer Piergiorgio Robino. The founder of Studio Nucleo has been living under lockdown in Turin since 8th March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far affected Italy more than anywhere else. “Our market is closely linked to the fairs so it’s frozen for the moment and all our projects are postponed,” he sighs. “I’m living in the hope that the autumn calendar will be maintained.” 

Studio Nucleo makes sculptural furniture using resin. Sometimes this takes the form of stools resembling blocks of semi-precious stones; other pieces are created from dozens of small transparent cubes. “My studio has been closed for several weeks and ‘smart working’ [online] is a bit complicated as the materials and processes used to produce our works are impractical at home,” Robino laments. “As I don’t know when I’ll be able to freely leave the house, how can I think about the future?”

In London, Paul Cocksedge is feeling similarly distressed. “The creative world has big fears and there’s a lot at stake,” Cocksedge says. “It’s like someone’s pulled up a handbrake and it’s a drastic way to slow things down. It goes against all the creative momentum and passion we have.” 

Paul Cocksedge, rendering of a horizontally-layered timber bridge (to be located over the Liesbeek River in Cape Town) COURTESY: Paul Cocksedge Studio

Paul Cocksedge, rendering of a horizontally-layered timber bridge (to be located over the Liesbeek River in Cape Town)
COURTESY: Paul Cocksedge Studio

Cocksedge has just been commissioned to make a permanent, horizontally-layered timber bridge from eucalyptus wood over the Liesbeek River in Cape Town. Yet he wonders how emerging studios can cope during this crisis. “If I’d been starting my studio now, dealing with the financial and emotional implications of a pandemic would be hugely challenging. As a small studio, we’ve been able to readjust quite quickly and I hope we’ll weather the storm. Obviously, some projects are being paused. However, we’re still talking to clients about producing work. With all of this sadness, we need creative output to thrive.”

Others have restructured their studios as they navigate this unpredictable time. “I’ve moved my office from Belleville in Paris to the countryside [near the Loire valley] in a house that I designed for a friend,” says Matali Crasset, who was commissioned last year to make outdoor seating, loosely inspired by the shape of a fennel, for CHU Angers, a university hospital centre in western France. “I’ve downscaled, which affects our studio but puts us in less [economic] danger. Here [in the countryside], we’re a community of ten people, each using our skills for the benefit of the group: cooking, gardening, yoga, DIY and photography.” 

Matali Craset, 'Le Fenouil', 2019 (public commission CHU Angers) COURTESY: Matali Crasset / PHOTOGRAPH: Philippe Piron

Matali Craset, ‘Le Fenouil’, 2019 (public commission CHU Angers)
COURTESY: Matali Crasset / PHOTOGRAPH: Philippe Piron

One designer feeling the strain is Mathias Kiss, who appropriates ornamental decorations like cornices and painting frames to make striking, geometric works. “I’m a microstructure based on apprenticeship and craftsmanship I have one assistant one day a week,” Kiss says. Last autumn, Kiss installed gold leaf gilded splendour, which got scuffed by visitors’ footsteps, onto the floor of the chapel of the Mobilier National, which preserves and restores French presidential furniture. But this year’s commissions have evaporated. “Everything is cancelled and I’m extremely worried about how we’ll survive.” 

Mathias Kiss, 'Golden Snake', 2016 (installation view of the exhibition 'Double Je' at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris) PHOTOGRAPH: © David Zagdoun

Mathias Kiss, ‘Golden Snake’, 2016 (installation view of the exhibition ‘Double Je’ at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris)
PHOTOGRAPH: © David Zagdoun

Raw-Edges, the Israeli, London-based duo Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay known for their witty approach to design are among those whose dreams have been dashed. “We were about to present an exciting, large-scale installation in Milan, consisting of 20 tons of plasticine that could be pressed, carved and sculpted by visitors, in collaboration with Noroo, a South Korean paint company,” Alkalay says. Nonetheless, he believes that design can play a beneficial role in today’s tragedy. “There’s a tremendous impact on the design market as design can be considered in these unusual circumstances as a luxury, not a necessity. But design can be truly useful in such times. For example, we read about [Italian start-up Isinnova] who improvised ventilator valves using 3D printers.”

Raw-Edges, 'Behind the Scene', 2020 (installation view at 25hours Hotel Cologne) COURTESY: Raw-Edges

Raw-Edges, ‘Behind the Scene’, 2020 (installation view at 25hours Hotel Cologne)

Indeed, design can foster solidarity. Studio Drift in Amsterdam is organising online gatherings to help lift the spirits of its 40 members of staff. “We just had a 4pm Studio Bingo through Google hangouts,” Ralph Nauta, who co-founded Studio Drift with Lonneke Gordijn, says. “Every day, someone else organises something fun for ten minutes to reconnect with the team. It’s incredible to see how positively and powerfully most of us react to this. Having a little insight into each other’s home life, including peoples’ interiors and children, is making this a little more personal.”

Studio Drift, 'Fragile Future', 2020 (exhibition view 'About Nature, Technology and Humankind', San Francisco) COURTESY: Carpenters Workshop Gallery

Studio Drift, ‘Fragile Future’, 2020 (exhibition view ‘About Nature, Technology and Humankind’, San Francisco)
COURTESY: Carpenters Workshop Gallery

This is prompting Studio Drift to think deeply about future projects. “Our work is purely about physical experiences and we’re working on new ways about how we can share a physical experience and feel connection while being apart,” says Nauta, whose latest project, ‘Ego’ (2020), for Pace Gallery New York is an almost ethereal ‘shape-shifting’ block composed of black nylon threads that were handwoven in its Dutch studio.

The geographic location of clients is playing a part in the status of commissions. Germans Ermičs, the Latvian-born, Amsterdam-based designer known for making mesmerising glass furniture in tonal gradients, says: “I’m working from home on a few ongoing projects, one of which is a public installation for a metro station in Seoul; it seems that South Korea is dealing with the crisis well. To my surprise, I’ve also been receiving requests for new work,” continues Ermičs, whose piece, ‘A Slant of Light’ (2019), a reflective metal spiral lit with a slant of light, like the hand of a clock, was unveiled last year at Palazzo Biscari in Sicily.

Germans Ermičs, 'A Slant of Light', 2019 (Palazzo Biscari, Catania, Sicily) COURTESY: DiSé, Sicily

Germans Ermičs, ‘A Slant of Light’, 2019 (Palazzo Biscari, Catania, Sicily)
COURTESY: DiSé, Sicily

By contrast, the Lebanese duo David/Nicolas (David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem) is used to working remotely in different cities but is hindered by the slowdown in local production. “Having so many different artisans working on our projects makes it harder to keep to our schedules,” they say, referring to their artisans’ difficulties in receiving and transporting raw materials. Having just completed a sleek bar combining marble, ash wood and brass, David/Nicolas is re-evaluating what design can bring to people’s lives. “The most important human quality is empathy [so] we’re using this time to question ourselves and think about how micro changes can add up to make a big difference.” 

David/Nicolas, 'Barracuda', 2020 COURTESY: David/Nicolas / PHOTOGRAPH: Marya Ghazzaoui 

David/Nicolas, ‘Barracuda’ bar, 2020
COURTESY: David/Nicolas / PHOTOGRAPH: Marya Ghazzaoui

Nucleo – a collective of artists and designers directed by Piergiorgio Robino based in Torino, Italy.

Paul Cocksedge Studio has won national and international acclaim for its original and innovative design.

Matali Crasset – is an industrial designer.

Mathias Kiss – works at the crossroads of painting, sculpture and architecture.

Raw-Edges – a London-based studio comprising Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay.

Studio Drift – an artist collective that explores the boundaries of technology art and nature.

Germans Ermičs – investigating how people interact with their environment and how design can influence this interaction.

David/Nicolas – a Beirut based design studio co-founded by David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem.





Article by Anna Sansom
Article by Anna Sansom
Anna Sansom is a British journalist, based in Paris, who writes about contemporary art, design and architecture. View all articles by Anna Sansom