Predicting the future of design may be a grandiose (if not altogether futile) conceit, but we're always interested to see practical visions as to what it might hold. While big data and wearables remain in the ether as buzzwords—namely as potential avenues for designers to tap into Silicon Valley coffers—and digital fabrication has yet to deliver on its promise of an industrial revolution, it's refreshing to encounter well-executed projects that are on the cusp of production.
The work of Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw fits the bill. It's always a pleasure to actually meet designers with whom I've only exchanged a few e-mails and whose work I've only seen in JPGs, and although I met them very briefly in Milan, I had the opportunity to spend more time with them in their natural habitat in London shortly thereafter.
I arranged to visit their Southwark studio on a pleasant April morning, and van Aubel happens to roll up by bicycle as I approach their block (as she doffs her helmet, she notes that she started wearing in London—after all, she's no longer in the cycling utopia of her native Netherlands). Shaw is already at the shop, working on what I later learn is a cabinet for van Aubel. It's an unassuming space in a quiet part of town: Each of the four rooms on the ground floor holds evidence of its occupant; the two designers share the building with ceramicist Jesse Wine and painter Glen Pudvine, who also lives in the apartment upstairs and occasionally hosts exhibitions in the front room of the space.
Indeed, PlazaPlaza is one of just a couple of creative spaces on the dead-end road in the predominantly residential South London neighborhood of Elephant & Castle. It's not far from attractions such as the Tate Modern and Borough Market (in fact, it took me about ten minutes to walk there after the studio visit), but an NYC analogue escapes me (Long Island City, maybe?).
Nevertheless, the space itself feels familiar; it's comfortable, functional, and well-used, yet rather unremarkable, as studios go. Which is not to say that van Aubel and Shaw haven't made it their own: Viva Radio is the soundtrack (van Aubel: "It's from New York, very hyper. It's nice studio music") and curious grove of potted plants, adopted from a plant-tending service a few doors down, adds a splash of greenery. That, and the fact that a squad of Well Proven Chairs and Stools takes up much of the office space, not to mention various prototypes, samples and experiments crammed into the various nooks and crannies of the studio.
Of course, the Well Proven Chair is the very basis of their collaborative efforts, which they originally developed as classmates at RCA, in a studio sponsored by the American Hardwood Export Council. Initially exhibited at the V&A during London Design Festival 2012, the chair has legs, so to speak, and is now available through two galleries in London, dealers in Milan and Miami, and Dutch label Transnatural as well. Van Aubel concedes that she's "quite bored of making them—we've made way too many of them," yet she takes pride in the fact that they've more or less perfected the process. "Now we are actually able to control the foaminess about it... 300%, 250%, able to control it. It's a weird thing [to say]."
"Well it took so long to get control, right?" Shaw chimes in. "And until that point, it was like, we kind of know what's going on... [and now we] finally have that control over what's happening. It's still that sort of weird balance between the control and the not control, [where] it can do something unexpected, right?"
Van Aubel has long embraced this hands-on, experimental approach; as the daughter of chemists, she is adept at manipulating and developing new materials and has collaborated with Joris Laarman on one of his many projects. At one point, she produces a white brick of a material that looks something like styrofoam that has been infused with resin. "This is porcelain that expands in the kiln. It rises about 300%, like bread—like you're making bread or cake with porcelain. It's very lightweight, it's waterproof and it floats in water." Although we duly noted the project back in 2010, she is currently working with a materials science to adapt it for architectural applications—"it's a whole different world... but it seems like it makes the most sense."
Her most recent project, on the other hand, is well within her domain. The "Current Table" is the evolution of her thesis project, "The Energy Collection." As with the glasswares, the new project is the result of a close collaboration with a solar cell company Solaronix—a tabletop embedded with dye-sensitized photovoltaic cells that harvest ambient solar energy (i.e. the surface need not be in direct sunlight to passively generate a current) in a process similar to photosynthesis.
Whereas the designers still make the stools and chairs themselves—they may hire an assistant to do it in the near future—van Aubel has a more ambitious outlook for the Current Table. "I have to conduct some meetings with the solar cell company and the furniture company... It would be nice if I could design it and I don't have to manufacture it myself."
Images courtesy of Marjan van Aubel
Shaw, for his part, is still feeling things out. Having graduated just under a year ago (a year behind van Aubel), he may well be coming to terms with the fact that it can take years for an idea to come to fruition. A telling bit of banter:
"That's totally the thing, isn't it? You've been working on [the solar cell] project for what, like three years now? Four?"
Marjan responds in her clipped (but not unfriendly) tone: "Two years."
"No, it's longer than that, right? When you first went to Switzerland..."
"That was 2012, it's 2014 now... You graduated only nine months ago. Like, July."
"Time goes too slowly, man. Seriously." We share a laugh, but Shaw is only half-joking; gathering his thoughts, he reflects, after a pause: "[In the past,] the temptation would always have been to be like, 'Ah, this is done now. This has happened.' And like move on to the next thing. But you gotta like just keep on pushing that same thing."
The next thing for him? It turns out that the cabinet that Shaw was working on when I arrived is a prototype for a jointing system that he's "hoping to get into shops, [as] a shop fitting." "So this is kind of like a first testing of how the internal structure of the shelves and stuff works."
For the time being, though, Shaw and van Aubel are pushing their claim to fame to date, the Well Proven Stools and Chairs (a chaise is in the works as well). Their appeal may not be obvious at first glance, but that's kind of the point: As a kind of controlled explosion, they're crude and refined at once. They don't disguise their materiality and construction; on the contrary, it's a kind of exhibitionistic display of the ugly made beautiful.
But the vaguely geological texture is as much a subtle critique of the cheap chipboard backsides of, say, IKEA's mass-produced wares as it is an expression of the chairs' very essence. The gnarly/resin-y texture camouflages the fact that they're actually made of the shavings and sawdust that are the by-product of lumber processing. This is the concept at the heart of the Well Proven series, which both fulfills the seminal brief of Life Cycle Analysis and elevates it beyond a riff on the traditional schoolchair (which served as the initial mold). "Understanding that processing wood from planks to products incurs 50% to 80% of timber wastage during normal manufacture, Marjan van Aubel and James Shaw looked at ways of incorporating waste shavings into design using bio-resin," reads the About page. "A curious chemical reaction occurs when it is mixed with the shavings, expanding it into a foamed structure."
Moreover, the seats' semblance to an igneous rock was not lost on an unnamed patron, who'd seen the Well Proven Chairs and extended an invitation to a kind of artists' residency on the island of Stromboli. "She's just like this sort of cool rich Italian lady, who loves hanging out with artists," Shaw explains. "It's so amazing, it's literally just sea, and then the volcano—it comes straight out of the sea, and that's it. And it's still active now."
The two designers giddily chatter about the opportunity, for which they depart next week, but they remain focused on the product itself, lest they compromise the the concept behind it. "We have to watch out, not like putting lava [on the chairs], just some dust or something—to really work with the islands," says van Aubel.
"I quite want to find some burnt wood," Shaw muses, "Where a tree gets in the middle of the lava."
"There's no point in adding lava to the chairs, but the dust could make sense," van Aubel continues. "But it's difficult to say now, maybe we just go there... It's still the chairs, but cool new things are happening with it."