For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
2018 Core77 Design Awards Furniture & Lighting Jury Captains John and Wonhee Ardnt founded their studio, Studio Gorm, in 2007. In addition to maintaining Studio Gorm, John and Wonhee simultaneously work as product design professors at the University of Oregon. The result of their diverse sculpture and craft backgrounds merged with academic research spanning across the areas of culture and technology is an array of thoughtful, functional and approachable objects designed for modern everyday life. In a recent discussion with the designers, we touched on their current work—including Furnishing Utopia/Shaker Reinterpreted—and how technology influences their work.
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Can you tell me a little bit about what you've been up to this year?
John: This last year has been really busy. We've been working on our Shaker project, which last year we showed in Stockholm and then in New York, and then we're working on another iteration of that right now for Design Week in New York. We have a bigger group of people we invited—about 10 new design studios from all over the place.
Wonhee: We also showed at WANTED Design and received the American Design Honor, and debuted a standing table in Neocon Chicago.
Studio Gorm for HBF
John: Yeah, for the company HBF. It's a standing conference table for meetings, but we were thinking about people coming into meetings and working in spaces temporarily, so it has a lower level shelf where you can store bags and other things, and the power is all below.
Wonhee: Before this, we mainly focused on residential space, but it was nice to think about workspaces.
John: And then, kind of similarly, we did a project for Google. They have an annual event called SPAN, which is run by Google Design, so it has to do a lot with UX, UI, kind of different clients and so we designed the event space for them in Pittsburgh. It was a 2-3 day event, so we built workshop spaces, meeting rooms and the cafe area, restaurant…It was a large industrial space that we got to transform. Very different scale for us.
Yeah, it sounds like you guys got a good variety of projects in, you probably learned a lot.
John: Yeah, definitely.
In terms of what you're working on now, you said that you're updating the Furnishing Utopia project. Is that still the kind of work that you're really focused on? What has been inspiring you lately?
Wonhee: Yeah, it's really nice to work with designers and learn more about how they work. So Furnishing Utopia is something we found really fun to do, but we've been looking at something we did during Google's SPAN conference. We also ran a workshop where different participants could make a kite. When we went to Korea, John was really excited about the Korean kites; the shape of it and the culture, so we kind of wanted to incorporate this. The people we had in the workshop were making Korean kites during SPAN, and since then we've been excited about playing with that—lightweight sculpture using thin materials—and making forms.
John: We're doing some stuff right now that's purely material experimentation, kind of looking at mobiles and materials. Oftentimes those experiments will lead to something that's a more commercial product or it could be an exhibition piece, but it's nice to have those exploratory days where you're just thinking about a material or a process and seeing what you can do with it.
Wonhee: We don't know what it's going to be yet.
Pieces made by a number of invited designers for the Furnishing Utopia project
John: So we're doing that, and at the same time we're doing a lot of consulting work. It's that mix of personal, exploratory things and very commercial, specific briefs. And then there's the Shaker project, which is really nice because as designers we had an opportunity to see how other people work. People often work in an isolated way where even if you're working for the same company, it's not often that you get to interact with each other or see how things are going. So with this project we've tried to make it as open as possible for participating designers where they can collaborate with each other and work on something that's not quite as corporate.
It's nice to get the opportunity to collaborate even just for the sake of collaboration. So as you are this year's Furniture & Lighting Jury Captains, what are some principles you would associate with quality work when it comes to furniture & lighting?
John: One of the things we've been talking about is really thinking about consideration of material and craft. I think it's important to have a balance between looking at new technology and looking at new forms. The needs of people and spaces often don't change that much, so it's often about coming up with really thoughtful solutions to something.
Wonhee: Part of the reason we thought about Shakers again in 2017-2018 is because furniture's lifespan is much longer. Technology is growing fast, but that also means it changes a lot and becomes obsolete really fast. So how do we accommodate those technologies but also evolve within modern life? Also, how do we design something that lasts longer?
John: Within furniture design, people often try to do a showpiece and think about the image being really important, but it's also thinking about how these things are going to fit into the context of daily life and be easily usable and functional. It's one thing to make a chair that's a stunning image, but thinking about something that is, one, comfortable, but then also can fit within a space with other things. Having that kind of thoughtfulness about how it's going to be used by a person and having that be paramount.
Wonhee: And that's kind of what we want to see with submissions in the awards.
John: Obviously the aesthetics and form have to be well considered but also thinking about manufacturing and material use, how innovative they are in those regards, as well as thinking about the context of everyday use.
Pieces made by Studio Gorm for their Furnishing Utopia exhibition
How does technology influence and inspire your work?
Wonhee: We do a lot of computer work, renderings, 3d software, CNC router and 3D printer work. All of these tools are very necessary and great. Especially with 3D printers, we can test things really easily. It allows us to do things more efficiently. With furniture, your body relates to it, so having scale and proportion right is really important, and that can be useful when you build prototypes and test things. But these things for us are just tools.
John: It can be easy to do everything digitally and make really beautiful renderings. In the industry a lot of things you see are often just images and not even necessarily something you see in person—it's online and in magazines. It's easy to be seduced into having that be your sole focus, but in the end it's all about making functional things, and all those technologies really help you with how it relates to the body, how it relates to other objects and that level of consideration. Those digital technologies expand your horizons and what you're capable of but should build on top of other skills. I think what's exciting about it is it opens up doorways and possibilities to people as far as leveling the playing field about manufacturing possibilities. There's less of the gatekeeper of the bigger industries that only have access to certain production capabilities. Digital fabrication opens that up where people are able to produce things that are very technical more easily. It's sort of like a renaissance in a way in terms of what is possible.
Wonhee: It also helps to create shapes that were otherwise not possible, so there's more freedom of form exploration.
John: Yeah, and 3D printing helps you test very small parameters and make very quick changes, which normally in an industry you make a change and someone manufactures a prototype, they test it and you come back to it and make another change. The designer is able to make a lot of adjustments themselves and accelerate the process.
Wonhee: Without making something using, like, injection molding machines or building costly and time-consuming parts.
John: But then there's also the risk of, because it's so easy sometimes to make some of these things, that you may not take the time to be considerate or thoughtful; you just crank stuff out really quickly.
So it should be used as a tool where it enhances your abilities to create something, but maybe also frees up the designer and allows them to not have to work for a big company in the same way they may have in the past.
Studio Gorm's "peg" furniture
When we're talking about technology, material is applicable, and there's a big conversation going on about how we're using materials and also the types of materials that are being created. Is this something you guys have been paying attention to?
Wonhee: I think these days you see a lot of designers, especially in the furniture industry, trying to use true material, whether it's marble or brass or ceramics, kind of showing that the materiality is there and showcasing the inherent beauty of it instead of trying to alter it too much. I see a lot of those approaches, which is nice.
John: I think people are really trying to explore what is possible with different materials in manufacturing. Even in the lighting field with LED technology, it's really transformed what is possible. And as that technology improves and gets smaller, more compact and more accurate as far as light and color, it really opens up what is possible within that field. So it's an interesting area right now where you can take these really new materials, processes, technologies, and then combine them with traditional materials and processes. So how do you bring in something new, but also make it something that's not alien at the same time?
Wonhee: Something like a piece of marble brings up the value of the object. It's great to use all this true material, but I think the most important thing is understanding what the material does. Each material has its own property, and we should try to come up with a function or form that emphasizes those materials' inherent qualities. Your design emphasizes what the material should be used for.
John: Yeah, like are you using stone because it has valuable inherent properties? Is the weight somehow valuable, or is the material property beneficial for say, a tabletop? It's not just necessarily for the showmanship of it, but is there a good, logical reason behind that material, and also does the form reflect the inherent properties of that material…does the construction have a good understanding of the material properties?
Is there something you guys haven't done yet that you want to do in the future?
John: We're always interested in trying new things; we haven't really done much upholstered soft furniture, and that's something we'd like to do. There's something really nice about, again, what materials can do and thinking about softer materials and how those dictate different types of forms and comfort. Like we were saying, just experimenting with Korean kites, that sort of process of taking a new material or a process and thinking, "I don't know what this is going to yield, but how can I try to understand these materials?" and then see what you can get from them. Also creating something that is somehow contemporary and innovative, not alienating people and borrowing from traditions.
Wonhee: With the Shaker Project, we've been inviting designers from all over the world, but I'd love to expand it to not only Shakers. Like, we could explore other craft in different cultures—it could be in Germany, it could be in Korea, or it could be Japan. That's something we're thinking about now and possibly wanting to explore in the near future.
That would be really cool. There should be some documentation involved in that for sure.
John: Yeah, we're looking at a project in Germany that we're at the very early stages on, kind of looking at some traditional craft and design movements and how those could be reinterpreted. Also not just working with designers but also working with manufacturers, figuring out how there could be a better dialogue between the two. I think the thing about the Shaker project was that designers could come together and talk about their process and learn about things together in a different context than they normally would but then to also bring in manufacturers and kind of that component to a project is also a really interesting task. You could have some of these conversations and dialogues where designers and manufacturers could work together.
Wonhee: It's good to think about mass production, but also, even in the United States there's small-scale production, and in Germany too, who also sometimes have trouble getting work. People these days are more interested in knowing where things are coming from and where things are made, so there's a lot of potential for us to explore and see through contemporary eyes while also maybe working with craftspeople who are highly capable.
John: And there have been a few really interesting projects like this. There's Arita in Japan where they're trying to revive the tradition of ceramic production, bringing in great designers, that's a really nice one. Ariake also in Japan works with designers doing workshops in the factory. So it's less of this remote way of working where designers are just working in one country or one state [away from manufacturers]. While it's really amazing that you can do that, it's also exciting to be on the ground collaborating and knowing what is possible as a manufacturer. There's a disconnect between the designer and the manufacturer, and you're going between someone like a product developer, and to kind of close those gaps, one, you can make designs that are better suited to what is possible but also kind of open up that dialogue. I think it would be really beneficial to all sides.
The Core77 Design Awards Furniture & Lighting Jury
2018 Furniture & Lighting Jury Captains John Arndt & Wonhee Jeong Arndt will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:
Chris Liljenberg Halstrøm, Founder, Chris L. Halstrøm
Thom Fougere, Founder, Thom Fougere Studio
Jamie Wolfond, Founder, Good Thing
Christopher Specce, independent designer & Professor of Furniture Design at RISD