MILAN 2017

As if by Magic


27 April 2017

“We wanted to express this idea of impermanence, similar to that of a cherry blossom festival: you enjoy the glorious blossom for a week and then it all falls off and you don’t see it for another year,” says designer Azusa Murakami. “We’re interested in fragility and ephemerality, and bubbles became a perfect metaphor for that.”

New Spring, an installation designed by London-based design practice Studio Swine for fashion brand Cos, was the result of Murakami and her partner Alexander Grove's reflections on cherry blossom. A minimal tree-like structure crafted out of powder-coated scaffolding poles, its branches produce opaque bubbles that gracefully float to the floor. These are not the bubbles of children's parties or kitchen sinks however; Murakami and Groves devised a soap formula that grants the bubbles a curious robustness.

Studio Swine worked with various chemists and companies in an effort to find soap of a suitable consistency. “We went through a lot of different quantities and ratios,” says Groves. "The bubbles needed to be strong enough so it can bounce on fabric but not too strong that it would block the devices.” Wear a set of gloves or a particular item of clothing and you can interact with the bubbles like balls, batting them up and down. Landing upon other garments however, the bubbles behave as you would expect– bursting at touch. Yet as the bubbles burst, a smokey, scented vapour remains.

The installation was shown during Milan’s Salone del Mobile (4-9 April) and marks the 6th consecutive year that Cos has hosted an event during the city’s design week. Although COS is just one of a roster of brands capitalising on the commercial potential of the Salone (this year joining the likes of Airbnb, Audi and Mini), New Spring seemed sensitive to its designers and their vision. An oversized sign mounted on the venue’s facade screamed of Cos’s involvement, yet once inside the darkened space there was little inkling that New Spring was a branded project. Instead the installation took centre stage.

Cos set Studio Swine a relatively open brief. “We knew that the installation would be shown in Spring, in Milan and inside Cinema Art [a decommissioned cinema built in the 1930s by Italian architect Mario Cereghini] so we built the installation around these stipulations,” says Groves. The concept evolved out of a period of in-depth research, a process typical of Studio Swine. “We first looked at Milanese architecture: marble columns, arches and Milanese palazzos,” says Murakami. “ Then we looked at Murano glass and the way in which they are hand-blown to create an organic shape.” The opaque glassiness of the bubbles is a direct reference to this history of glass production.

New Spring’s simple aesthetic, however, conceals the installation’s complex mechanics. Studio Swine designed 2,000 custom-made parts in order to achieve the blowing of the bubbles and the gentle choreography in which they drop. While many parts were 3D printed, others were created by adapting pre-existing devices: medical pumps used for IV drips, for example.

“Bubbles are beautifully simple – children blow bubbles – but trying to create a mechanism that consistently blows bubbles while filling them with vapour as well as a scent is actually really difficult,” says Groves. “You underestimate the human touch and how difficult that is to replicate.” Although up to 250 bubbles are produced every minute, there is no sense of urgency in their delivery. Instead the bubbles fall gracefully. “It was important to not just make bubbles but to make them beautifully,” says Groves. “They are timed to have a poetic quality. Bubble machines just blast bubbles out at all angles, this is a totally different kind of feeling.”

In its commerciality, New Spring marks a departure for Studio Swine. The studio’s previous body of work has been largely self-initiated, with many projects resulting out of expeditions and lengthy period of preliminary research. Can City (2013), for example, is a collection of aluminium objects made from waste on the streets of São Paulo, created during a residency in the Brazilian city; Metallic Geology (2014) a series of cabinets made of aluminium foam, conceived in Shanghai during a research trip; and Hair Highway a collection of luxury objects made out of human hair, the result of Studio Swine’s research into China’s human hair industry.

Despite its obvious departure from such projects, New Spring does bear comparison to Studio Swine’s previous work. The installation is principally noteworthy as a piece of performative design; both in the choreography according to which the bubbles fall, as well as the manner in which members of the public interact with the bubbles. While a departure for the studio in terms of its scale and remit, New Spring nevertheless captures the spirit of Studio Swine’s broader approach: a focus on the production of objects, rather than a fixation on the final objects themselves. With New Spring, Studio Swine has pushed this concept further: the bubbles are purposefully ephemeral and transient, inseparable from the process that creates them.

The concept of impermanence that inspired the use of bubbles is further echoed in the design of the structure itself. Crafted out of reclaimed scaffolding poles, New Spring is assembled in modules such that it can be quickly erected and dissembled. “Both the structure and the bubbles, make the installation very ephemeral,” says Murakami. "It can just disappear after a week."