The founders of Belgium's Studio Plastique explain how their research-based projects and material investigations aim to position design as "a tool for a world that is in transition" in this interview as part of our VDF x Alcova collaboration.
The studio's Theresa Bastek and Archibald Godts said they hope to address both our "impulsive attitude towards objects" as well as the increasing issue of "social and economic fluctuation" through a similar method of design exploration.
"We need to investigate these complex issues as if they were supply chains, mostly invisible, and only revealing themselves when they break down during emergencies," they said.
The studio, which was established by the Design Academy Eindhoven graduates in 2017, is known for research-heavy investigations into the material origins and wider technological infrastructure of our everyday lives.
To encourage a more circular use of materials, the studio has previously extracted silica – a compound found in sand and often used to create kitchen appliances – from discarded machines and repurposed it to form a series of glass tableware.
Another project saw the duo explore the material possibilities of the flax plant beyond just linen fabric and linseed oil, in order to encourage the revival of local, Western European production, which has largely been outsourced abroad.
As part of this year's Milan design week presentation by design platform Alcova, Studio Plastique was set to curate an exhibition of work from Brussels designers that are rethinking what the discipline is and what it can achieve.
With the furniture fair suspended due to the ongoing pandemic, Bastek and Godts joined the Alcova team for an interview about their work and how it has been affected by the current situation.
Alcova: How do you define your studio model?
Studio Plastique: We have a research-based design practice. We look mostly into existing production systems, from material cycles to the broader complex mechanisms created by human activities, local or global.
Rather than the traditional relation between design and industry, we see design as an interaction and investigation where answers are formulated more as an empathic and vernacular conversation rather than magic solutions. We look for unexplored territories where we feel society is heading, where design is needed but not yet delivered by the industry and try to bridge that gap by dragging industry actors in those directions.
Alcova: Your own work touches on many issues that have suddenly become urgent, from 5G and supply chains to education and the integration of elderly people into society. What is the starting point for your projects?
Studio Plastique: Over the past three years, we have gradually moved from self-initiated research to commissions and collaborations with companies and institutions of different sizes. We investigate our reality in terms of the gaps – material or immaterial – that we want to tackle.
On one hand, there is a manmade material condition, which features an extreme dissonance between our impulsive attitude towards objects and the resulting ecological impacts. That could lead to an investigation of sustainable material cycles, but also more abstract questions like new models of ownership of objects.
On the other hand, there is an immaterial condition, an acceleration of information, of social and economic fluctuation, which people can sense intuitively but are unable to explain or even "see". That immateriality tends to make us suspicious of new technologies even if they are crucial to our everyday lives. In our project Flight Mode, we addressed the "invisible pollution" of electromagnetic radiation as a problem for design – not to be solved rationally or stylistically, but to ameliorate people's fears and instincts towards control, to explore their openness to change.
Some of our projects involve both conditions. For example, our research into education looked at the contemporary legacy of schooling standards shaped by the Industrial Revolution. What are the best practices we can learn from educational experiments around the world, in order to prepare today’s children to be members of the future society we want to create? What education and climate change have in common is our general response of neutrality, a position that we can no longer maintain.
We need to investigate these complex issues as if they were supply chains – mostly invisible, and only revealing themselves when they break down during emergencies. We have to understand the complete global infrastructure before we can situate our investigations, no matter how small or local. If we want to change the status quo as designers, we must address the present crisis in the context of broader underlying issues: we need to collaborate with specialists and be empathic to social needs in applying new tools at our disposal.
Alcova: Has your process been affected by the pandemic?
Studio Plastique: Our process has not changed much, but our long-term work will be very affected if the current restrictions are in place for an extended period of time, as field study is an important part of our research into how things are processed.
For now, we have had more time to read and listen and connect to others over online channels – if anything, people seem to be more open to sharing ideas and connecting to our research.
At the same time, we are interested in the external effects of the current crisis on the outlooks of businesses and individuals. Is a commitment to ecological issues now seen as more of a luxury or a matter of even greater urgency?
During this period, we all had to adjust to conditions outside of our comfort zone, and perhaps that will make us more aware of the need to keep informed and more receptive to structural changes in our lives, which could be for health as much as for environmental purposes.
Alcova: What were you preparing to show at Alcova during the Salone del Mobile, and how have your plans changed?
Studio Plastique: In this case, we have been working not as designers ourselves but as curators on an exhibition of local designers from Brussels, looking for creative practices that are defining new tools and finding new applications for design. Our goal is to show design as a tool for a world that is in transition, starting a discourse that is oriented at a broader public, that will break open the common understanding of what designers do and what tools they use.
We want to highlight examples like Rotor, who have worked for years to recuperate architectural materials from demolished buildings, renew them through scientific methods, and bring them to market through digital retail. Such processes can be very abstract for a general audience, and that’s what we want to highlight.
Due to Covid-19, the exhibition has been delayed but will happen at a later stage. For the moment, we are contemplating what online exhibitions could mean, but they are not yet our main priority in terms of outreach. We believe space and physical sensations – even smells – are crucial elements in showing people what design can be.
Virtual Design Festival is the world's first online design festival, taking place on Dezeen from 15 April to 10 July 2020.
Alcova is a Milan-based platform established by Italian practices Space Caviar and Studio Vedèt, which champions independent design through a programme of exhibitions. The team consists of Valentina Ciuffi, Joseph Grima, Martina Muzi, Tamar Shafrir and Marco De Amicis.
The VDF x Alcova collaboration presents interviews with eight studios that were set to be featured at the platform's Milan design week presentation this year.