When Oskar Zieta was given the honor of creating a site-specific installation in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s sprawling central garden during this year’s London Design Festival, he had a fairly significant advantage. With his own high-tech metalworking factory in Poland capable of producing large-scale inflated-steel structures, he had the means to fabricate whatever flight of fancy he and his team might possibly dream up, no matter how ambitious. And yet standing in his way was an obstacle far more prosaic in nature, one it would take ingenuity moreso than technological muscle to surmount: teeny tiny doorways. “The doors were really small, and all the ideas of getting to the garden by a helicopter or by a crane had to be rejected because of the risk of destroying the museum’s façade,” he told the fair’s bloggers at the time. But for someone like Zieta — who’s spent the past eight years monomaniacally experimenting with the proportions of the metal sheets he welds at the edges and then blasts full of air — it read like an intellectual call to arms, inspiring him to develop the very first rolled-steel profile capable of unfurling like a cheap balloon animal when hooked up to an air pump on-site. “Imagine these being sold at IKEA by the meter,” he mused at the time. “I think this idea will change a lot in heavy industry.”
Like most designers who have come as far as Zieta has in his young career — his charming three-legged Plopp stool, produced by Hay, is well on its way to becoming a contemporary design icon — he’s made a habit of running headlong into challenges like these. After graduating from architecture school in 2000 and three years later finding himself having invented the metal-inflating method he now calls FiDU, he presented his first Plopp stool prototype in Milan only to realize there was no one out there who could actually make it. So by 2006 he’d convinced his father and sister to help him open and run his own factory, and now it’s both a manufacturing facility and a laboratory of sorts. “We use the production of small products and furniture objects to help us develop the technology,” he says, pointing out how long it took him just to work through the complexities of creating a tight seal around the edges of his pieces. “I work like Jean Prouvé, testing my ideas on a small scale. But I’m an architect, so ultimately I’m thinking on a bigger scale.”
It’s not that Zieta is necessarily itching to give up the benches and coat hangers in favor of writing his name into the skyline, just that his ambitions for FiDU are much larger. Because architects and designers typically need purpose-built molds to stamp out metal furnishings and facade elements the way his machines can — which is prohibitively expensive for anyone without huge economies of scale on their side, and doesn’t allow for mass-customization — his enduring quest is to help democratize this corner of industrial production, giving lesser folks than Gehry their own shot at a Bilbao. If he can eventually increase the technique’s precision, it might even serve the car industry, home to FiDU’s closest cousin, IHU: Used to shape elements of a car’s body, it entails blasting metal sheets into molds using high-pressure water jets. For now though, Zieta’s still focused on more basic problems, like tiny doors, and he let us peek in on his factory to see all the novel ways he’s solving them.
Kwangho Lee fancies himself a simple man. The 29-year-old grew up on a farm in South Korea watching his mother knit clothes and his grandfather make tools with his bare hands, which ultimately became the inspirations behind his work. He values nostalgia and rejects greed, and more like a craftsman than a designer, he prefers sculpting and manipulating ordinary materials to engineering the precise outcome of an object. “I dream of producing my works like a farmer patiently waiting to harvest the rice in autumn after planting the seed in spring,” he muses on his website. It all starts to sound a bit trite, but then you see the outcome: hot-pink shelves knitted from slick PVC tubing, lights suspended inside a mess of electrical wire, towering Impressionist thrones carved from blocks of black sponge. Lee may have old-fashioned ideals, but he designs for the modern world, and that’s the kind of transformative alchemy that draws people to an artist.
Harry Allen is a happening guy. From his design studio in New York’s East Village, he makes ironic banana bowls and pig banks for Areaware and is one of only three American designers working with the hip Italian furniture brand Skitsch, along with Jason Miller and Todd Bracher. His new Bang perfume bottle is all over the ad pages of major fashion magazines, strategically positioned atop a nude Marc Jacobs, and the skateboarding store Supreme owes its interiors to him. Allen is so evergreen, in fact, that it’s easy to forget the most basic fact of his biography: He’s been doing this for nearly 20 years. “Everyone treats me like I’m some kid, but I’ve been around for a long time,” he says. “When I started in 1993, there was no Moss, no Wallpaper. Philippe Starck was king, and everything was shaped like a horn. I looked at Europe and thought: That’s what I want to be, I want to be like Starck. I want to be Starck.” But while he did follow that model when he set up his own design studio in 1993 — as opposed to joining a corporation like most of his American peers were doing at the time — part of the reason Allen’s presence in the design world always feels so fresh is that unlike Starck, he's constantly reinvented himself along the way.
If you were familiar only with Uhuru’s work, it would be enough to surmise that the Brooklyn-based furniture designers are experts at creating something beautiful from practically nothing. (The formal term for this, we’re told, is up-cycling.) In the half-decade since RISD grads Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf have been designing their own line, they’ve produced chairs from Kentucky bourbon barrels, loungers from the Ipe wood planks of a demolished Coney Island boardwalk, and scrapwood stools so stylish they were recently picked to decorate the café at New York’s SANAA-designed New Museum. But while it's true Uhuru are a resourceful bunch, step into their sprawling Red Hook studio and any assumptions you might have about their bootstraps process all but disappear.