Studio Visit
Study O Portable, Product and Jewelry Designers

You can learn a lot about Dutch designer Bernadette Deddens by just looking at her. First there are the shoes, which — depending on the day and the whims of London’s weather — she very well may have made herself. One pair of sandals constructed from $25 worth of pale leather and black cording could be mistaken for Margielas, yet are no less awe-inspiring for the fact that Deddens actually nicked the look from Tommy Hilfiger. After all, who makes their own shoes, anyway? Then there’s her jewelry, which is almost always her design, unless it’s a collaboration with her husband Tetsuo Mukai, with whom she formed Study O Portable two years ago. The jewelry is their way of giving people a form of creative expression that can be carried outside the house and into the wider world, as Deddens so poignantly demonstrates — hence their otherwise peculiar studio name.

That philosophy is one of many the pair agrees on, even though Deddens trained as a product designer at the RCA while Mukai studied fashion. “We share an interest in objects which require very simple properties to function well, such as paperweights, containers, and wearables,” they say. “Simple things also allow us to combine a concept with a function in a coherent way.” There’s another benefit to keeping things simple: They produce almost everything they make by themselves, in their Stoke Newington studio, in a building shared with dozens of other young design and art talents. Their workspace consists of one small room with one long desk and one high table where they keep a tiny drill press, plus various other tools. When Mukai is gone for the day working as a freelance pattern-cutter for one fashion house or another, as he was the day Sight Unseen visited, things feel a bit more spacious. But the couple must regularly take walks or meet friends for coffee in the neighborhood to keep from going stir-crazy, mostly because their tiny studio is also their home. (Don’t tell the fire marshall.)

This is also perhaps another subconscious reason they began designing objects that could be carried to and fro: There’s no room to leave them behind. Though now that they’ve begun selling some of their wares at the new Phillips de Pury shop in New York (along with, if all goes well, a future Sight Unseen online shop), they have a reliable outlet for the fruits of their ongoing creative pursuits. Here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what those currently entail.

 

 

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Study O Portable’s Level Scarves, whose overlapping herringbone patterns were inspired by an aerial view of city buildings but motivated by the pair’s desire to achieve a print with “a certain indeterminate aspect,” they explain. “It can produce almost infinite variations of patterns—as long as it’s printed twice in a different angle, it always results in something new.”

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One of the screens used to make the scarves. Deddens and Mukai do almost all of their own production; it’s partly a budget issue, of course, but it also satisfies their sense of curiosity. “We find it super important to understand how things are made, which is the main reason we hardly ever outsource,” they say. “It’s also nice to know that you can control the whole process.” The one time they did work with an outside producer recently—on a custom design for a heritage clogmaker in the British countryside—things didn’t end well. “It's just quite hard to find people who can make things to your standards.”

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Another design made in-house, a series of oversized leather bangles the pair designed in partnership with the Japanese fashion label Tomoko Yamanaka. The first set was in solid brights and neutrals, but when Sight Unseen visited, they were finishing up an experiment with splatter-painted versions. “It’s kind of funny that there’s such a difference between splatting and spotting,” says Deddens. “My first try was really round and nice, then I decided to do all the pieces at once and it became very Pollock-like, which is really not what I wanted.”

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Beyond making up the majority of their line, jewelry seems to be the couple’s main form of experimentation, as well. Shown here are two prototypes: on the left, for something they call the Lift Necklace — whose acrylic and brass “bead” can be shuttled up and down its chain, held in place by tension — and on the right for the Stairs Bangle, whose wooden joints proved too fragile for further production.

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Because their tiny Stoke-Newington studio is also their home, it’s both packed with inspiration and personal objects and filled with moments like these, where objects do double-duty. The office printer becomes a side table, piled high with natural mementos and jasmine cuttings Deddens is trying to resuscitate.

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On a shelf next to a picture of a young Deddens dressed as a farm girl for Dutch Carnaval, a photograph of two snow rabbits with massive feet holds special significance. Her thesis project at RCA explored the interaction between object fetishists or enthusiasts and their chosen obsession, and in particular rabbit breeders, a topic chosen because her own rabbit had just died. “I tried to explore how they actually engage with their subjects, and how they’re able to describe the object of their affection so much better than designers can describe the objects they make,” she explains. The end result was a book about the breeders, as well as a short story about a man who caressed his car each night when no one was looking.

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A pair of ornaments that were handmade in silk yarn by Mukai’s great-grandmother. “She wasn’t a craftsperson, she just started to make these balls as a hobby after she retired,” says Deddens. “She made them by the thousands and gave them away to relatives and friends. They’re really beautiful.”

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Deddens’s own great-grandmother, pictured here, had an equally prolific hobby. “Her name was Reina Stijkel, and she was always a very creative person,” Deddens says. “She used to be a professional dressmaker, and she was known in the community as ‘the woman with the golden hands.’ In her old age she kept herself busy sewing clothes, knitting, embroidering, and crocheting, and for a charitable project, she knitted 100 pairs of socks for people in Poland in the ’80s. I just saw in the picture that some of the socks also had a small bundle of spare yarn attached, to darn them with in case they broke.”

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This shelf holds relics of a past project, an exhibition Deddens and Mukai curated under their other moniker, the Workshop for Potential Design. Put on during London Design Week last year, it invited Peter Marigold, Max Lamb, Gemma Holt, Hiroko Shiratori, and Paul Elliman to contribute “Objects With a Void”; the geometric metal sculpture with the removable triangular core was Lamb’s. For the 2011 fair, they’ll present a second group show of objects that imitate other objects: “Methods of Imitation.”

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Their own version of an object with a void was the Fuzz container, which they developed for the show and now sell at the new Phillips de Pury shop on New York’s Park Avenue. Layer upon layer of ceramic resin is brushed onto a polystyrene shape, which is removed to form the void after the resin dries. This one is a rhombic dodecahedron.

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Here, some of the polystyrene “voids” sit atop the long cylinders of another Study O Portable project, the Baum bracelets. They’re made just like the Fuzz containers but built around a hollow tube, and when they dry, they’re sliced into striated bangle bracelets. The name is a reference to Baumkuchen — or German “tree cake” — which is similarly made on a rotating spindle, with batter ladled on in layers as the cake cooks by way of an adjacent heat source.

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This is the hand-operated rotating spindle the pair uses for Fuzz and Baum. “We decide on a color scheme first, and then one by one we layer each color on,” says Deddens. “Each object has about 50 layers. The process takes about two days before we even get to the cutting, sanding, polishing, and waxing because we have to wait 20 to 30 minutes while one layer dries before we can add the next.”

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A brick used to weigh down the spindle during operation has taken on a lovely mottled appearance.

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Diagrams of the Fuzz and Baum color schemes. “We started with Josef Albers colors — on a tetrahedron with a dark green and light grey interior that both fade into a mango yellow exterior — but eventually we decided that the inside needed more contrast, where the shape is sharpest,” Deddens explains. “Where the shape gradually blurs, the colors can blur into one. Now the colors are really just chosen on taste.”

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A shelf filled with Baum bracelets (left) and leftover resin from color tests and past production runs. “We thought to keep them for reference, but it doesn’t really make sense, because we use so little dye to produce each color batch that we can't really write down the formulas to reproduce them,” says Deddens. The black-and-white wooden blocks hanging on either side are the aforementioned necklaces that can be arranged in a block to resemble miniature linoleum-tiled flooring — a private detail only the wearer would know.

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Similarly, these modular acrylic beads are abstract when worn around the neck, but when taken off at night can be formed into something resembling a cityscape.

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Among Study O Portable’s better-known products are the Ananas bracelets, wherein two massively oversized, knurled bangles in the style of the one on the right in this photo can be used in tandem in order to produce a third, resembling a pineapple — à la the example on the left. Deddens is toying with the idea of making a new series of the bangle tools in copper. “They’d be smaller, just a little bit more wearer-friendly,” she laughs.

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The colorful table on one wall of the studio is a project that originated with Mukai, which the pair are still developing. It’s called Speculative Mass, and it plays with the idea of rolling dice to determine the height, width, depth, thickness, and color of each element of the table, producing endless randomized variations of the same design. At left is a sofa covered in a vintage Dutch blanket.

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A small woven-yarn object from Oman was a gift from a friend...

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…As were the two prototypes that Deddens and Mukai keep stashed on a shelf lofted above their private living space. On the left is a wooden stool by Hiroko Shiratori, on the right an early version of the Tailored Stool from Raw-Edges, which is made by shooting a fabric structure full of hardening foam. One thing you discover quickly when visiting designers in London is that quite a few of them live and work in very close proximity; Philippe Malouin, Peter Marigold, Liliana Ovalle, and the group in OKAY Studio were all either in the same building as or down the road from Study O Portable’s space.

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The aforementioned designers are all quite close, as well. When Shay Alkalay and Yael Maer of Raw Edges had a baby in December, a bunch of them got together to make a mobile as a baby gift, including: Matthias Hahn (“giggleing chickpeas”), Tomas Alonso and Erika Muller (thread-wrapped stick), Jordi Canudas (rubber bow), Ovalle (fabric cube), Shiratori (white book), plus Deddens and Mukai themselves (green wooden trees). The gift hadn’t been given yet when Sight Unseen visited in March. “Today Yael told me, ‘I want you guys all to come over, and we could make a mobile in paper for the baby,’” laughs Deddens. “I said, ‘I think that’s a really bad idea. We should make bibs instead.’”

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Hanging on the wall was a wire lamp shade made from a laser-etched brass sheet by Max Lamb, who made it with another college friend in in 2006 for an installation. “I bought it for Tetsuo,” says Deddens.

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Her own necklace the day we visited was this vintage bowtie, a relic from a time when she used to work in a vintage shop.

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Another vintage item we discovered in a corner: A box containing an embroidery craft set that Deddens used as a child growing up in the small northeastern Dutch town of Ter Apel, where her mother owned a lingerie, sock, and pajama shop. “She was trained as a dressmaker and police officer,” Deddens notes.

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Deddens doesn’t really collect vintage anything anymore, but she does have one weakness: rocks. “I think I have an eye for these things,” she says. “When I sit down on a gravel driveway or a rocky beach I always find something I really like. I lose sight for everything else.” Among the specimens she showed us were four perfectly-round eroded rocks she spotted in Brighton and Rye, plus these two — the heart is natural, as far as Deddens knows, while the pattern on the left will be immediately recognizable to anyone who’s seen the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force. “It’s Meatwad!” she marvels.

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As we prepared to leave, Deddens began fishing through a box of letters she and Mukai made by hand for a Christmas market held at Somerset House two years ago (the letters are now for sale at the Phillips shop). “It started off as just, okay, we’ll make letters out of all of our offcuts and they’ll all be different,” she says. “But then we thought it was much more challenging to do 26 letters in the same style, in the right proportions.” After I searched in vein for a spare M to take home with me, Deddens made me one from scratch using a handsaw and a hot-air welder. I got to walk out of the studio with a portable Study O Portable. Fancy that.