For Uglycute, it all began with a Bruno Matthson knockoff. It was 1999 and Swedish design was having a moment, but not, it seemed to the group’s four fledgling members, for the kinds of edgy experimental crafts and artistic hybrids being made by the emerging scene at the time — Wallpaper magazine and its ilk were still peering into the long shadows of Sweden’s old modernist icons. And so architecture grad Fredrik Stenberg and artists Jonas Nobel, Andreas Nobel, and Markus Degerman vented their frustration in the only way they knew how: by mounting a show around a sarcastic simulacrum of Matthson’s Eva chair made from a clunky particle-board box and cheap nylon straps. Complemented by a set of primitive clay pinch pots and a crude plywood table, the installation served as a launch pad for the group, and its subject matter — elevating cheap materials in order to question traditional norms of beauty and value — lent their firm its distinctive name. “It was meant as a new take on formalistic values,” says Nobel, who with the other three partners has since built a thriving practice known for its work with museums and clients like Cheap Monday.
Back then those themes made particular sense to Nobel and Stenberg, friends since they were 15, who had spent a great deal of time together during their university studies pondering the overlap between art theory and architecture theory. (Nobel’s art practice also happened to revolve around inspirations and narratives taken from architecture, which wasn’t uncommon in the Swedish art world at the time.) One idea the pair circled around went something like this: “The art world has its own economy and rules, the design world another, and architecture a third,” explains Stenberg. “If you sell a piece of chipboard in an art context, there’s no limit to how much money you can take for it. If you sell it as a design object, though, it’s something completely different. And this interplay is something we find very interesting.” Plus, they reasoned, why is marble considered unequivocally better than concrete? Is that a heirarchy we can debate?
If that approach to materials sounds familiar to fans of the Memphis group, which took a similar tack as it attempted to skewer modernism back in the ’80s, it certainly isn’t lost on Uglycute. “We are absolutely following in the Memphis tradition,” Nobel says. “We relate more to Memphis than we do to Droog, for instance, because they were more interested in the value of materials than the value of imagery or concept.” They also shared Uglycute’s obsession with muddying the waters of good taste: “If you go to school, you develop what’s considered taste, but there’s a risk in that because it becomes very hard to surprise yourself,” Stenberg explains. “You begin to reproduce what you know already works. You have to get past your own good taste and be able to open the wrong door in your head to create something new.”
The irony, of course, is that doing the wrong thing is cool, and ultimately it becomes the fashionable thing, until in a way, you’re left right back where you started — a fate the postmodernists ultimately suffered. But Uglycute are perfectly happy with their success, and looking forward to their first retrospective this February in Stockholm, which will come with an accompanying monograph. And they still have no shortage of provocative ideas, as Sight Unseen learned when we visited their studio in February during Stockholm Design Week, documented in the slideshow at right.
The Beyoğlu district is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul, but for centuries, it’s been the Turkish cultural capital's most modern quarter as well. So it's fitting that the creative firm helping to spearhead the growth of modern design in Turkey has all but grown up on Beyoğlu’s cobbled streets. Autoban is housed in a half-baroque, mid-19th-century Italianate building, but inside, the studio is almost seamlessly modern.
Had Jakub Zak and Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte met and not formed a partnership, it might have seemed almost sacrilegious, a kind of fuck-you to the gods of fate. After simultaneously studying design in their native Canada, and then again at the very same university in Berlin together, the pair only became aware of one another's existence once they'd both moved to Milan to start their professional lives — Lecompte as a roving member of the Montreal-based Samare studio and Zak as a designer for Patricia Urquiola. As if the shared condition of being the only two Canadians they knew who were actively working in the Milanese design scene weren't enough, they happened to meet at the precise moment in each of their careers where they were yearning to try something independent, experimental, and new. Samare was three years old and growing quite successful, but its physical manifestation was way across the Atlantic, and it maintained a relatively narrow focus on Canadian crafts and heritage; Zak was — and still is — working full time for Urquiola, "which is pretty demanding," he says. "You reach a stage where you want to start doing projects of your own. Oeuffice is a research-minded collaboration where Nicolas and I can play with new techniques and materials in ways we might not have the opportunity to otherwise."
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.