Oscar Wanless and Attua Aparicio certainly aren’t the first design students to have clashed with an industrial manufacturer, showing up the so-called experts by proving a seemingly impossible process quite possible after all. But the RCA grads—who now collaborate as Silo Studio—are certainly the first we’ve heard of whose triumph so impressed said manufacturer that they were asked to move into the factory. At an industrial park 45 minutes outside the center of London, Silo operates out of a small warehouse room on the premises of Jablite, the U.K.’s largest maker of styrofoam insulation panels. “They’ve got steam, which is how we produce what we produce,” explains Wanless, that being lumpy polystyrene furnishings once compared to “stage scenery for a production of Hansel and Gretel on acid.”
The pair’s experiments with the crumbly white stuff began when they were seniors in the RCA’s Design Products course and searching for an obscure or overlooked material to experiment with, one that would set them apart from their peers. “We were also looking for something that had its own language, and that we could make different shapes with very easily,” says Wanless. Styrofoam seemed perfect, except for two problems: It was only sold by the ton, in granular form, and the pressurized steam needed to expand those granules was considered dangerous for amateurs to wield. Company after company rejected Wanless and Aparicio’s pleas for help until someone introduced them to Jablite, and even then, they were strongly advised to follow protocols when working with the stuff — something design students aren’t exactly wont to do.
Ultimately, it was only by flouting standard practices that Wanless and Aparicio were able to develop their proprietary design process, which not only won them their “designers in residence” status at the Jablite factory but has since scored them solo shows and a spot on the shelves at the London design mecca Mint. During the city’s design festival in November, they were kind enough to let us poke around the Silo Studio HQ, where they explained their process in detail, and clued us in to the materials they plan to conquer next.
If you'd expect anyone to spend their days working amidst a snowdrift’s worth of process and ephemera, it’s London designers Doshi Levien. What you see piled atop the shelves and pinned to the walls of the couple’s Shoreditch studio, after all, is the product of two very different yet equally prolific minds working through their own approaches to the same tasks — Nipa Doshi being the Bombay-born lover of handicraft who collages, paints, and draws her way towards ideas from the ground up, and her Scottish husband Jonathan Levien, who spent his childhood in his parents’ toy factory and developed the more exacting methods of an industrial designer, prototyping proclivities and all. While both enjoy surrounding themselves with collected objects like Italian ice cream cups and Chinese pencil boxes, it’s impossible to understate the importance of the couple’s divergent interests to their work’s unique point of view; the designs that made them famous, after all, were daybeds and sofas for Moroso that combined industrially produced furnishings with hand-embroidery and textiles sourced from Indian artisans. It would be a cliché way of characterizing the pair if it weren’t so overwhelmingly true, even by their own admission: “After ten years of working together, I see it as an essential ingredient in what we do, almost a layer in the approach without which it would feel naked,” says Levien.
After Jean Lee met Dylan Davis while studying industrial design at the University of Washington, and after a string of successful school collaborations led them to start dating, the two of them did a semester abroad together in Rome. “Those were the good times,” laughs Lee. “We saw all these independent studios there, and designers working more as artists, and it was really inspiring for us. That wasn't happening at all in Seattle.” And so after they graduated in 2005, Lee went on to work for a messenger bag company based in Philadelphia, while Davis joined the team at Henrybuilt. They did a small trade selling vintage finds on Etsy for awhile, and eventually started repurposing those objects into new designs as a hobby. But what finally led them to join forces as Ladies & Gentlemen in 2009 were the first signs that they might be able to find in Seattle what they experienced in Rome after all: Not only had studios like Iacoli & Mcallister and Grain begun to flourish by making and selling their own work, their new coalition Join was gathering together local designers to collaborate and exhibit together. “Jamie Iacoli asked us to contribute to a show, and were like ‘What the hell? Let’s do it!’”
If there’s one thing that’s defined a Rich, Brilliant, Willing product since the studio’s three members graduated from RISD in 2007 and banded together to make furniture, it’s the idea of the mash-up. In most of their pieces, seemingly disparate materials and odd colors come together in a sort of joyful schizophrenia — a lamp with differently colored, awkwardly placed dowel legs, a wood-and-metal coat rack with copper, steel, and plastic pegs, and even a candle holder crowded with tapers, birthday candles, and fat, number-shaped votives. But a funny thing happened this spring: The trio released a series of cast-glass pendant lights with the Los Angeles–based design company Artecnica that were notable not only for their pretty, industrial aesthetic but for their adherence to a single, monochromatic material. “It’s unusual for any object to made of a single part these days,” says Theo Richardson, who with Charles Brill and Alex Williams makes up the trio, their surnames forming the basis for the studio's cheeky name. “Most of the time, things are glued together, screwed together. But for us, this was going from assemblage work to something that’s made of a single piece.”