Purple Art

[June 15 2016]

An interview with the London-based design studio Soft Baroque on their Soft/Hard project noiw showing at Design Miami/Basel Curio 2016, Basel

Project Soft/Hard by SOFT BAROQUE , commissioned by Etage Projects for Design Miami/Basel Curio 2016, sees the sensory manipulation of interior design objects like benches and shelves, and the automated value inscription embedded in everyday objects. The surfaces of materials, like exotic wood and granite, are scanned and digitally printed onto silk textiles. Analyzing the idea of a digital veneer, these objects negotiate what happens when materiality travels from the physical to electric signals and pulses, and back again. As objects, they defy any obvious compartmentalization in art or design, and humorously explores the critical hierarchies that exists between functionalist and aesthetic objects. The project lends itself to trending discourses of object oriented ontology and speculative realism, with out abandoning our perverted sense of consumer logic.

JEPPE UGELVIG — What led you to investigate surface planes and digitization?

SOFT BAROQUE — The project started without the digital component. We saw a vast discrepancy in the market between the quality of design, and the monetary value of objects. Just as calculations about the attraction between galaxies suggest the presence of yet to be detected dark matter, we’re hunting for an invisible force to complete the equation. We started exploring the surface as a way to define this force to propose a new, twisted, design pillar: form and function + surface. 

Laminate timber floors, for example, have a micron thin layer of ink applied to them to resemble wood grain. Although, quantifiably, this is the thinnest ingredient in a diabolical sandwich of cheap materials, it is the most important in terms of the product’s desirability. The symbolism of the wood grain surface imbues it with material heritage and assimilates it into a cultural archive, though maintaining only a tenuous physical connection to what it represents. Surface can be as fine as a layer of ink, but critical to the production of value.

The notion of form has been expanded in the rise of digitally-generated architecture; software has become an integral part of utilitarian objects, generating new genres of contemporary products like USB latte cups. Similarly, surface is entwined with digital principles. An object can now appear in infinite aesthetic arrangements with the variation of its surface, freeing form from the limitations of material properties. Rustic textures are a common and popular feature of laminate flooring catalogues, delivering a floor complete with idiosyncratic cracks and knots; embossed and printed with high resolution surface texture.

As we are exhausting the avenues in material innovation, we are faced with two distinctive design trends. Firstly, innovation through software and interface design in the age of the digital craftsmen; instead of a watchmaker there is a coder ‘crafting’ a clock application. Instead of a plasterer, wall systems are CNC cut layers of composite materials. Second, the revival of elaborate design objects, driven by market forces in a quest for originality; the birth of the design gallery. Design is becoming more and more baroque, with innovative and expressive making processes that have extreme aesthetic consequences. We are interested in the discussion and interaction between these two patterns.

Surface Service is a digital glitch recreated with wood and stone for the domestic space. Similar to assigning and rendering an incorrect material swatch onto a CAD model, a super flexible phenomenon that can only exist in virtual construction. The pieces are a perversely logical attempt to recreate these digital gymnastics. 

JEPPE UGELVIG — Are you concerned with what constitutes ‘the real’, or are you trying to move past that?

SOFT BAROQUE — We are rather outward-looking and more interested in what the design community perceives as ‘the real’. This is reflected in the types of products available at any given time in the design landscape, from ‘high design’ to the pound stores. The market for replicas of the natural materials or experiences is increasingly blurry and our ability as consumers to arrange authenticity into some hierarchy is more and more demanding. Surface Service is a series of authentic materials presented as replicas. They share the same surface impression, but materially are the structural and tactile antithesis of one other.

JEPPE UGELVIG — What is your interest in interior design objects? Why those objects rather than sculpture, or consumer products, for example?

SOFT BAROQUE — We are interested in the pollination and demystification of both of these terms. Our work is blurring boundaries between furniture typologies and conceptual objects, often in an inflated version of reality, but without abandoning pragmatism. In doing so our studio is sort of contradiction. 

Sculpture often comes with a defined aura that signifies space around it. ‘Do not touch’ reads on a sign that designates a line one shouldn’t cross. We are interested in breaking this space to offer a haptic experience; this is why we were never interested in pure sculpting. To touch is an important gesture to us. We want to surpass the fetishization of objects and find a link with everyday life. When we think of objects, we don’t think about one absolute artefact but about how one thought process could be applied to many forms. We think about systems.

Forces like Amazon and eBay have drastically changed the way we perceive consumerism today. We now see things through tags and grids of generic product images, this has forced change in consumption, with consumer feedback loops generated by algorithms and ‘suggested’ products. We want to make a new criteria for these systems.

JEPPE UGELVIG — How did you choose the scanned ‘surfaces’? I find them quite general, but after close consideration, I realize their mutual attraction. 

SOFT BAROQUE — We used different criteria in selecting the surfaces, but all working towards a mutual goal: distortion of materiality. Hard original matter is transformed into soft representation by digitising its cultural content. The digital 300 dpi copy enables the mutation of the matter into surface. This idea of blurring different ‘materialities’ brings us to an example of conceptual art One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth. A folding chair, a photograph of a chair and a written definition of the word ‘chair’ are presented altogether to show different states of the same thing (material, visual and textual). We’re interested in these ontological relations between different representations.

On the other hand, we are also interested in the tradition of the trompe-l’œil: visual trickery that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusions. There are examples where architectural elements are painted so convincingly that it is impossible to distinguish, by eye, real from the fake. For instance, the fake dome painted on a low vaulted ceiling or the fresco depicting the Apotheosis of St Ignatius in the Sant’Ignazio church in Rome.

These were the ideas we had in mind when choosing the surfaces, but the materials also had to have a strong graphic presence. Granite is solid and durable, nature’s white noise, and represents a kind of pre-digital place-holder. The wood veneer is a luxury material, and conjures images of rosewood-lined corporate boardrooms. The wood is a rotary-cut bublinga, which has a natural uniform wavy grain, an aesthetic that appears computer-generated in a kind of distortion of the exotic veneer image. The third material, OSB, is one of the cheapest structural materials available in any given hardware store. It has an incredibly tough agglomeration of fibres derived from its manufacturing process of pulverization and reanimation of a natural element.

JEPPE UGELVIG — Digitization is something that challenges many value economies – from academic writing, to music, and art. Do you welcome it fully within a creative practice, or do you have concerns in this process?

SOFT BAROQUE — New media has inevitably become a vital tool in art and design. This post-net world is marked by the use of spectacle, special effects and ‘total’ production dedicated to mass fascination. In this landscape we try to be nonchalant about genres and excessively emphasise sensuality through the manipulation of visual effects. Digital is opening new and dramatic perspectives and we’re interested in the plasticity of this. Although ’image’ has become dynamic, fast and interactive, it remains fundamentally optical and detached from the experience of the body.

We often use digital component in our work as a process, system or link between different components and rarely as a final outcome. The goal of our practice is to produce tangible results for a living being with a nose, eyes, ears, taste buds and two swinging arms.

JEPPE UGELVIG — Challenging vision also encourages the use of other senses, which is a radical gesture in itself – in this case, the sensory, or to touch, which is theorized as a much more personal and intimate thing. Do you think of the ‘feeling’ of your works when working digitally?

SOFT BAROQUE — Yes, we always think about the feeling of things. A lot of our work has a wider sensory aspect to it. For instance, Lenticularis was a project we did to create a mirror that emits a perfumed vaporous cloud.

In the past, senses have been predominately overshadowed by the hypnotic affection of the visual but this is changing. Even purely-digital products, like gaming, are striving to become more sensorially-saturated. We’re witnessing increased popularity of other senses that were marginalized in the shift into the digital era. This is not a new idea, during the Sixties Gaston Bachelard used the term ‘the polyphony of the senses’. Good architecture and design is sensuous, engaging with different senses simultaneously.

JEPPE UGELVIG — I think humor is a strong element in your work, something that is welcomed after so much strive for purity in design for many decades. 

SOFT BAROQUE — We try to create links between elements that usually wouldn’t coexist, these can have a humorous outcome. We’re often making subtle ironies or in-jokes, a mechanism we use to question our values on design. We believe it’s important to re-think established aesthetic connections, that often don’t make much practical sense, but are unquestioned because they have been around for so long or they have snuck into our lives under pseudo-utilitarian promises. Often products are their own jokes, like absurd proposals for ‘better living’ on Kickstarter for example.

JEPPE UGELVIG — You work with image and object production, and the project invites deeper consideration of both. How do you approach these differently? Both as realms of knowledge and as practical formats or mediums?

SOFT BAROQUE — We come from different backgrounds, Nicholas from traditional furniture making and Saša from image making. This is the practical aspect of it. When we started to work together we were both interested in merging images and objects to create alternations in the translation between these states. This dialogue often seems to sneak into out work intuitively based on our backgrounds and past experiences.

Image always exists in space (even the digital image is framed by the computer screen), which deems it an object, though a super-thin object. Objects also have the features of an image or symbol. How many collectable, designer chairs are never sat on? They are items for viewing pleasure and the warm feeling of ownership (to own their symbolic value).

It has become increasingly difficult to define the point where image ends and object begins, but our desire to differentiate between the two is becoming less important. Now, with the proliferation of images we can share in this enjoyment, at least half of it.

Soft/Hard by SOFT BAROQUE is on view until June 19th, 2016 at the Design Miami/Basel Curio 2016 at Hall 1 Süd, Messe Basel, Switzerland

Text Jeppe Ugelvig and Photo Sasa Stucin

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