October 10, 2012

Tomes: Mondo Materialis

The year is 1990. The place is the venerable Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York. The exhibition is the historically insignificant, yet unbelievably time-stamped “Mondo Materialis”, an exploration of new, relevant, and trending materials for the design trades, organized and executed by the Steelcase Design Partnership. 125 design and architecture firms contributed square collages of raw materials, ranging from materials science tech-demos to self-aggrandizing calling-card mood boards, or even snide “subversive” commentary. The images included here were scanned from the exhibition catalog, titled “Mondo Materialis: Materials and Ideas for the Future”, published concurrently. The book itself is a glossy oversized tome, 12″ square, filled with photographs of every entry, the material components of each thoroughly cataloged, alongside the occasional pull quote. While a few stood out as big-timers (Ross Lovegrove, Michele deLucchi, George Sowden, Dakota Jackson, and Andrea Branzi), the most aesthetically cohesive and generally NEXT LEVEL contributions came from virtual unknowns. The photos below were among my favorites.


Kozo Design Studio, Inc

Paul Ludick

The blatant hi/lo conceptuality/commerciality of the pieces, along with the sort of “real-world cyber-collage” aesthetics of the vast majority is super-inspirational, when detached from its trade-show roots. With the ‘Net Art world’s current re-contextualizing of marketing photography/design techniques, appreciation of HD material simulacra, and the camouflaged avant-gardisms of commercial art in genera, this is an especially scintillating collection. #Relevant.

Vent Design Associates

Walz Design

Ross Lovegrove

Studio De Lucchi

Peep the whole set HERE

May 16, 2012

Eugene Tsui: Biomorphic Future Vision

Riding my bike home from work a few weeks ago, I came to the abrupt realization that I happen to live approx. 0.9 miles from one of the most alarmingly NON-STANDARD structures in existence. At first glance, the irregularity of the nautically themed “Tsui House” (2747 Matthews St, pictured), might be written off as the work of your typical Bay Area burnt eccentric, but it’s so much more than that. Every single element of this sea-punk mansion was built from scratch in sculpted concrete, with no orthogonal frame to speak of, and nearly every surface is swathed in enough art-neuveaux intricacies to make Antonio Gaudi break out in a flop sweat. This building is so next-level in its obsessive, non-linear appraoch, it became immediately obvious to me that the mind behind it must be treading the genius/madness line pretty daringly.

And thus started my investigation into the self-contained future-obsessed world of Eugene Tsui. Architect. Artist. Sculptor. Designer. Theorist. Environmentalist. Professional gymnast. All apply to the Ohio-born Chinese-American, whose personal eco-futurist vision has been rendered in every imaginable arena for the better part of 5 decades.

Eugene’s now-outdated personal site (tdrinc.com) is a veritable goldmine of his hard sci-fi creations, from fully realized architectural projects in both California and China, to designs and prototypes for furniture and housewares. Here’s a few of my favorites, culled from the site: (all images image rights reserved, naturally)

“The Domes” at Harbin Hot Springs, Middletown, CA

Probably the most accessible of the architectural projects listed, “the domes” at the Harbin retreat in the mountains north of Santa Rosa serve as overnight lodging for guests. Massive, veiny bio-globules of beige concrete, some monolithic, some ganged together with stretches of drooping sinew. Twisting spiral stairs give a “melted Bauhaus” vibe, while asymmetrical triangular apertures and hardened ridges do their best to abolish regularity completely. Ominous tumors of pure alien style, and right in my own back yard.

Tsui Design Research Headquarters, Emeryville, CA

Once again, I was thrilled to learn that another of Tsui’s iconoclastic buildings was within walking distance of my house. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any trace of it. I can’t imagine what would possess someone to destroy or remodel something this amazing, but the mind-blowing headquarters of Tsui Design Research, Eugene Tsui’s professional architecture and planning apparatus, simply does not exist anymore. Seems as though Silicon Valley cannibalism has trumped collective memory once again.

The interiors of the building are lightyears beyond even the most far-out “Fun Tech” office spaces(see Antitrust, Zenga, et al), approaching utopian Global Village status. Somewhere between a Rainforest Cafe and a Tatooine bunker, this infinitely diverse set of organic spaces is the perfect embodiment of Eugene Tsui’s vibe. Except for splashes of plant life and rocky outcroppings, the spaces are Kundalini white. Infinite ideas, somehow co-existing with ecstatic calm. A geodesic dome sits on an artificial rocky bluff, its function unclear. A strange tube bisects a large space, glowing orange through slits from within. Everything is either suspended from or grown out of the myriad organic surfaces, which rise up into banks, ledges, and papillae to serve their human masters.

Clothing: Sketches and Prototypes

Far and away the most intriguing thing about Eugene Tsui’s web presence, and about the man himself, is his commitment to the TOTAL DESIGN of all aspects of life. There is nothing in the manufactured or experienced world that he hasn’t attempted to re-create in his own image. Of course, like all my favorite designers, Eugene Tsui has fully embraced the world of fashion, twisted through his own “logical” design matrices.

With a hard-fantasy graphic style reminiscent of Mat Brinkmann and Moebius, Tsui has cranked out hundreds of styles and templates, for bio-memetic garments in all sorts of futuristic colorways. His architectural design vocabulary bleeds over, embellishing each piece with splines, sinews, wings, and ridges.

Obviously, the finished results of these experiments are completely amazing, like early Pierre Cardin if he’d smoked opium with Jodorowsky. Future-cult sportswear for alien utopias.

I can’t say enough about how totally impressive and truly OUT Tsui’s design concepts are and continue to be. Delve deep into his world here and here, and check out this mini-documentary, where Eugene (decked out in an incredible outfit of his own devising, natch) lets us inside his mind:

January 30, 2012

Alchimia: Never-Ending Italian Design

It should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of Italian post-modern design.

Alchimia: Never-Ending Italian Design Cover

The snarky rhetoric and eye-wrenching styles are exactly the kind of non-standard aesthetic positions I appreciate in every facet of life. As a huge fan of the Memphis Group (arguably the movement’s best-known ambassadors), I thought I had known all there was to know about this esoteric sub-style. How wrong I was.

On a recent trip to The Strand over the holidays, I stumbled across a truly amazing monograph, published in Japan in 1985, entitled “Alchimia: Never-Ending Italian Design”. Inside I found a king’s ransom of bizarre furnishings, ideologies, garments, and drawings cataloging the influential, but oft-overlooked output of this forward-thinking troupe of designers and misfits.

Alchimia works on the values, generally looked upon as negative, of weakness, emptiness, absence, and depth, which are understood today as things lateral to what is exterior, solid, and violent, and hence as things to be removed. If the transience of the times does not allow certain objectives to exist, if even philosophy seems closed to the future, and if it is impossible to think of general and rational transformations, the Alchimia Group is concentrated in itself. It seeks details of thought inside itself, with the sole intention of signaling its poetic vocation. It performs its act of introversion, its minimal creative will, beyond all judgement. This is Alchimia’s ‘new morality’. – Alessandro Mendini, 1985

Alchimia, a design collective founded in the mid-1970s by Alessandro Mendini, represents everything that is great about the Italian post-modern movement.
Born out of the “radical design” movement, spearheaded in the early 70s by firms like Archigram, Archizoom, and Superstudio, Alchimia is the perfect melding of late 60s performance-based “classical” avant-gardisms, and the jaded cynicism of anti-design post-modern tendencies.

Alchimia, as an entity, preceeded, and indeed fomented Memphis Group’s anti-establishment rebellion. As time went on, Alchimia evolved very much in parallel with Memphis Group, at times sharing members, and definitely sharing ideologies.

While Memphis gets the lion’s share of the accolades for turning conventional modern design tropes upside down, Alchimia’s output is similarly stunning in scope and sheer electricity. Memphis presented itself as a grand gesture: “The New International Style”, executed with a purity of vision that made it hard to ignore. The plethora of items that flowed from the collective minds of Sottsass and company made a huge splash, and polarized critics instantaneously. Though there are obvious overlaps in impetus and aesthetics between the two camps, the differences in approach are huge. Memphis group remained almost entirely grounded in a retail mindset, producing limited objects of questionable functionality, that spurred collectors and admirers into bidding wars. Alchimia’s projects inhabit a more poetic space, encompassing drawings, installations, performances, costumes, buildings, and other highly idiomatic effluvia. NEW INTERNATIONAL STYLE VS TOTAL NEW FEELING. Their pieces are grounded in a struggle to approach the modern era from a romantic, context-aware standpoint. Not content to merely reject the past, but eager to re-invigorate it with the brazen energy of self-affacing idealism.

In many cases, the artifacts produced speak for themselves, in a truly singular vocabulary of embellishment and misfit abandon.

I’ve presented here some of my favorite projects from the volume.


Banal Objects:

An early project, and the perfect encapsulation of Alchimia’s giddy futurism. Everyday objects, purchased from a discount store are embellished with neon spikes and extensions, given new color schemes, and displayed against truly alien backdrops. The book gives only a shadow of the logistics of the project, to the point where I am unable to say if each image is in fact a photograph of an altered object, or a 2-d assemblage. Bizarre, surreal, and hilarious. The monograph describes the thrust behind these pieces as the ultimate “act of styling”, an unravelling of the art-world “readymade” into high-aesthetic absurdity.

Banal Objects: Spray Bottle

Banal Object:
Spray Bottle

Banal Objects: Soccer Ball

Banal Object:
Soccer Ball

Banal Objects: Sweeper

Banal Object:
Carpet Sweeper

Banal Objects: Percolator

Banal Object:

Architectural Fashion:

The pieces from this project, constructed in 1982-1983, are simply amazing. Somehow incredibly forward-thinking, while completely goofy. Each piece has an absurd charm paired with an impeccable restraint that pushes the objects into fetish item territory. Several of Alchimia’s enduring emblems are on display here. The clutch echoes the shape of a pennant flag, one of Alessandro Mendini’s favorite signifiers of capitalist futurism. The handbag outlines the shape of the human body, a favorite subject and foremost preoccupation of any Italian post-modernist worth his salt (see Gaetano Pesce, et al). The duffle is a testament to embellishment, and the soft “spikes” that adorn it are another Mendini totem. In other Alchimia projects, such horns are plastered to walls, ceilings, dresses, and bodies in a celebration of mutant energy.

Architectural Fashion: Clutch

Architectural Fashion:

Architectural Fashion: Handbag

Architectural Fashion:

Architectural Fashion: Duffle

Architectural Fashion:

Updates of Modern Icons:

It was this collection of absurd re-imaginings that first brought the name Alchimia to my attention. As a student of furniture-making, Gio Ponti’s “Superleggera” chair was always one of my favorites. The economy, durability, and Shaker-esque minimalism of the piece give it an almost Utopian vibe. What better way to trot out such a feat of civic engineering then by slapping some World’s Fair pennants on it? Half baked brilliance. Similarly, the bentwood Thonet chair is haunted by an exuberant blue ghost, reveling in its stately negative space. The Joe Colombo “Universale” chair gets perhaps the most prescient facelift of all. Faux-painted in green marble, the plastic-pop object is reborn as bankrupt luxury item. Bruer’s “Wassily” grows ecstatic mold from every surface, as Dessau weeps. These pieces are frivolous yet optimistic parodies, shunning downer “deconstruction” for celebration, implied auras made manifest on the surface of each.

Updates of Modern Icons: Gio Ponti

Updates of Modern Icons:
Gio Ponti

Updates of Modern Icons: Thonet

Updates of Modern Icons:

Updates of Modern Icons: Joe Colombo

Updates of Modern Icons:
Joe Colombo

Updates of Modern Icons: Marcel Bruer

Updates of Modern Icons:
Marcel Bruer

Furnishings as Clothes (For Fiorucci)


In 1982, Studio Alchimia composed drawings and fabricated objects for a performance at the Fiorucci showroom in Milan, entitled “Furnishings as Clothes”. The concept consisted of hard objects designed and produced with the scale and vocabulary of furniture, to be worn on bodies in an in-store performance. The results were truly bizarre, as demonstrated in the image here. There is definitely a tinge of old-school performance art at play here (Some of Alejandro Joderowski’s set pieces come to mind, or even Bauhaus theatre costumes), but my favorite element is the use of banal decorative elements, like the wire-basket crown and risque plastic-ivy sash. A cross-brow celebration of fashion and ornament, and a perfect compliment to Fiorucci’s Italo-Hollywood excesses.


Bau-haus Collection: "Stazione"

Bau-haus Collection: “Stazione”

Bau-Haus Collection

The Bau-haus furniture collection from 1979 (I’m not sure I get the joke, but I love the ludicrously derivative name), was Alchimia’s earliest and most successful projects. At this time, Studio Alchimia served as a manufacturer and umbrella “brand” for a number of forward-thinking Italian designers, a good chunk of whom would go on to form Memphis just one year later.

The exhibit featured designs by Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass, Michele DiLucchi, Andrea Branzi, Paola Navone, UFO (?), and Trix & Robert Haussmann. The designs were a bricolage of early post-modern moves. Plastic laminate surfaces (the Memphis Group’s raison d’etre), riotous colors, and constructivist aesthetics were all on display in this landmark collection.

In addition to the furnishings themselves, which are admittedly influential, the highlight of this effort is the supplementary images, where several pieces are inshrined in bizarrely evocative landscapes. Andrea Branzi’s “Stazione” (Station) cabinet is perched simultaneously by the side of a highway in the American West, and against the wall of a drab enclosure. Meanwhile, a red ectoplasmic olympian strides boldly over the piece, with an almost fascist intent. Again, as in much of Alchimia’s projects, the meaning is obscure if not entirely impenetrable, while the aesthetics are irresistibly evocative. In the image for Trix and Robert Haussmann’s “(Functional Formalism Column) No. 4″, some fragment of a ruined age has washed ashore on some cosmic beach, opening a single mysterious drawer, as Saturn (?) shines brightly. Paola Navone’s “Tindouf” cabinet (named after a province in Algeria), is bisected by an ethereal bolt of lightning, entering and exiting through mirrored cloud-portals. Trippy, self-indulgent, ridiculous, miraculous, and flamboyant stuff.

Bau-haus Collection: "Formalismo Funzionale Colonna No.4"

Bau-haus Collection: “Formalismo Funzionale Colonna No.4″

Bau-haus Collection: "Tindouf"

Bau-haus Collection: “Tindouf”

Alas, despite the gargantuan length of this entry (at least for me), I’m barely scratching the surface of Studio Alchimia’s sprawling output, which the book catalogues in impressive detail. Check my Flickr feed for a less curated overview of entire pages from this magnum opus.


Alchimia Banner 1
Alchimia Banner 2