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On this special episode sponsored by Lumens, Dan meets three extraordinary emerging talents in the field of design: South Africa’s Zizipho Poswa shares her memories of the women who raised her and inspired her bronze sculptures; Mexico’s Fernando Laposse explains the impact of agriculture on his materially minded works; and Belgium-based Linde Freya Tangelder chats about how she walks freely between the worlds of product and collectible design.
Linde Freya Tangelder: For me, I’m sometimes doubting if I’m a typical designer. I’m not a typical designer, that’s for sure. I think more like an artist than a designer. So, I never start with function. For me, it’s about that character. If there’s no character in the end, then for me it’s no reason to buy it or to keep it or treasure it for many years. So it has to live and it can be old or new or it can have scratches. I like all stages of a piece.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. And welcome to a very special episode, brought to you by Lumens, The Grand Tourist Introduces. Today I’ll speak with three rising stars in the world of design, each with their own unique story to tell. We’ll meet an award-winning designer who uses her extensive research into materials to create minimalistic designs that have a sculptural quality, a designer based in a small town in Mexico, who is using his own research into materials to create collectible works that harmonize with the local agriculture and native culture in totally inspiring ways. But first, we’ll chat with a wonderful talent from half a world away. Zizipho Poswa, an artist and designer based in Cape Town South Africa.
Raised on the Eastern Cape, most of Zizipho’s works are inspired by her Xhosa culture and African culture at large. She creates abstracted, large-scale sculptures in ceramic and bronze. Her works on the collection of the Met in New York, LACMA in LA and the Lueve collection. Her new show is called Pillars of the Nation, which just opened at gallery 56. Itself, a new gallery in New York, owned and curated by my friend and legendary architect and interior designer Lehman Dell. This exhibit, her solo show debut in the States, was done in collaboration with Zizi’s Gallery back home called Southern Guild. She’s created tactile looking bronze pieces inspired by the women of her hometown and their traditional practice of carrying heavy loads on their heads from bananas and firewood to overwhelmingly large straw bowls.
The results, which I just saw in person the other day and are nearly sold out by the way, are truly extraordinary. Like all of her work, they’re recognizable in terms of their sources of inspiration, but they never step over the line. Fun fact, Zizipho also shares a studio with another Southern Guild artist, and one that I previously featured during my Departures Magazine days, Andile Dyalvane. Before I met with Zizipho in New York, I caught up with her from Southern Guilds Gallery in Cape Town to chat about her culture, the trials and tribulations of creating such large scale works and her hopes for the future.
Before you studied design, you grew up in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. What was growing up there like?
Growing in the Eastern Cape was beautiful. I have amazing memories of us as kids playing in the landscape and also going to play in the riverbanks to get some clay. I actually grew up between the city and the village, so my mom was a teacher and so I had to be with her in the city and would visit the village during school holidays. So it was amazing. She raised me together with my cousins. We were about 10 of us, but I was the unique one with the talent of being an artist.
And so how did that talent emerge itself as a young girl? What were your early inclinations towards art? Did you like to draw and stuff like that?
Yes, I drew a lot. I worked a lot with paper. I did a lot of paper sculptures. I spent a lot of time…Because my mom was a teacher, she had projects where she had to teach kids how to draw, and I was doing all of those complicated skeleton drawings. I was allowed to play and collect different fabrics, pieces of fabrics from the nearest tailor. So the whole house was that were full of fabrics I needed to create for my dolls. I would collect a lot of found objects from the surrounding area to create a pair of sunglasses to create fashionable item through some found objects.
And so I also read that you studied surface design, which makes sense now that you talk about creating things like sunglasses and stuff like that. How did you transition from that to working in ceramic and now in bronze?
So, when I finished my metric in 1998, having no art background whatsoever, I had to apply to Nelson Mandela University of Technology. I had to do one year as a foundation course because without art at all, I had no background, so I had to then be introduced into art. So that was so amazing for me to experience different materials, different art forms, and not knowing, actually, I just knew how to draw, not knowing what sort of different careers one would take, but discovering all of that was beautiful and overwhelming at the same time, because I got introduced to ceramics, I got introduced to fine art, to textiles, printmaking and all of that, which was fun for me.
And it was so hard to choose. With ceramics, I met a friend of mine who’s now my business partner, Andile, and I then basically got introduced to ceramics, which was in the foundation course. And then later on I decided I wanted to major in textiles because I was drawn to a lot of textures, a lot of pattern and color, and I felt like it’s actually going to allow me to work with different materials in the future, and which happened soon after.
And because your heritage is so closely linked to your work, I was wondering if you could explain to listeners many of them are Americans or New Yorkers that aren’t familiar with Xhosa culture, what you feel its defining characteristics are in relation to the other ethnic groups of South Africa in that constellation of different cultures there.
Yes. We are actually the second-largest ethnic group in the Southern Africa, and we speak isiXhosa, which is our language, which is quite connected to the Khoi, which are the aborigines of the Southern African people. Our culture is deeply tied to honoring and being guided by our ancestors, and there’s numerous initiation rituals that mark milestones in Xhosa life. We also believe in the importance of the family and the clan. Yeah, those I would say, they’re the defining factors.
And obviously the role of women in the culture is a driving force in your work. And how did you connect that part to that work where you were like, “Ah, I think I’ve found something that has now embodied all these different bodies of work, about hair, about the loads that women carry on their head.” Did you have an a-ha moment where you were like, “Oh, there’s my inspiration, there’s my work?”
I actually did have an a-ha moment because when I started creating smaller bowls, and those were decorative and they really connected to my background as a textile artist, but I got an opportunity to participate in an exhibition called Extraordinary. And that was going to be my first, it was my debut in the conceptual work, and Southern Guild was basically presenting this show, and it was a group show, so I had to come up with something really special and that defines who I am. And so that’s when I realized that the women that raised me, the women from my community, are the ones that are extraordinary. And from that exhibition, the response was overwhelming, and that’s when I continued and I wanted to expand more on that narrative.
Oh, wow, amazing. And there are similarities between your work and his, but of course yours has this touch of the feminine divine, if you will. I think that brings us to my next question, which is this upcoming show in New York. And you also had a show in Cape Town recently called The Beauty of Our Ancestors. Can you explain about that collection, what it is?
Yes. That work, I’m still excited about it because it’s still a couple of months since we introduced the work, it’s one of the most work that I’m proud of in terms of scale, in terms of just the narrative itself. So it’s basically a celebration of our traditional African hairstyle. And here I’m honoring my ancestors, I’m honoring the women that are behind the making of these hairstyles, which are really celebrated. That was my main inspiration, was to look into also the process of making the hair and the creativity that goes into that. And I wanted to make it permanent in a way of preserving the culture for the next generation.
And do you think that that culture of traditional hair is at risk of being lost? What was the impetus behind capturing it in the abstracted ceramics? Is there a danger of these traditional styles going away?
Well, most of them are now not worn for the reasons that they were worn for before. But what’s beautiful is that they are evolving. And so the ones that were used to be done back in the days, you no longer see those now. And there’s so much beauty in what was being done back then, and to know the story behind some of those hairstyles, why they were done. So, that was more what I wanted to highlight as well. And to also look in a broader context, the continent as a whole, not just South Africa, but from different parts of the continent. And for me that was also quite educational because there’s certain hairstyles that I never knew existed, and I found a beautiful archive of photography from West Africa, from Nigeria by a brilliant photographer called J.D. Okhai. And that is powerful on its own. So, that was also a celebration of his work.
And can you explain a little bit about the pieces themselves, how many pieces you create in that collection, and can you describe them to listeners, what they look like? How big are they? Because I think they’re large, correct?
Yes, they’re quite large. I actually haven’t done pieces to that scale, and I’ve been inspired to actually create even larger than that. So, they are about two meters high, a combination of clay and bronze. There are about 20, 22 of those pieces representing different hairstyles from different parts of the continent.
And creating works of that size, was there a lot of trial and error? It sounds really difficult. As anyone I know that has ever worked with a kiln, it’s really difficult to control something that you’ve never created before and it has to cool and things can crack. What was that process like?
Ah, it was actually challenging, but I was up for it. It took me a whole year to create that body of work. I’ve got a team that I work with, a production team on the ceramics side. I’ve got a production team that I work with from the bronze side, and also on Southern Guild side. So, it’s a beautiful team that supports me to be able to create this kind of work. And I’m quite grateful for that because without them there wouldn’t be that kind of work.
And tell me a little bit about the show and the pieces and how it connects to what the concept is behind Pillars of the Nation, because it would be best for you to explain that.
Yes. Well, I’m still talking about the women who raised me, the women from the villages from different parts of Africa that are struggling but beating all odds raising their children without their men. I wanted to also honor my mother who’s been that pillar of strength for my family, and it was important for me to grow this collection because it’s actually a body of work that I started with when I started the conceptual work journey. And it has never been presented as a body of work. So, I felt it was important for me to present it in that way as the narrative is much stronger in that sense. And I also did a photo series that’s coming with the body of work where I’m actually back at home in the Eastern Cape in the village trying to basically live in the shoes and celebrate what they do.
What is it like living and working as an artist and as a designer in Cape Town today? What are your challenges?
I would say it’s more fulfilling and enriching to be an artist in Cape Town because we have access to materials, we’ve got access to galleries for inspiration. We’ve got access to art fairs, which you wouldn’t find where I come from. And we also have a beautiful communal spirit as artists from different parts of the country. We help each other in many ways. If one, for instance, to have to own a kiln that is as large as ours is not so common, so we would help others to fire in our space and the other way around. Now we have issues with load shedding. We are not able, as much as we have the kiln, we are not able to fire. But we’ve got a friend that has constant access to electricity and tomorrow I’m going to be firing at his space. So it’s a beautiful space like that. We love the space so much.
Yeah, it must be, when it comes to basic infrastructure, to be able to do such massive pieces is that I think in any designer that I’ve ever interviewed in Africa, that always comes up, they always come up in ways that I think would be surprising to anybody that maybe is from someplace else where it’s really, it’s not about anything else other than just sometimes a tiny thing like internet or electricity or traffic or something like that. What would you like to do with your career? What sort of aspirations do you have for yourself? Do you want to continue in this type of body of work? Where do you see yourself in, sounds like a job interview, but where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?
Yes, I want to continue in this journey as long as I constantly have messages that I have to relay through my dreams, through my ancestors communicating with me, I’m happy to do that. But I’ve got a special project that I want to create to do back home in the Eastern Cape, to basically teach the women that side how to create ceramic vessels, which is something that, it was once done, but nobody knows anymore how to do that. So I’m going back to do that, and also to build a school in my village for the up and coming kids to be able to study art and basically access it from a young age.
My next guest, Fernando Laposse, started his design career in London, studying and working under some of the brightest names in the British design scene. But a kind of spiritual burnout took hold and Fernando found himself in a small town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. There he started a new phase for his career, creating works from humble agriculture. Think colorful panels of marketry made from heirloom corn, a large fuzzy monster like sculpture covered in long hair and made from sisal, or hot pink hammocks covered in the stuff. While his works are beautiful and collectible in their own right, Fernando is fighting the good fight to revive a small community, train and employ people in traditional crafts, keep Mexican culture alive, and constantly experimenting with materials. And this fall, he’ll debut a new show of work at Friedman Benda Gallery in New York. I caught up with Fernando from his studio to talk about his first fascinations with the loofah plant, how monoculture is threatening communities and more.
So, tell me a little bit about where you’re Zooming in from now, because you’re living in Mexico, correct?
Fernando Laposse: Yeah, I’m Zooming in from Mexico City. I decided to take the call in my apartment today because my studio is very noisy and full of people. And so, for purposes of the podcast, I took it in my house today.
Oh, good. And so you studied at Central St. Martin’s, but tell me a little bit about your life before that.
Well, before St. Martin’s…I am Mexican, my parents are Mexican, but I was actually born in France, and there’s always been a connection to France. We came back to Mexico when I was very young and then went back to France when I was 15. I grew up ‘til my teenage years in Mexico, then moved to France because of my dad’s job.
What did he do?
Yeah, my dad’s side of the family have been bakers for over a hundred years. I’m the first non-baker in four generations, so he was doing some consulting work.
I have to ask, what kind of baking?
Well, French style, European style. From my dad’s side they’re French Italian, so that’s the family tradition of baking. And then, yeah, that’s why we ended up back in France, and I did my high school there and then moved to London for university to Central St. Martins as you said.
And so, what attracted you there and to study design? Or did you study design there?
I was always struggling between studying art or design, and I don’t know, maybe for my parents design seemed more sensible or more of a sure career choice in terms of having a job afterwards. So, they convinced me to do design. I don’t know, I just didn’t find a university that was what I liked in France. The design in France, at least at the time, was very rigid, was very traditional. So, I went to London looking for a place that would give me more of an opportunity to really explore what I wanted to say, even through design, and St. Martin seemed like a good option, so that’s why I ended up there.
And what was the first piece that you created that echoed this voice of what you were trying to say? Do you remember what that was?
Yeah, I think because when I was starting in Central St. Martins, I started with what’s called a foundation year. So, it’s a year zero where you do a bit of fashion, a bit of graphic, a bit of arts. And I remember we were in the module that was about 3D design and spatial design. And this was right before the Christmas break. And being such an international school, they encouraged everyone that was going back to their countries to bring a material that was common in their country and to try and do a project with that. And I remember I came back to Mexico and I was working in a market and I found this really big lofas. For people that don’t know what a lofa is, it’s like a sponge, and a lot of people think it’s from the sea, but it’s actually a fruit.
It’s like a really big cucumber. And when it dries out, you’re left with this network of fibers that….Now, weirdly enough, we call lofas the plastic lofas, but it comes from that, it comes from an actual plant. So, I brought a whole bag of them. Basically I bought another suitcase allowance and brought, I don’t know how many lofas, as many as they could fit in there. And I turned it into a room divider and some sort of almost upholstery material. And that was really nice actually. And that was the beginning of this idea of starting to work on a methodology about trying to dominate these materials that are not usually used for that purpose, and to really try to see what’s the best application for it rather than starting with a design. I think that was my first project where I was like…And this was through the guidance of the school. To be fair with them.
It was like, don’t design until what the material can do. And I thought that was such a valuable thing to learn at that point in my life. I was so excited about that, that I eventually kept working on my free time, not as a school project, and that became my first lofa series of furniture, which was a whole series of furniture that had lamps and seats, and it was exploring all the different qualities of the fiber, but taking it out of the context of the bathroom or the kitchen, where it’s expected. So, that was great. I was only maybe 21 at that time, but it resulted in a very solid, very professional looking series of furniture. And that opened a lot of doors for me from internships to first jobs to little articles and things like that. That was a really good first example of that shaping of what was to come later in my career perhaps.
And as things have evolved with your career, what have you learned about materiality? Which is a word that gets thrown around a lot with design today. It’s all about materiality and materials and being authentic and blah blah, blah, blah, blah. What have you learned about it that you feel is uniquely yours in terms of how you’ve explored these materials?
Well, what I’ve learned is that there is a lot of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I think…I don’t know, it was also a moment in time that it was very much about that. I was studying in 2007, 2008. I think a lot of how I shaped the way I designed was through the context of my time at that moment, or my life at that moment, which was we were the young graduates graduating at the moment of the financial crisis. So there wasn’t really much prospect of getting a job or being scooped up from your graduation show by some furniture editing company and get your stuff produced.
It became very much about self-production, this DIY culture, and I feel like that was particularly strong in places like Holland or England, where it’s just really prohibitively expensive to hire someone to do anything for you. And you’re never going to be as good as a professional carpenter or a cabinet maker or a welder. So I think a lot of young designers from London, at that time, got into this material exploration realm because that was our way to actually self-produce and produce something that had character without the necessity of a big investment or a really big skillset. You can make your own micro craft in a way.
A lot of the materials that you use, of course, are native to Mexico and you’ve worked with things like corn and agave and all these sorts of…Was there an a-ha moment after the lofa that kind of be like, “Hey, I could make more things out of these overlooked materials,” and in some cases the materials that you explore are kind of in danger of going away?
Yeah, I feel like at that time, especially the years immediately after my graduation, so this must have been like 2011, 2012, I was really on a frenzy of finding my material. And obviously I had references like all the Dutch designers at the time that had their technique, their material. My neighbor at that time was Max Lamb, for example.
Oh, okay. I do know.
And I had people, I was working on a freelance basis for Beth and Wood and for Faye Toogood. So, I had all these references of people that had a very distinct style and material palette, and I was really trying to look for mine. I was working with sugar and blowing sugar as if it was glass. I was trying to make soaps out of the fat of trimmings from the butchers around my studio in North London. I was really getting to chemical processes and it was nice and I had little articles here and there and I could show in fairs here and there, but it was nothing that really had that much weight to it. And I feel like that came with the corn. So, just to give you a little preface of how that story started, when I graduated university, I couldn’t really stay in the UK because I didn’t have a European passport at that time, and I could see my deportation coming.
So, I really wanted to stay in Europe. I really wanted to stay in London. And I found out that even though they had gotten rid of all the post-study visas at that time, there was a new visa that was called graduate entrepreneurs. And it was very, very few of those visas being given out. But basically, if you had an idea with a mini company that you could start, they would give you that visa. And at that time I had this project with the sugar glass. It was basically a technique for rotation casting as if it was like resin or plastic, but I was using sugar, and I really dove really deep into the cooking temperatures, cooking it right before it becomes caramel when it’s still see-through. And so I was making these glassware that were edible. It sounds really tacky now, but that was the thing back then.
And so I did a few events for alcohol brands that got the attention of whoever was revising my application when I applied for this visa and I got the visa. But it was a bit of a blessing and a curse because it meant that I could stay in the UK, but I had to focus full time on this little sugar glass business. And it started off really wonderful, working with museums and galleries for the first year or so, but let’s say by the third year of that, it had devolved into just catering for the most horrible corporate parties. And I think the one that really made me stop the project altogether was I couldn’t leave to see my family for Christmas because of my visa situation. I had to do a Christmas party for an insurance company event, and it was just all these British lads being super drunk and being almost abusive, honestly, it was just such a horrible experience.
I remember I got back to my studio, and I was like, “I’m never doing this again.” And I took a knife and I slashed all the molds for making silicon. Yeah, I was like, “That’s it. I don’t care if I get deported, I don’t care if my visa finishes. I’m not here to do this.” So I applied for a little residence in Mexico. I just felt like I needed, I don’t know, everything was going so wrong in London that I was like, “I need to go back to Mexico and find myself again.” So I applied for a residency that had to do with food and design in Oaxaca in the southwest of Mexico. For your listeners that have never been to Mexico, Oaxaca is one of the most traditional places for culture and astronomy in Mexico, and for the arts as well.
And so I applied for this residency, which was in this cultural center that was started by an artist, an activist called Francisco Toledo. He passed away three years ago, but he was a massive figure in Oaxaca besides from being a really, really accomplished artist. He was a very fierce activist, and he’s credited for really turning Oaxaca into the cultural center that it is today. He started the botanical gardens, the graphic arts centers, loads of foundations for the arts, and one of these was the casa, which is in a null textile factory on the outskirts of Oaxaca. And I got this residency for three months there. At that point, Mexico was about to decide through the Supreme Court whether to install a permanent ban on GMO corn or not. And especially in Oaxaca, there’s a big tradition on food.
There were a lot of protests, and one of Toledo’s pillars of his activism was that was to defend our culinary heritage. It was hard not to get involved with that. I was like, well, “That’s super interesting.” And I really started to inform myself and educate myself on the issue. What I found out was it was of course a political issue, because a lot of these corn is coming from foreign countries and foreign companies, but it’s also an economic issue. The problem is the prices of corn in Mexico are fixed, and you can’t really charge more than what’s certified by the government. It’s what’s called the basic basket. This is to ensure that everyone can afford a kilo of tortilla, because tortillas in Mexico are like baguettes in France. If people can’t afford tortillas, heads roll, there’s revolution.
So, the price of tortilla is artificially kept low by the government by doing big subsidies typically to really, really big productions of corn. And so the result of that is that all of our native corns, which are not as productive in the sense that, yeah, you can’t douse them in weed killers and fertilizers because that’s not how they grow. So, they don’t produce as much grain as the industrial corns, but obviously they’re way more nutritious and good for you.
And probably tastier, too.
Exactly, but you just can’t legally sell them for more than the industrial corn. And I was like, “Okay,” that’s a massive issue that no one is really looking at. There was a lot of political activism, but nothing really looking at the economics behind it. So, I set myself the task of being like, okay, I also don’t want to fall into this trap of, “Oh, can you work with a fancy chef and bring this heirloom corn to fine dining restaurants in Mexico City or New York or wherever.” The idea or the challenge here was like, can you do a new material that will give these small scale farmers another source of income without touching the grain? I didn’t want to mess with the grain at all. And so, that’s when I started to look at the leaves because the big quality of a lot of these mazes and corns, the heirloom ones, is that they are super colorful, and that color starts with the grain but goes into the leaves. I was like, ‘”Okay, the leaves make the most sense,” because that’s really so visually different from industrial corn.
So, that’s what I focused on for three months. At the end, I had the samples and I did a piece, and it was really nice and it was promising. And I tried to start doing it in Oaxaca, but it was very hard. It was very hard because they weren’t very trusting of this white guy from Mexico City coming and being like, “Hey, let’s work together.” So, I decided to go Tonahuixtla, which is the village that has been the focus of all my work for the past nine years now. And Tonahuixtla is a village that I know since I’m a child. So I felt, okay, this is the place where they know me. I know that they still plant all of these heirloom corn. Tonahuixtla is this super isolated village in the middle of the mountains, and there’s no signal, no phone, no internet, nothing.
The re-encounter with Tonahuixtla is a bit of a bittersweet moment because obviously it was really nice to find again, but at the same time it was devastating to see the state of the village and the fields. Basically all the land had been eroded. No one lived there anymore. The town was completely empty, and no one was planting heirloom corn anymore. So, my plan of just going there and buying all these leaves and starting this design project was flipped on its head because there was no material, but also it was just so shocking to see the devastation. Because of this change in agriculture in the early 2000s, the Mexican government started to really force on them the use of all of these pesticides and weed killers. And that put an end to the traditional planting system that they had practiced there for thousands of years.
Corn needs the hand of men to survive. If you leave a corn by itself, it grows, it dries out, it falls to the ground, and then there’s so many leaves and the grains are so packed together, that they germinate on the cob and then they just asphyxiate itself and it doesn’t grow. So, you need men to take the grain and to plant it, but at the same time, corn is what allowed us to have enough food to build the great civilizations of Central Mexico and Guatemala. You wouldn’t have heard of the Mayans or the Aztecs or any of these great cultures without the discovery of corn. Tonahuixtla, this village where I work now, is incredibly important because it sits about 80 kilometers from the oldest archeological site that evidences the beginnings of corn domestication. So you’re really talking about the epicenter of corn.
And for me to go back to this village and to see the total devastation of this ancient system was really a major wake-up call. And I think that was the beginning, to go back to the original question, that was the beginning, that was the a-ha moment. That was like, okay, this is not a project that is about creating a material that I show in the Milan furniture fair, and then I move on to the next. This has to be something that is long-lasting, something that is impactful, and something that can really bring up change, at least within this community. I think the idea has never been naively to try and change the world. My approach is like, “Can we make enough change in this one community and take it from there?”
Fast forward to today, you’re creating things from a veneer from some of the corn, correct?
And then you’re also working with the agave plant to create a fur, a vegan fur, almost looks like horse hair. And you’re creating these, they’re like animals or creatures. Some are pink and some are just almost looks like cousin IT from, I think, the Addams family of a bench with really long hair, and also huge creatures made from this fur. What has that reaction been like out there in the world of design? Because now you’re working with an incredible gallery, Friedman Benda, and you’re working on a big show coming up, I think, in the fall, and so what is the reaction from the world of art and design been to the fruits of your labor and your deep connection to Mexico and into these materials?
I think it’s been positive. I think it took some time, to be honest. We started, I started, I say we because I always work together with them, but we started the agricultural regeneration process of making the soil fertile again, and we had the first design results since 2016. But I think people weren’t so sensitive to natural materials back then. I think back then it was more about, “Okay, what’s your material?” And it could be blocks of resin or it could be jesmonite or it could be all of these kind of synthetic materials that designers really loved at that time. And I was just in my own corner working with this plant fibers and really banging this drum about regenerative agriculture. I didn’t even have the word regenerative, regeneration was really at the beginnings of it. So, I was doing regeneration, and it was regenerative design, but there wasn’t really a term for it.
And I feel like words are so important in that sense, and I think my practice really started to acquire much more importance during the pandemic. I think it was a moment where it was such a major wakeup call from nature to the world, and everyone was in their houses and things like inclusion, ethnic and racial tensions and sustainability and climate change became this super inter tangled thing that everyone became much more aware of. And I think that’s where my practice started to really resonate a lot more with the general public and the design public. Obviously, everyone has loved the pink fairy slots, and I try to make some of my work purposely very playful because no one really wants to be guilt tripped into some sort of ecological morality.
So, I feel like by bringing some sort of tongue in cheek aesthetics and more playful approaches to the pieces, you can engage in conversations. I feel like a lot of…I believe everything’s a negotiation, and so if you’re going to change the way someone thinks or someone consumes, the worst thing you can do is to go and shame them straight away. I think it’s a conversation, it’s a negotiation, so you have to stick out your hand, and that often happens with a playful design. And then once you get people’s attention, you can start to push these other more complex ideas behind the pieces.
And you have a show coming up, I believe, in the fall. Have you started to work on that in terms of are you producing new types of work or different materials or how’s that going?
Yeah, I have a show with Friedman Benda in September. And yes, we are in full production mode right now where it’s going to be an overview of my main materials, mainly corn and agave, and a hint at this new material that I’ve been working with, which is avocado. That’s another massive project that I’ve been working on for three years now. That’s going to be also shown in the design triennial at the NGV in Australia in Melbourne. And it’s a project that deals with the dark side of the avocado production in Mexico.
It involves looking into deforestation, looking into how the over consumption of avocado in the world in general has put the monarch butterfly in danger. But it’s mostly looking at violence, really, how people are literally killing themselves and cutting down whole forests because of this, what’s being dubbed in Mexico is the new green gold, the avocado. And just the sheer amount of money that it creates. So it’s going to be a big show. It’s going to be a documentary as well. And it’s going to be the presentation of a new material that I’ve been working with, with avocado skins.
My last guest is Linde Freya Tangelder, a designer in Belgium specializing in furniture and lighting with a fresh point of view that’s turning heads. Linde Freya trained at the prestigious Design Academy, Eindhoven worked a bit with the famous Campana brothers in Brazil, and since graduation has run her own practice she calls Destroyers and Builders. More on that later. What I find most fascinating about her is how she walks in two worlds. One being the business of one-offs and collectible works of design, where she sells her minimalistic pieces through leading galleries like Carwan and Nilufar.
But she also designs production pieces too, like her wax stone light for the Italian brand casino. And the cool-headed material obsessive designer just won young design talent of the year from the Elle Deco International Design Awards this spring. I caught up with Linde Freya from her studio in Antwerp to talk about her process, how she differentiates her gallery work from her products, all about a project she did for Dior recently and more.
So, thank you so much for doing this. I’m so happy to talk to you. And it seems like you’re having quite the week. You just want a lovely award from Elle Deco International. Congratulations on that.
Linde Freya Tangelder: Thank you.
And tell me a little bit about…I believe you studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven. What made you want to study design?
Actually, that started from very young age, not that I pronounced it as, I want to study design, but something that had to do with interior or art. I didn’t know the exact direction that I wanted to go. I think it’s just started with making a lot of drawings and a lot of miniatures. I didn’t call it miniatures at that time. I called it little knutselwerken. Little materials put together like little dolls or little furniture. So, I was always raised in quite a creative family. So, that was one side. And then on the other side, when I was a little bit older, my grandparents were also quite important for the choice making. At a certain point I just felt all the stories that they told me and the house that they lived in, it was quite a collector’s home, quite a lot of Scandinavian furniture with all different time zones and also different areas that they collected from. And just this balance between history and contemporary, I found very interesting.
And when you went to school, how did you fall in love with design? How did that evolve?
And then started to…First, I went to Goning, it was an art academy, and I did it for half a year. And then I thought, “No, this way too fake.” It was about painting, about quite abstract subjects. And then I felt that no, it has to be a little bit…There should be a context or there should be an end result that you work towards. And then, I did something that I didn’t dare at that point yet, to apply at the Design Academy, Eindhoven. And that was just very good choice. I felt directly this is the place that I want to be. And yeah, it was very just a really fruitful period. And I dived into little bit too hard, I think. Then after two years I subscribed or I described from the school, described, how do you say unsubscribed?
You dropped out, you left the school?
Yes, I did.
Oh. Okay. Okay.
So, I unsubscribed from the school after two years at Design Academy Eindhoven. I felt that I had to do an internship or learn from the real life. And then after one year I came back to do the second part of the school. So, I did, in total, I did two years. One year field work—
In between, and then two years continuing.
When you started your studio after graduation a few years later, why did you name your studio Destroyers and Builders?
And the name of my studio started from a project that was about the positive and negative things of tools. You can use a scissor in a very positive way, but you can also use it in a negative way. And it was starting as a super-wide research with everything that I had around me, just searching for tools that has this dualistic side. That was the one reason. But then I felt like Destroyers and Builders, for me, it’s about how you design. You make something, you have to maybe take away a little bit of the past to make something new. So, for me, it’s this circle of making and destroying, not in a super aggressive way, but more in a free way.
To be free to make something new, you have to take away a little bit of the past, but also use the past. It’s more about this method that keeps me going also. So, for me, it’s like a force behind me that is saying you can continue, but you also have to be able to throw away or some models that you throw away, but also in the way of the choice of materials, for example, brick. That’s one material that I really like. I think the fact that it’s connected to building materials and a completely different world, I think that inspires me a lot.
How do you describe your practice to someone today, if you meet them? What does Destroyers and Builders do?
What I think is specific about the way I work is the different materials that I use and the link with architecture. So, mainly that is the way how I would explain. I look around me and I’m inspired by architecture and the details in architecture, like a brick or a cornerstone. So, that is one of the starting point, but also the material. And often it has to do with a building that I’ve seen in a certain material, like glass started with glass bricks from a building. That’s how I started to work again in glass. Brick is the same. So, I’ve also worked with a new sandstone that I saw in a beautiful building in Basel from Renzo Piano. So, often it has to do with all what I see and what I want to research and what I think. It’s enlarging the family of materials. And yeah, it’s also about the interaction of this different materials coming together.
In what way? I was going to say, because most of your products and most of your designs are one material.
And very…Tell me a little bit about how much material exploration you need to do in order to get these things to do what you want them to do. Because they’re all quite…They’re very precise, even though they might be one material primarily, they’re quite precise in how they’re put together.
Indeed. For me, it’s always a little bit scary. The first project in a new material is always scary, but the beauty of it comes from the process. So for example, going to the factory, learning from craftsmen, seeing the different options. That that moment that you start to talk with people around you in the field of a specific material, then it starts to come alive. That’s also… I like together with the first project that I have in mind. It’s also a lot of learning what I thought that was possible, but I realize that it’s not possible, for example, that is what happens. Sometimes I’m able to make the products, but sometimes I have to change the design and start over again. But on the other hand, I am also, for example…No, it’s just that I have a starting idea and if I want to make it in that material, often it’s not easy, but it’s also a challenge to realize.
So, it’s also almost all of my projects are a little bit difficult in the beginning. And then, just because it’s difficult, you already get to learn quite a lot from the first project. But it opens the world of that material, so from there you can add it, there are so many options. And then I get a little bit addicted about one material. So, with glass, that was certainly the case. I really wanted to do another project with it. And I think it’s quite interesting talking about the first prototype that I made for Carwan gallery, the glass column. So it’s actually stacked glass on top of each other. Four parts. Very difficult because it had to fit exactly inside each other. The glass is still something vivid, it’s something liquid. So it’s never precise, the mold, it’s always a little bit different. So that was quite a challenge. From that sculpture that we made for Carwan. It was a very good starting point to continue in the collaboration with for Cassina for the wax stone light project.
Yeah, I mean that was…Sorry, I was going to ask what the relationship was between the art piece that you did for Carwan gallery or a collectible design piece, and this Cassina light, which was just introduced in Milan Design Week. How do you take one, and how are the designs different? If you can explain that.
So, for Carwan, it’s a little bit greenish color of glass, totally transparent glass, and it’s about shapes of the glass that fall into each other. They are really organic and it’s based, or the inspiration comes from stones that precisely fit into each other. So, that is the most difficult that you can imagine, that because of the corners and the parts that are just irregular, totally irregular. And then you have to have the contrast shape that has to have the same contour in a way. Then with Cassina, it’s semi opaque glass, so it’s another color, it’s another transparency, but also different shapes, different sizes. So, everything is different, but what remains the same is the texture that is done by hand. So, what I wanted to do, if we would make this light project for Cassina, I really wanted to have the initial process in my studio to make the wax models. We did it in my studio, and from there we made the scan, the mold, and the murano glass pieces. So, the starting point is the same, starting from my studio, but the end result is quite different.
And what would you say is your career goal? Where would you like to take your studio? Because it seems like you’ve definitely gotten over this first phase of your career, you have recognition, you have awards, you have beautiful projects with the best brands and the best galleries. What do you—
Still many goals.
What vision do you have? Yeah, what are your goals for your studio?
But I think I really would like works that I made as a limited edition, could grow more in a installation or a site specific location. That’s always what I thought about pieces that, for example, my last show with Carwan Gallery in Athens, there were was, for example, one pool that I made a little, not a pool, it’s a water pond. It’s not that big, it’s not that big. But that water pond, I already saw it in an outdoor project or something together with my partner, who’s a landscape architect, I thought could be quite interesting to implement or this [foreign language] example that I made, which is partly mirroring, partly blurred cloudy surface.
I thought it could be very interesting as an installation for a fashion brand or…So, there are all different starting points that I suggested with these pieces. But I think the continuation of that outcome is not there yet, or it’s not that I am searching for it, but I hope that it comes on my path to take it one step further and to make it more site specific, or to get these open questions, like could you do something in the direction of this?” That is what is missing in my studio, that we work in close relation with maybe an interior designer or maybe in collaboration with an architect. That is the goal of the studio.
And I’m curious if you could tell me a little bit about the project you did with Dior, just about, I think it was two years ago—
In 2021? Yeah, already.
Two years ago at this point, where you created your own interpretation of their medallion chair. And it looks almost like a drawing come to life or a computer simulation of shapes that create a chair that looks, not impossible, but also very unique in this way where it feels a little alien. Tell me about how that came together.
It was a very interesting subject, I thought. This chair was sent to me. They sent me a typical chair, the medallion chair, and the version that I received was in silver threads, like a pattern in silver threads. And it was made of wood. The textile part were in silver threads upholstered, and the wood was silver paint or silver leaf.
Yes. So, in a way, I received a silver version, which was, for me, perfect, because I already loved the material aluminum. So, I directly felt, “Okay, it has to be an aluminum chair.” But I found that super classical details and these ornaments, I didn’t really like it. And of course it’s not my style, so I felt let’s disassemble the whole chair without touching the real chair, but just making a lot of miniatures again. So first I made one, the original one, and then it was a play of all cardboard models in which I placed that typical medallion shape on other points, if it could be the seating or if it could be the arm rests. So, I had all these different versions.
And then one of them had the medallion in a back rest that you can only see from the top. So, only when you look from the top, you see the medallion quite clear. And indeed the end result has only three legs. So it’s just on being stable or unstable. But the fact that it’s quite heavy mass of aluminum, it makes it quite steady as well. So in the end, it’s CNC milled metal, then sanded by hand, so also the smoothness. It doesn’t look like machine made. For me it feels like it could be casted as well. The end result could be a casted chair or C and C milled chair. And I like this fake in-between state of the chair, and also the fake in-between of being sculptural and functional.
And I guess one thing I’d love to ask you is, now that design week is over and we’re back to doing design week in April, and it feels like the cultural landscape is trying to reset back to where it was before the pandemic, and things are so much different now than they were maybe three years ago—
In terms of art and culture and how everything works together. What do you think the role of a designer is in the greater culture today?
I think to keep on experimenting and to be quite dominant in the conversation with large production partners that you can be quite dominant about what is a small change, what it can give to a product, how you can change the path of production or change the location where the production should or where they originally produce, if it can be more local. All these conversations, I think, the designer is quite responsible for starting this conversation, and also to be resistant in the new ideas that are possible. But also with your design, you can already bring it in the good direction depending on which material you choose for. So I think that responsibility but also to be playful and to open up the industry because it’s quite rigid and quite strict. And I think to be playful and open up the process, I think that is quite an important role.
And what’s next for you? What’s next in the horizon for you this summer? Spring, summer.
So, what I want, and that is just because I had a little bit crazy full year. The fact that I was last year, this two solo shows that I did, and then the first collection with Cassina, and now the second, it was quite a thing and unstoppable process. And what I want to do now is for the next month working on a new series that is about experimenting. Yes, I decided that after a super full year, there has to be a few months in between somewhere that are more free about starting up new things. Without that, I cannot continue on new projects.
That’s also what I did just before that very busy period that I had a little quiet moment in the time of COVID. That helped a lot to start up all the projects that came out. So, I really like to have these quieter zones and busy zones. But on the other hand, we are working on several projects, a new collection of lighting also for Carwan Gallery that we hope to launch in summer. Also with Cassina, I’m working on a new project that is for next year. In one month, I’m showing a limited edition of Tools with the Hem company. You know them. So Hem has also a collaboration with different designers that are working on a limited edition. So next month, I think, in New York, it’ll be launched.
Sounds very busy, actually. Not a lot of downtime.
But yes, I think when there’s not a deadline and there’s still some time to play around in the studio, I think it’s a good thing.
Thank you to Zizipho, Fernando, Linde Freya, and everyone at Gallery 56, Southern Guild, Cassina and Friedman Benda, and of course, our sponsor Lumens, for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please follow me on Instagram at @danrubinstein to learn more. And sign up with your email for updates at thegrandtourist.net. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time.
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