The Art of Engineering Bubbles: An Interview with Studio Swine

Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves of Studio Swine discuss their tremendously popular Salone del Mobile installation and the future of their practice.
Studio Swine’s Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves with New Spring, their installation for COS. The treelike structure was inspired by the chandeliers of Milanese palazzi, and was housed in the Cinema Arti, a 1930s theater designed by Mario Cereghini. Courtesy Mark Cocksedge / Courtesy COS

During this year’s Salone del Mobile, one of the most popular installations was at an old cinema in central Milan. New Spring was the result of a collaboration between the fashion brand COS and London-based Studio Swine. “It has a clean and simple look but is also tactile,” says Karin Gustafsson, COS’s creative director. “It’s about the experience of materials.” Metropolis editorial director Paul Makovsky spoke to Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves of Studio Swine about the art of engineering bubbles and the future of their practice.

Paul Makovsky: How did you get involved with this installation?

Alexander Groves: Well, we first were asked to be in COS’s magazine. We’d been fans of COS for years, and how they’re very much involved in the arts as well. We had an initial dialogue and we talked about what we do and what our key themes and values are, and then they asked us to do something for Milan. It was a really, really open brief. It was just that we wanted to incorporate their key values, which were modernity, simplicity, timelessness, tactility. Tactility is especially something that we ourselves explore all the time.

PM: How did you come up with the idea of the tree with bubbles?

Azusa Murakami: Yeah, I mean there were a few things that were kind of already fixed. It was going to be in Milan, so obviously we had a place to inspire us. We knew the timing of it would be the spring, so that was something that got us thinking about the cherry blossom festival and feeling the seasons. Then the other one was the venue, which was the cinema. We’re conscious that you go to the cinema to be transported, and can you do that with a structure other than a film?

AG: We tried to achieve maximum effect with minimal resources. So the whole tree takes up very low voltage, the scaffolding is made of preexisting industrial components, and the bubbles can disappear. Also, talking about the cherry blossom festival and thinking about beauty of the impermanent and fragility that the bubbles represent—we thought that was kind of a nice message.

AM: The smell too. The amazing thing with the cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C., or in Japan is the smell.

PM: How did you develop the perfume?

AG: We’ve developed with the perfume three essential scents that are an element of the tree. So we have flowers, fruit, and wood. They would burst together to create one scent within the room. So we had to make sure that each scent would work together—and one doesn’t over-power the other—in a harmonious way. We did a lot of research online about different types of bubble mixtures, what goes into bubble mix. We were testing all the different mixtures.

AM: Then we had to find what would work for our machines. It’s the power of the air that’s being blown, there’s the amount of bubble mix you’re putting in there, it’s the amount of time it’s exposed, the increments to form a bubble—there are so many variables that are finely tuned.

PM: Did you have to work with a chemist to get the bubbles right?

AM: We had to consult a chemist on how to incorporate the perfume. That’s really tricky because perfumes essentially rely on oils, and oil is the enemy of bubbles. That was the hardest challenge. You don’t want anything to coagulate in the tube, or you need it to be properly emulsified.

PM: Was there an issue with putting smoke in the bubbles?

AM: At the beginning we were investigating dry ice, but in the end we went with water vapor—it’s just like fog or mist. It’s a lot less energy to just have water being vaporized than dry ice.

The structure releases bubbles filled with scented mist that burst on contact with skin (opposite), but not with fabric—so visitors can handle them with gloves. “Tactility is very important to us,” says COS creative director Karin Gustafsson. Courtesy COS

PM: What did you end up making the tree from?

AG: We’re using scaffolding that’s been powder coated. But the end of each branch is engineered.

AM: We had to 3D-print 3,000 individual parts for the different mechanisms. Everything had to be engineered from scratch because there are bubble machines out there but they just weren’t appropriate. They’re really large, and there’s nothing that will make bubbles downward; it’s always sideways, so it’s quite challenging.

AG: The installation is a modular system, so it’s easy to disassemble and assemble it in any way to fit any space. It can be taken out and transported in an easy way.

PM: What kind of feedback have you received?

AM: It’s been really, really positive. We had these Russian guys who were building stage flooring; they were really quite surly and difficult to engage with. But as soon as the tree started producing bubbles, they were smiling, getting out their phones, filming each other, running around. That was the first feedback and the best feedback.

PM: Are there any ideas here that you may continue to explore in another project?

AM: I would like to explore this sense of timelessness. For me, the tree on its own in the space, it feels very primal. You think of the tree of knowledge, this kind of primordial swamp. I really like that sense of the sublime.

AG: We love creating something very massive; we want to go in that direction even more. I think we also want to explore this idea of objects as a vehicle for creating an immersive environment. That’s something that I want to take further.

The structure releases bubbles filled with scented mist that burst on contact with skin (opposite), but not with fabric—so visitors can handle them with gloves. “Tactility is very important to us,” says COS creative director Karin Gustafsson. Courtesy COS

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