By ELLEN HIMELFARB
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Italian designer Roberto Palomba was watching a Zulu drum concert in South Africa when it struck him. One of the players was beating on a clear plastic water tank, causing the water inside to ripple and dance.
"I saw the water change shape as he beat, so I started thinking, 'If I could freeze that water, somehow preserving the rhythm, it would make a wonderful shape.' " Back home in Milan, he filled a deep bowl with milk and reached for the nearest tool to beat it with: his wife Ludovica's high-heeled shoe. "It was a disaster at the start," he says, "but I started to see how I could play music into a material and have it bounce to the rhythm."
With a commission from lighting manufacturer Foscarini, Palomba conceived of a glass dome - "the melody," he says - engraved with ripples mimicking the rhythm of drum music. Then he designed a mould for what would, earlier this year, become Gem, a table lamp that appears to have frozen midvibration.
Music and design are inseparable for Palomba, who likens form and materials to melody, the personality to rhythm and himself to a composer. He describes the Let It Be sofa he released this year for Poltrona Frau as a "symphony" of ergonomics, function and structure inspired by the classic Beatles album. "It's a little revolution for a formal, exclusive brand to be more relaxed, a little hippie mood in the Poltrona Frau universe," he says.
Neither design or music appreciation is a zero-sum game. Yet, music lovers who pooh-pooh or simply ignore furniture and product design could do worse than search it for musical references.
In architecture, the pastime is as old as the ancient Greeks, who designed the pillars of the Parthenon according to a sacred geometry.
By the 20th century, however, from the cubism of Le Corbusier to the abstract sensuality of Richard Meier, music tended to manifest itself as a rupturing of conventional rules. Contemporary designers such as Achille Castiglioni and Philippe Starck captured that legacy and that's where Palomba sees his origins.
"Starck started punk design," he says, "putting sex and death together like the Sex Pistols. When he did an old French chair in cheap plastic and called it the Ghost, it was like cutting off heads all over again."
Reading design for its musical references can seem like a primer in cultural history. It is near impossible to see the hammered-aluminum housewares of Brazilian designer Brunno Jahara without recognizing a bossa nova beat.
The acrylic French Touch chair unveiled last year by Juliette Mutzke-Felippelli of Los Angeles design studio Joogii embodies disco beats and the French house music she listened to as a student.
Iridescent film on the surface of the acrylic reacts with light to produce a disco spectrum.
Mutzke-Felippelli released it with a digital mixtape of tracks by Daft Punk, Cassius and Etienne de Crecy. "The Daft Punk live album, Alive 1997, was basically the starting point for the whole French Touch Collection," she says. "And Giorgio Moroder, the pioneer of disco, is a huge source of inspiration for me."
None of these designers would explicitly call themselves synethetes, that portion (estimated between 1 per cent and 5 per cent) of the population who describe experiencing sound and other stimuli as colour. But Ini Archibong, a Californian designer now based in Switzerland, suggests, "We all have some form of synaesthesia.
"Anything that comes out of me comes from some sort of feeling inside me - there's no real division," he says. "But I never strive to take a piece of music and turn it into a shape."
Rather, he starts with a design concept, seeks out music that aligns with it and sketches to the beat. If he can't find suitable music in his record collection, he'll compose it himself. "Or I'll sample songs that capture the essence of what I'm designing."
Archibong was making music on L.A.'s beats scene when he took an internship with an architecture firm and began developing both passions in tandem.
"I'd be making beats, then flipping through architecture books and sketching while the music was playing."
You can spot those influences in last year's In the Secret Garden collection: a pair of marble-topped tables with glass legs like lava lamps, a sofa shaped like a smile and several glass lights. While designing the chandelier for that collection, Archibong pulled out a synthesizer rendition of Clair de Lune, then went back and forth to the turntables to compose more than 10 original songs. "That project wouldn't exist without the influence of the music, and vice versa."
As with Palomba, Archibong also sees kinship with the French - particularly designers Jean-Marie Massaud and Noé DuchaufourLawrance, who embrace a natural fluidity in their furniture. "Studying in Pasadena, I was really inspired by designers I felt were able to take that intangible thing and put it into a mundane product."
Archibong's next collection for the furniture company Sé will launch next spring in Milan. And this time, he says, he'll consider releasing a playlist of music that was influential in the design.
"The collection reflects a time when I was having conversations with artists about a certain feeling you can create that can be an escape from earth, even for a split second.
"My rapper friends [Blu & Exile] released an album around that time called Below the Heavens, about that place between heaven and earth. The music I dug up from that era gave me that feeling."
Italian designer Roberto Palomba's Let It Be sofa, released this year for Poltrona Frau, was inspired by the classic Beatles album.
COURTESY OF POLTRONA FRAU
California designer Ini Archibong was making music in Los Angeles when he took an internship with an architecture firm. He began developing both passions in tandem. You can spot the influence of music in last year's In the Secret Garden collection, incliding its lights and sofa, above. Archibong says the project 'wouldn't exist without the influence of the music.'
PHOTOS COURTESY OF INI ARCHIBONG
The acrylic French Touch chair, left, unveiled last year by Juliette Mutzke-Felippelli of Los Angeles design studio Joogii embodies disco beats and the French house music she listened to as a student. Iridescent film on the surface of the acrylic reacts with light to produce a disco spectrum. Mutzke-Felippelli says the Daft Punk live album Alive 1997 was the starting point for the entire French Touch collection, which includes other items such as the vases pictured above.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOOGI