With expansive approaches to architecture and design, the practitioners we profile in this multi-part feature are unleashing vibrant new aesthetics, reimagining our shared spaces for better inclusivity and forging new connections for collaboration. In New Forms, New Meanings, we catch up with Elena Salmistraro, Bowen Liu, FutureStudio, Will Choui, Jane Scott and Maria Yablonina.

ELENA SALMISTRARO imbues objects with meaning
Global Design Talents - Elena Salmistraro sits in between two of her vases for Bosa.

Elena Salmistraro sits in between two of her vases for Bosa. Portrait by Simone Falcetta

A conversation with the Milan-based designer and ambassador for Italian design, who has created expressive works for brands big and small, from Bosa and Busnelli to Cappellini and WonderGlass.

Elizabeth Pagliacolo: I first encountered your work when you created the exuberant Axo in Fabula for the Cappellini showroom in Milan. How did that collaboration come to be?

Elena Salmistraro: My first collaboration with Cappellini took place during the first Salone del Mobile after the COVID pandemic in a site-specific installation called Amor Fati, which represents the belief that destiny is in our hands — only we can shape it, convey it and improve it through our actions, choices and projects. After this success, we expanded our scope to craft a narrative, a fairy tale, called Axo in Fabula. The intention was to bring to life a rag doll similar to those once lovingly sewn by grandmothers for their grandchildren using whatever they could find at home. It was a simple yet meaningful gesture incorporating love, storytelling, re-use and a real lesson translated into play and passion: Axo was the denial of extinction and the affirmation of life itself, narrated through textile sculptures symbolizing the birth and evolution of this object and symbol. The fabrics came from various Cappellini collections, skillfully reassembled by members of the Cooperativa Alice.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

Endlessly customizable, Elena Salmistraro’s Grumetto is a soft-as-a-cloud sofa designed for Busnelli.

How do you translate your creativity into products, by way of a process you describe as a “union between art and serial production”? And how do you work with producers to ensure that your vision is properly translated?

When I speak of the union between the world of art and serial production, it refers to my intention to introduce and convey a message that goes far beyond the simple primary function of mass-pro­duced objects. I’m not interested in emptying the object to reach its essence; instead, I prefer to make it more complex, which doesn’t mean complicating it but rather adding fundamental elements to imbue an object with meaning, narrative, soul, energy and culture. In general, the companies that contact me already know what to expect from my work and are eager to embark on a journey together. Sharing the same vision and perspective is fundamental: The most important aspect for me is the human aspect. I need to feel like part of a team, a family. If a good human relationship is established, the product will be the perfect expression of both my vision and that of the company.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

Crisalide, a porcelain
handle for Dnd, features playful motifs.

You work with every material imaginable: textiles, porcelain, glass. Which is your favourite?

Working with different materials is a constant source of inspiration for me. It means delving into a new world, studying it thoroughly and understanding its nuances. The material I feel most comfort­able with — the one that allows me the highest degree of creative expression — is ceramics. First in my hand­crafted work and then in my collection with Bosa, it opened the doors to the worlds of wood, glass, textiles and much more. Over the years, I’ve discovered the affinities between these materials, but also their infinite differences, especially in their processing techniques. For instance, cast glass requires a completely different approach from blown glass. In this context, I recognize the crucial importance of craftsmanship skills and first­hand knowledge from masters of the trade.

BOWEN LIU embraces glass
Global Design Talents - Bowen Liu sits among two pieces from the cast-glass Helle collection, including the side table (also shown below) and the floor lamp, with its white oak base.

Bowen Liu sits among two pieces from the cast-glass Helle collection, including the side table (also shown below) and the floor lamp, with its white oak base.

Like a large body of water during a moment of morning stillness, Bowen Liu’s furniture is a lesson in tranquil beauty. As a sailor, Liu regu­larly competes in regattas as part of a team with her fellow Brooklyn designers. Now, she is riding the wave of another graceful yet temper­amental pursuit: glassmaking. Back when Liu (who grew up in Beijing and Tangshan, China) was studying furniture design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, she focused her efforts on solid wood and woodworking techniques — but she still managed to squeeze in a few classes on glass production. “I love the process and the final prod­uct,” she says. “Molten glass, having the consistency of molasses, requires constant movement to work with.”

Unveiled at WantedDesign Manhattan this past May, her Helle glass collection finally sees her sail toward transparency. Along the way, she also passes by the East River’s Hell Gate Bridge. The NYC landmark, which caught Liu’s attention while she was on her way to a regatta, ini­tially inspired the Helle collection of wood furniture, released in 2021. “The way the light was hitting it drew my eye to the tapered bridge supports,” she says.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

Photo by Boyang Hu.

Those forms, first appearing as blocky bases on a solid oak dining table and armoire, now show up in the latest series — a floor lamp, a mirror and a side table — in cast glass. Liu worked with a Brooklyn glass studio to build moulds that allow large tabletop and base com­ponents to be fired in a kiln. Many of these elements take more than a week to craft. The pieces favour hard lines, but the bubbles within them introduce an underlying sense of flow. “When I was younger and first saw glass with bubbles in it, I felt like I was looking at this stopped moment,” says Liu. “It had a frozen time aspect to it that I thought was very romantic.” EM

FUTURESTUDIO captures the essence of its clients
Global Design Talents - Futurestudio founder Ali McQuaid

Futurestudio founder Ali McQuaid.

Ali McQuaid’s design firm might be called Futurestudio, but monochromatic, ster­ile surfaces and integrated tech interfaces don’t figure prominently in her palette. If you’ve spent time in any of her warm, multi-layered Toronto interiors — from the Dear Grain bakery to Othership spa — you might, in fact, feel a twinge of nostalgia. Or you might have renewed hope for the future, one with a lot more feeling than expected.

“For most of our projects, our goal is to transport guests and give them a totally captivating experience for a few hours,” McQuaid explains. “Soft lighting, smoked mirrors, plush fabrics: Attention to those design details makes people feel good in a space.” One of her recent interiors, Piano Piano on Colborne Street, abounds with riotous colour and decor — think cobalt-blue millwork, fantasia fabric canopies and a merry-go-round horse (around the Carousel Bar, naturally). That doesn’t mean that futuristic-style spaces are out of the question.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

Futurestudio’s eclectic interior design for Piano Piano on Colborne Street includes the cobalt-blue Carousel Bar with a merry-go-round horse. Photo by Nicki Leigh McKean and Dragana Paramentic

“I like to look at each project as if it were a movie and we are creating the set design,” McQuaid says. “The set we would create for a sci-fi film is different from a period drama.” Besides Lee Restaurant (a collaboration with Susur Lee’s wife, Brenda Bent, and Karen Gable), her prolific list of new and on-the-way projects includes a couple major undertakings outside Toronto: two Othership locations in New York and a boutique gym concept in Dubai. “Every client is different, and when the project opens, I want the space to feel like them — not us.” EP

WILL CHOUI revives brutalism with a citrus twist
Global Design Talents, Will Choui with his Fluo table.

Will Choui with his Fluo table. Photos by Lucho Calderon

While completing his furniture design MFA at RISD back in 2020, Will Choui found himself homesick for Montreal’s notorious construction. So he channelled the city’s traffic cones into one of his final first-year projects: a sofa made from metal rods painted bright orange. The design was a turning point. Before that, Choui had been playing it safe with pieces that reflected his background designing case goods. “My teachers kept telling me, ‘Okay — we’ve seen that you’re a good fabricator. Show us your creative side,’ ” he says.

Since graduating, the designer (born in Quebec City and now based in Bolton-Est) has continued to take inspiration from the urban realm. He’s particularly struck by the harsh beauty of brutalism. “I really connect with the values behind it — that idea of durable, solid, efficient construction,” he says. “I wanted to honour the movement and keep it rolling with these 21st-century expressions.” Elements of Joseland & Gilling’s SMC Building in Sydney, Australia, informed the grid-like 1979 set that Choui debuted at WantedDesign Manhattan this May. Fabricated as aluminum sheets that are then slotted together, the collection’s side table, chandelier, table lamp and pair of mirrors nod to Choui’s early days creating custom furnishings with a CNC. “The transfer from 2D to 3D — taking a flat sheet and making a sculptural object with it — makes for a fun assembly,” he says.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

The 1979 desk lamp.

The collection also makes for a great showcase of the designer’s signature hue, which he employed in his previous grouping of acrylic furniture, Fluo. In fact, the 1979 pendant is perhaps the most orange thing he’s designed yet. “Because the light reflects off all the little squares, if you put it in a white room, the whole space becomes orange,” he says. EM

JANE SCOTT and her team introduce a mycelium-based building material
Global Design Talents Jane Scott leads Newcastle University's Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment.

Jane Scott leads Newcastle University’s Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment. Photo by Matthew Kaltenborn

The built environment produces 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is why a study published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology in July was especially thrilling: It shows the promising results of Newcastle University’s experi­ment in making a new, stronger type of mycelium-based interior construction material for non-structural uses, as well as a 3D-knit formwork that, when combined with the novel material, makes it even more robust.

“Mycocrete is a new formulation of mycelium and substrate mix,” explains Jane Scott, one of the study’s authors (with Romy Kaiser, Ben Bridgens and Elise Elsacker) and the leader of the U.K. institution’s Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. “It’s designed as a smooth and viscous paste, rather than the more con­ventional mycelium spawn and wood chip or fibre mix.” After testing the substance with various controls, the team took a stab at a new type of formwork. Mycelium-based substances are typically grown in (and take the shape of) rectilinear moulds, limiting their use to blocks and panels. What if it were possible to devise a formwork that not only expanded the aesthetic possibilities of mycocrete but also did away with the waste of discarded moulds? The answer, the team found, was in a 3D-printed knit: Injected into the tubular textile with an extru­sion gun, the mycocrete takes on never-before-seen forms with increased structural integrity. To wit: the organically contoured dome-like pavilion the team has placed on display at the university.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

One of mycocrete and BioKnit’s first applications, this pavilion at Newcastle University hints at the new biomaterial’s sculptural possibilities. Photo courtesy of Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment.

For Scott, the eco-material’s inherent properties constitute just one positive aspect of “growing as construction,” a new approach to making biologically based building elements, including the non-load-bearing structures (such as insulation, internal linings and novel surfacing) of future interiors that she sees as mycocrete’s ideal use. “Growing as construction allows us to rethink a lot of the conventional con­struction processes; to produce locally on site, to reduce transportation associated with shipping individual parts for assembly and to develop sustainable practices.” As they develop BioKnit, she and her team see opportunities to reduce a building’s greenhouse gas emissions over its construction and life cycle by using this type of lower-carbon material with greater functionality, insulation and breathability — which could further reduce the operational carbon linked to heating and cooling. Of course, experimenting with form is important too. “We are also very interested to explore what an architecture of the future that has been grown rather than constructed might look like, and what it might feel like to live in a bio-fabricated building.” EP

MARIA YABLONINA’s robots will help buildings last longer
Global Design Talent Maria Yablonina

Maria Yablonina, photographed by Rui Hu.

“I want to not build a single other building ever again.” That is how Maria Yablonina, an assistant professor at the Daniels Faculty at the University of Toronto, describes the core emphasis of her paradigm-shifting work at the intersection of architecture and digital fabrication. Beginning with her PhD thesis at University of Stuttgart, she has been engineering climbing robots that build spaces — changeable interiors and morphing installations — for many years now. But more recently, she has evolved her practice to focus on how robots can capture information that can be useful in renovating or preserving an existing building. “Can we imagine a scenario in which it’s actually cheaper to re-use than it is to demolish? Because right now, it’s always easier to demolish.”

A case in point is a collaboration with Zahner, a manufacturer of highly crafted architectural metalwork for artists and architects, on a research project for possible application in the renovation of the SOM-designed Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. Yablonina has helped develop a ferromagnetic robot designed to clamp onto and climb up pipes, the building’s core structure. “It’s a little koala that almost hugs the pipe, and then it can go up and down and around it,” she explains. Equipped with a sensor, it records its positions as it moves, all the while communicating with the total station on the construction site. The measurements it takes could inform the design files for a new facade system, which would require custom clamps that are friction-fixed onto the pipe. Since the facade is made of flat sheets, the clamps must be positioned precisely, an especially difficult task because of the clamp’s angular orientation around the cylindrical pipe. The second iteration of the robot could feature a little Sharpie marker holder that marks all the positions in which the clamps need to be installed on its second trip up the facade. And then a human would go up and install the clamps.

Global Design Talents: New Forms, New Meanings

For a gallery in Ljubljana, her robots wove a structure that continuously changed throughout the duration of the exhibition.

While the project is still in case-study mode, it shows how Yablonina approaches the robot– human dynamic. “It was really important to us to integrate as smoothly as possible into existing workflows on construction sites,” Yablonina explains. “For me and for my collaborators, it’s really important to think about this: Yes, it is a robot, but at the same time we can call it a tool. And we can imagine that in the long-term future, it could be carried in a tool case, along with other construction worker tools. It ends up in the hands of that part of the labour force, rather than automating that part of the labour force.”

This consideration for human labourers is part of the critical eye on technology (and its potential misuse in exacerbating the inequities of capitalism) that informs all facets of Yablonina’s work, from her research and teaching to the art practice she runs with Mitchell Akiyama, a fellow assistant pro­fessor at Daniels. Together, they developed a technology that recognizes high-frequency sounds like those emitted by the Mosquito, a device typically used in malls to fend off teenagers, who are especially sensitive to its output. Integrated into a portable music player with headphones, their innovation picks up on those frequencies and transposes them into a musical composition. “For an adult, it acts as a detector of something that one cannot experience or see or hear — so it finds layers of technological inequity and makes them visible or hearable. On the flip side of that, in the more jokey way, for a teenager it becomes a muffler of the Mosquito device. It’s a good example of how our practice operates. We make a lot of physical objects as jokes, but also as critiques of capitalism and politics.” EP


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