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Designing with Metal - Meet Studio Ilio

Nestled on an industrial estate in north London, surrounded by numerous manufacturing companies, you’ll find creative studio and product designers Studio Ilio. Their studio is part of a creative community including eight other makers and creators who all share a workshop and office in a space of nearly 200m2. Like many, the workshop is equipped with a good range of woodworking machinery but also has a host of metalworking equipment and will soon also have a 3-D printer. The design duo, who met whilst studying MA Design Products at London’s Royal College of Art have their own 25m2 production space within the building and it’s here that they produce a range of innovative metal products that are difficult to draw any comparisons to, such is the unique approach to materials, processes and form. Whilst they’re a small team, with 2 to 5 people in action at any given moment, their ingenuity is matched by an industrious approach to making. So why work with metal in the first place, and how did they strike upon manufacturing methods that has led to them reimagining steel wool and utilising human hair in their products?

Design Writer Jim Biddulph caught up with one half of the pair, Fabio Hendry, to find out more about their work and their ongoing relationship with metal.  

JB: All of your projects to date have involved metal and are arguably reliant upon it, would you say that it’s a core material within your practice?

FH: Metal as a material is definitely very present in all the projects. Although to be honest, this was rather unintentional and something that happened along the way. There isn’t a core material in the studio, because as designers we are interested in any material that is transformable in its state, scale and usage. That’s why metal has been so present in our work since graduating - none of the projects would exist without the use of metal and it’s amazing properties.

JB: I guess it can be said that many designers are wary of working with metal, so how did you end up using it in the first place?

FH: It was in 2015 when we started to develop the process of Hot Wire Extensions. We were looking into different heat sources; where does heat happen, why and how does it appear and what does it cause? Metal itself has great properties of carrying energy but also in storing it.  Depending on what type of metal you work with, they have very different, almost contradictive properties. For instance, even though copper and bronze are both metals, they have very few properties in common - especially their heat conductivity.

After starting experimenting with resistance wires, which are essentially also made from metals, we noticed that there was a new feature that we encountered; depending on how much resistance a metal has, it interrupts the electricity flow, whereby the electrical energy is transformed into thermal energy. Further experimentation with these properties allowed us to start to fully understand and control it, and well as being able to manipulate it. Eventually, copper became an essential material within the Hot Wire Extensions process; it’s unconventional, but we found that as it conducts the heat generated by the resistance wire moves outwardly into the powdered material mixture. This causes it to bind, creating a thick protective coating around whatever wire form we have initially created.


JB: It’s almost like a science project turned into a design process with the end results looking like furniture from out of space! With it, the metal itself, so important in the process, disappears from sight in the end pieces. But that’s not always the case is it?

FH: No, with other projects metal is present and visible from start to finish. The Soft Side of Steel project is a good example, and one that really challenged our relationship with metal. There is great innovation with metals and its use in the fields of science and technology but less in the domestic product design. In our daily lives, we mainly encounter metal in its most basic state such as sheet or rod material, where it is mainly used for its ductility, strength, durability and versatility. Of course, our world would look very different without metals! So with the Soft Side of Steel project, we were trying to approach metal in a more sentimental way and show other potentials and functions of it such as its softness and its warmth. In comparison with plastics, of which the possibilities and uses have arguably all been exploited, there might be more possibilities surrounding how we see and use metals in the future – and this was a big driver in creating the project. 

Stool made with metal


JB: I think that underlines the fact that your work finds its innovation from asking questions of metals that might not be the most obvious to ask. How do you go about this – is it led by theory or experimentation?

FH: There is more hands-on experimentation happening at the studio then theoretical research. However, it is relevant to contextualise your actions and define the potentials - to be aware of the consequences. This part of the work is obviously less hands on. In general, we start with a broad idea which is either based around a material or a production process. In order to open up some perspectives, you start with intuitive tests and experiments. Building a library of ideas and methods which are then consequently tested, analysed and archived. This part of the development can be considered more as research, since this is the moment where you start to understand your process and your ingredients. From here on the fun usually starts, because you are in control and the whole process becomes more pliable and versatile.


JB: And from there you find a way to turn your findings into usable design products?

FH: Yes, focusing on process doesn’t mean that we reject industrial manufacturing, nor functionality. But functionality is also very ambiguous. For us, a process starts to become interesting and viable when it meets a purpose or an application. We see ourselves as industrial designers in a sense that we look into abundant materials and waste streams and try to implement them back into the domestic environment. In this case, functionality is inevitable, but so is the slightly experimental approach and development of anything unknown. Once the production is right, there shouldn’t be any undefined, experimental marks visible - just a product. Maybe, due to the process, some work can appear rather unusual and dysfunctional, often identified as artistic. This is of course also where we want to push boundaries; what are the building blocks of our world and how can those evolve?


JB: As mentioned, metal can be a tricky material to work with am I right in saying that you’ve collaborated with specialists along the way?

FH: Metals come with various properties that allow you to work with them in numerous ways quite easily. But on the other hand, if you want to start to transform them in their state or in their characteristics, it becomes very challenging. A mechanical or physical change of metal already requires a demanding set up, but to understand and control a chemical change of it, such as a decomposition or a surface treatment, is a complex procedure.

The project of The Soft Side of Steel started with a research into metal specialists in UK and how the metal manufacturing industry has changed since the emergence of robotics and other automatized productions. Many metal related professions have since disappeared or declined, with probably the blacksmith being the best example. It then turned out that a once Europe-wide leading company in producing resistance welding machines for the industry, Sciaky, was left with only one existing branch which was located in Slough. Our intention of collaborating with them was not to solely use their expertise or supply, but also to try and develop a material and process combination, which might have the potential to revitalize their equipment and skills.


JB: We’ve already talked about functionality, and the metal products you make are generally usable, so is there a context in which they tend to end up?

FH: So far found most products have found their way into the domestic landscape, in form of furniture, lighting and decorative objects and installations. Often, due to its format, those products, unfortunately tend to be exclusive and only live within the gallery-collectors’ market and the design scene. This avantgarde and progressive framework is important though, because it is where you can strive to inspire people, give impulses and also participate in the contemporary discussion of culture and design.

On the other hand, we are increasingly trying to scale the processes up and research potentials of implementing them into our urban landscape. I recently started to like the idea of the ‘super ordinary’ – avalanche barriers, pedestrian bridges, and road safety rails. Could the process of the Hot Wire Extensions for instance be considered as a regular building material for our built environment? Some initial tests at the studio of producing large-scale roof trusses show promising potentials.


Hot wire lamp

To find out more about Studio Ilio and to discuss projects and possible collaborations take a look here.

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