When Louis Vuitton launched its “Objets Nomades” collection in 2012, the French house invited designers to create portable objects, inspired by the brand’s travel heritage. Names like Atelier Oï, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Clino Castelli, Constance Guisset, and the Campana brothers created pieces such as a portable leather hammock, a USB-powered Venetian glass lantern, a folding loveseat, a handsome neck pillow, and a collapsible hanging closet.
Over the years, the series has included more names, like Patricia Urquiola, Marcel Wanders, Tokujin Yoshioka, India Mahdavi, and André Fu, and the literal interpretation of travel has evolved into a more conceptual one.
This December in Miami, Andrew Kudless of Matsys design studio will add two bookshelves to the collection that are inspired by the tension of a trip—the desire to discover something new and the pull of one’s heart and responsibilities at home. Describing himself as first and foremost a maker, rather than a designer or architect, Kudless shared with Whitewall why material should be considered on the same level as form and function.
WHITEWALL: Your studio Matsys gets its name from material systems. Can you explain to us the role material systems play in your approach to design and architecture?
ANDREW KUDLESS: Fundamentally, before thinking of myself as a designer, artist, architect, and other things, I think of myself as a maker. I’ve always been inspired by the world around me—geologic, biologic, industrial—I’m fascinated by how things come into being and the history of everything around us.
After I finished my degree, I wanted to go beyond just thinking about making buildings, but thinking about how everything in the world comes into being. I began to realize that if you look at the properties of materials, how they’ve grown, or have been made over time, you can work within that context as a designer.
The way architects and designers are often taught is more abstract and removed. It’s an abstract form, and then slowly you pick a material out of a library, more first color or something, and it’s not really thinking through that.
And the reason I include the idea of the system is that material exists in a context—how that wood was grown, where it was grown, what the weather was—there’s an all-encompassing ecosystem of a material.
WW: So you may start with material, rather than form?
AK: Some people ask, do you start with the function or do you start with a form? I’ve always thought of it beyond just those two things. I don’t really start with a form or function, or even a material. I think of them all together right away.
In my daily design practice, we often prototype something really early on to understand how that material behaves. And I’ll be thinking at the same time, “How is someone going to be using this? Does this really work functionally?” I try to always start a project by thinking through all three of those almost simultaneously, because if you think of any natural form, you can’t disassociate the form of a tree from the weather, or photosynthesis. It’s all one thing together. I feel like we do ourselves a disservice as designers when we become too abstract and just put things in the form category or functional category. It is much more integrated.
WW: Architecture can be thought of as a very permanent, static thing. But it’s a constantly evolving thing—it’s lived in or around and felt.
AK: It will itself change over time. Too often we think something we’ve made now exists in perpetuity. We may not see a change in our time scale, but it’s changing. A piece of wood is breathing over time; it’s absorbing moisture from the environment and changing shape.
One of my favorite things is when you look at an old concrete wall, and it’s covered in moss. The reason it accepts life growing on it is that, over time, water running across that wall has leached out the alkaline materials on the wall and it’s become more neutral of a pH. And because it’s neutral, life can begin to colonize it. It’s actually become more in tune with its environment and it’s been accepted.
WW: How does that apply to something like the bookshelves you’ve created for Louis Vuitton’s “Objets Nomades”?
AK: I was familiar with the project, “Objets Nomades,” and you can see that a lot of the earlier work was much more literal. It was actually nomadic, designed to fold up and carry away. But over time, you can see various designers making larger pieces that are not so much literally nomadic, but more conceptually nomadic. I was interested in that. I think all the designs are incredibly clever and beautiful, but I was more interested in what Louis Vuitton was asking—and they were asking me, what is travel in my life?
I do travel a lot, but I also have a family. I have a practice, and professorship, and every time travel comes up, I’m simultaneously excited, because travel takes you out of your normal existence and places you into something that you’re not familiar with—like new foods, new languages, new places. That’s incredibly invigorating. But at the same time, it’s also stressful that you’re away from your home, you’re away from your comfort zone.
I wanted to capture that tension between the desire to try something new and the inertia of wanting to stay. In the bookshelf, there’s a sense that it’s being pulled in two different directions.
WW: And you created two bookshelves?
AK: There are two versions of the bookshelf—one is hanging and one is freestanding, Swell Wave shelf. We started with the hanging version and the idea of the two elements, the wood of the shelf and the leather straps that hold the shelves in place.
The leather is really strong—you can pull it and it doesn’t stretch very much. And so that could hold a lot of weight. And there are these very heavy, large wooden shelves almost forming under that tension. They are being pulled up and down, where the two straps are. It’s like a wave form, which is where the name came from, a swell wave that’s generated thousands of miles away.
In California you sometimes hear a lot of surfers say there are big storms in New Zealand and that means next week there’s going to be a swell. That started me thinking of beyond that kind of tension there’s this other sense of travel, where even when we’re standing still, the world around us is in motion. Small events in one part of the world could have this dramatic effect later in another part of the world. It’s almost impossible, in a way, to stay in one place.
WW: How did you arrive at the materials of leather and wood?
AK: I wanted to use natural material because of my affinity for the variation in texture that you find within natural materials. There’s an inherent unique quality to every piece of wood and every piece of leather. No matter how much you try to make it look the same, a grain of wood is a record of the climate a tree grew in. I find that incredibly beautiful. It’s a record of its making.
So every shelf we make will be completely unique. And even the unnatural part of it, of dyeing leather, it’ll be impossible to get every color exactly.
WW: Speaking of how you do need to travel for your work, have any recent trips been particularly inspiring?
AK: Yes. During the initial design for the shelves, I was actually traveling for three weeks in Japan. I was leading a group of students from my university, and we would be walking around 10 or 12 miles a day looking at all this amazing contemporary and historic architecture. I would get back to the hotel or I’d be on a train, sketching ideas for what eventually became the shelf. So it was really an amazing experience to be removed from my design studio, and often even my computer, sketching much more than I would normally.
I’ve lived in Japan, and I’ve traveled there many times. And it’s always a phenomenal experience to see how well things are made there, how well they’re crafted, and how respected craftspeople are there.
WW: Working on this piece for “Objets Nomades,” did you have any moments of discovery?
AK: I knew a lot of the work from the line and the brand. But, with these large companies, open around the world, they were all started by someone. I have daughters, and my eight-year-old daughter asked me, “Who is Louis Vuitton?” And I didn’t know. So they sent me books of their history. I think the thing that was most inspiring to me was the story of Louis Vuitton himself. He was very humble and very poor, a young man who took two years to travel to Paris, working odd jobs, and finally, working at [Monsieur Maréchal, a box maker] for 17 years, became a master craftsman and had this amazing idea to create a flat trunk.
So, as a maker myself, the idea that here’s someone who at a very young age put in the hours, learned the craft, and then innovated and went from being penniless to this global brand, I think, is incredibly inspiring as a fabricator, maker, or designer.