Mario Tsai Studio

The Hangzhou-based research studio on conscious craft, manual processes and why most sustainable design is “pseudo and gimmicky”

Origin Collection by Xu Xiaodong

2019 was an especially prominent year for Mario Tsai, a furniture designer born in Hubei and currently based in the western suburbs of Hangzhou, China. It was the year that he and his design team of four held their first solo exhibition in Milan Design Week, presenting his “masterpiece” Mazha Lighting System that caught the eye of international media and brands. This led to two solo exhibitions the following year called Poetic Light, and in 2021, he set up his brand Mario Tsai. Under guise of this new title, Mario Tsai now sells lighting and installations designed and developed by the design team of Mario Tsai Studio. 

But it’s not just the tight-knit team and eye for structure, composition and materiality that paved the way for such large success in his business. Mario Tsai is a keen advocate for sustainability – and not the green-washing kind that’s only surface deep. “I believe that sustainability should no longer be just a concept or a gimmick in our work life,” he tells me, “I personally want it to be in my works as a guideline and a responsibility that binds me.” For Mario, sustainable design must be timeless, and designers – himself included – have a responsibility in thinking about the life cycle of a product. “But also if it can be easily recycled or repaired at the end of its life cycle,” he continues. “Whether the production process, packaging and exhibition presentation related to the work can be sustainable should be our concern as designers.”

Origin Collection by Mario Tsai

Sustainability therefore guides all that Mario Tsai Studio puts its mind towards, whether it’s a product, installation, strategy or exhibition. To achieve as such, the studio is driven by research, innovative thinking and, of course, eco-design processes, which resultantly forms a poetic depiction of what a  product should ultimately be, do and look like. “Personally,” adds Mario, “I prefer projects that can fully present the ins and outs and clear logic, and can deeply explore the essence. I hope the projects we are pushing can bring new thinking, design methods or social responsibility guidance to the public. Often such projects require a lot of effort, but the income will be relatively small.” On the business side of things, the studio prefers companies that share the same ethos, goals and ideals, “whether they are well-known, big or small”.

When beginning any given project, the team will first begin by using the “brain”.  Second of all, they will decipher the best techniques and technologies needed for the project – those that are more “advanced and difficult”. This means it will modernise the product they’re designing, and equally it will “build up technical and production barriers,” explains Mario. Before diving in with the pieces, though, the team will set up production, a mass production method and cost consideration. “We only use computers and simple models to test the new designs in the studio,” he says. “After many years of development, and also thanks to a strong supply chain in China, our studio was able to find suppliers for the production of any material and technology.”

Mazha Lighting System by Xu Xiaodong

Because of the studio’s detailed and research-guided approach, this means the team are able to test their hands at a plethora of different pieces; the portfolio is diverse as anything. One example can be seen in its Mazha Lighting System, in what Mario deems as the “most representative work” of the studio’s. Designing for eternity, the system has been made to last. “Low voltages can be transmitted electrically through the structure of the lamp, allowing the lamp to be free of wires and to build diverse and endlessly changing systems as a free unit,” explains Mario. The first iteration of the modular lighting system was inspired by traditional Chinese seating apparatus, composed to give a “more diverse expression” and renew its circularity; it’s how the Mazha Lighting System was borne. 

Each generation thereon consists of tube lights, a metal pole or metal connector, plus the wire ends. “Without the slightest intention to hide the structure, each component is extremely delicate and independent,” says Mario. “When a part of the product is faulty and needs to be replaced, only the point of filature news to be replaced, not the whole lighting.”

Mazha Lighting System by Xu Xiaodong

Origin Collection is a comparatively different project yet one that succinctly aligns with the Mario Tsai ethos entirely. A design performance piece, Origin Collection reflects on the idea of using modern technology and tools to make life and work more convenient. But on the other side, according to Mario, “they also gradually hinder our human instincts and sensitivities”. In response,  Mario hired a carpenter from the Hangzhou countryside to structure the furniture through manually processes like log-cutting and fire burning – the antitheses to digital methodologies and one that equated to a refreshing design experiment to inspire people to rethink their footsteps. “All the processes used to complete The Origin are based on instinctive human wisdom. The process of creating tools to carry out the project, using native materials and existing conditions, was also the best way of expressing the idea of locality in contemporary design.”

Clearly, Mario Tsai and the team go beyond the expected when diving into a project, be it a more critical or conceptual piece or one that’s more functional. Shying away from the wishy washy displays of ‘sustainable’ design, Mario Tsai Studio strives to be honest, functional and long-lasting. Speaking of whether the design industry is currently doing enough in terms of combatting climate change, Mario says: “I think it’s far from enough. A lot of sustainable design is pseudo and gimmicky, and many people use the concept of sustainable design with the ultimate goal of business and personal fame. I hope that sustainability can be incorporated as a norm in the way people live and work.”

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Mazha Lighting System by Mario Tsai

Origin Collection by Mario Tsai

Art and Design: Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance

Port speaks to the award-winning designer about the intersection of art and design in his work, and his latest project with Ligne Roset

Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance took an unorthodox route into design. Having initially trained in sculpture in Paris before starting creating furniture and interiors, he rose to prominence after being chosen as Designer of the Year by Maison & Objet in 2007 and has designed pieces for leading brands such as Hermes, Dior and the French lifestyle-design brand Ligne Roset, as well as interiors, such as at Sketch in London, where he was artistic director. With his work not restricted to one form or material, Duchaufour-Lawrance seeks to re-model and modernise existing templates, and he has become known for the variety and contemporary feel of his pieces.

Here, he talks to Port about the possibilities of design, why he’s not an industrial designer and his new sofa for Ligne Roset.

How does your training in sculpture come to inform your work as a designer? Why did you move away from sculpture towards something more functional?

Sculpture is very open, very free, and it has given me a certain sense of freedom in my work. I learned not to be limited to certain techniques or particular aspects of the production process, and it’s allowed me to go from one field to another without being limited by a lack of imagination. There is a French word for that, plastician – someone who can work with a variety of skills without having an exact knowledge of any of these. I’m not an architect, but I know how to design a volume and the sensation of a space, as well as the material I want to use and the goal I want to achieve. I just don’t know exactly the specifics of how you can build this or that.

I moved from that to creating functional objects, and it was interesting because it pushed me to consider the boundaries of function and abstraction. Yet, because of my lack of formal training, perhaps I have less technical skills and I’m less interested in the pure industrial aspects of design. I’m not fascinated by a coffee machine, for example. I think that the object is not limited to these technical elements. Furniture in a way is much more poetic and sensible than a pure industrial project. With furniture, we have to create things for people which have to be used and create a strong relationship with a person.

Where do you take your influences from?

When I was young I had a limited access to sculpture because I was growing up in a small village in Brittany, but my mother was a professor of art, so my main introduction to sculpture and art was through books.

I remember one of the first books I saw was of Andy Goldsworthy. He really impressed me in his work because there is a strong relation with the context, he is using only what he finds, and there is respect in his interaction with nature.

Your work has been quite varied, but is there a consistent approach that you have to your different projects?

I’m not an industrial designer because, to me, it doesn’t mean anything to produce an object. To re-do an object which is already there in so many various forms doesn’t mean anything. So I try to ask myself what we are going to give through the object. That’s very hard to know, but what I’m trying to do is see how the object I’m designing interacts with the user, how we can create this relation which is based on a sensual, or sensitive, interaction with the objects.

With Sintra specifically, how did that project begin? What were the initial ideas you had for it?

That was not at all about sculpture and an idea of an abstract environment, it was much more about Ligne Roset who were looking for this kind of project – an object which took its roots from a classic sofa. The question was how can we use these shapes and codes which people know about with the sofa, but integrate them into something more contemporary and progressive. There was a duality to the project, aiming to create something timeless – both modern and classic.

I found the starting point for the form in classical shapes, such as sofas from the 1940s, and then we moved to these deeper, more generic sofas – the kind which are made for country houses. We took all this language and re-appropriated it – thinking about how these traditional signs can become something with more tension, and more graphic strength.

It was also important to work for Ligne Roset because I designed this for them, not for somebody else. That’s why I talk about the context of a piece, because I want to have this very strong relation with the people I’m working with. We have to understand each other, to speak the same language and to have the same view, otherwise it’s going to be compromise.

Remembering Ettore Sottsass

Carlotta de Bevilacqua, vice president of lighting brand Artemide, reflects on the legacy of architect and designer Ettore Sottsass and his unique relationship with the company

When he died in 2007 at the age of 90, the architect and designer Ettore Sottsass left a remarkable legacy. Having turned his hand to most disciplines in design, including furniture, jewellery and glassware, as well as to many designs for buildings and interiors, Sottsass is perhaps best known for his iconic Olivetti typewriters and his work with Memphis, the experimental group of designers he founded in 1980.

To celebrate the centenary of his birth, the lighting brand Artemide is rereleasing two of Sottsass’s most memorable designs for the company – Pausania and Callimaco – as part of their Masters’ Pieces collection. Here Carlotta de Bevilacqua, the vice president of Artemide, reflects on the designers relationship with the company, and with Artemides founder, Ernesto Gismondi.

Sottsass is remembered as a true trailblazer in late twentieth century design because of his commitment to the plight of freedom of expression in design. Memphis, which he founded in 1980, became a laboratory of experimentation and creativity where designers could feel totally free from the technical and aesthetic restraints of functionalist design.

Ernesto Gismondi, the founder of Artemide and my husband, worked with Sottsass for several years in the Memphis group. Sottsass was involved in the creative part whilst Ernesto oversaw the various editions and managed the Memphis collective. It was during this time that a friendship was born and they discussed the idea of working together on projects for the company. Artemide and Memphis were fundamentally different – they always had different aims and logic – but Sottsass was able to bring this element of experimentation to his designs for Artemide.

The Pausania light

The Pausania and Callimaco lights, designed in 1982 and 1983, are still in our catalogue today as part the Masters’ Pieces collection of contemporary design classics. In Pausania, Sottsass took the classic banker’s lamp and experimented with the shape and colour in order to produce a Memphis take on the traditional design. Today, Pausania’s technology has been reimagined not only to adapt to contemporary standards of intelligent, eco-friendly and energy efficient LED lighting, but also to provide a new quality of perceptive experience.

The Callimaco lamp

Callimaco is amongst the most original of Artemide’s designs, unique in its own quest; it is a fusion of industrial and lighting design and a powerful statement piece. It too has been reimagined with retro-like features such as a LED lighting and a touch dimmer.

Ernesto Gismondi and Ettore Sottsass © Barbara Radice

Beyond the professional path, I remember Ettore as a family friend, with whom Ernesto communicated and exchanged ideas even after the Memphis movement. He designed many pieces that went on to become icons, but some of my favourite Sottsass designs are from his glass and crystal collection, where he utilised traditional Venetian glass blowing techniques while also finding a new way to work with glass by studying the quality of material. Through this perfect mix of tradition and innovation, he produced surprising combinations of shapes and colours that had never been seen before.


Wool Works: ercol x Solidwool

PORT catches up with Edward Tadros, chairman of furniture brand ercol, to discuss heritage materials and hybrid influences

Deeply woven into the fabric of British heritage design is a certain utilitarianism. When one thinks of British tweed, the subtly flecked texture of the material is, of course, a factor, but just as important is the protection it provides against the elements. Heritage design also appeals to a sense of sustainability, of utilising every part of the material so nothing is wasted. The resurgence of ‘up-cycling’ – transforming unwanted by-products or materials into something valuable – also speaks to this tendency at the heart of heritage.

Mid-century furniture behemoth ercol’s collaboration with textiles magazine Selvedge and start-up Solidwool uses the coarse fleece of Herdwick sheep – a breed synonymous with the landscape of the Lake District – to create an elegant, raw and irreducibly British piece of furniture. Their updated Svelto stool combines a solid oak frame with a cover designed by Solidwool, featuring a unique composite material comprising of bio-resin and the coarse fleece of Herdwick sheep that creates a subtle, marbled effect. Port caught up with Edward Tadros, ercol Chairman, fresh from the London Design Festival, to talk about the peculiarities of English heritage design.

Herdwick sheep’s wool on display at the London Design Festival

How did your collaboration with Selvedge and Solidwool come about?

We were interested in creating a piece centred around sustainability, using this wool that is difficult to use for anything else. We were all interested in the longevity of this material, and combining it with our timber, but it’s hard to say exactly how the project came together – it really developed through so many different conversations and discussions.

What attracted you to the project, and how does it fit in with the ercol brand?

What attracted us was the naturalness of it. This unusual way of using wool is all about British heritage, making use of a material that has been part of the English countryside over the years. This combines with our own heritage and use of timber, making furniture that has its roots in English vernacular design. Using English countryside wool was, I suppose, a loose looping together of different ideas.

The exclusive ercol x Solidwool stool

It’s interesting how that plays into ercol’s own history. Do you consider the brand to be British?

My grandfather was Italian, but he had this extraordinary recognition of English craft. He had an innate sense of the simplicity of the design and construction of a Windsor chair, and perhaps that was because he wasn’t born in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Maybe it does take someone from a different country, with a different perspective, to recognise some of the often unseen strengths of English heritage. We are a bit of a mixture, an Italian background with an English story.

Is it important for ercol to use British materials and to produce in Britain, both in terms of the timber you use and the wool for this project?

We’re quite global, in many ways, we do also source materials and manufacture overseas. However, the bulk of our manufacturing and our thinking comes from this country. It’s important – as with most things – not to be blinkered, to be open and international. It is also important to have roots and a solid base. I think that manufacturing, designing and being based in the UK, the Englishness of it, gives us our authentic roots. We’ll be 100 years old in 2020, and we talk a lot about maintaining that authenticity, but also about developing different ways to express those roots.

The Future of Fabric

Danish trailblazer Kvadrat is turning end-of-life textiles into furniture with the help of Max Lamb and upcycling initiative Really

Benches by Max Lamb, images courtesy of Angela Moore

“Some of the very first designers for Kvadrat were artists and architects,” says Njusja de Gier, head of branding at Denmark’s leading textile manufacturer. “That has always been a huge part of our identity.” Creative partnerships have driven the company’s reputation for innovative design since it was founded 1968 and, through collaborations with figures such as Raf Simons, Peter Saville and Olafur Eliasson, Kvadrat has advanced textiles beyond the modish world of product design and into the realm of experience. “We want to inspire people and show that you can do more with textiles than just upholster a sofa or a chair,” she says. “We’re trying to push the boundaries.”

Despite Kvadrat’s roots in the Scandinavian design tradition, one reason for the revolving roster of collaborators is to forge an international outlook. In-house engineers regularly team up with designers who have a technical understanding of yarns and weaving, such as Asa Pärson, or designers who work conceptually, such as Patricia Urquiola. These partnerships ensure that Kvadrat remains relevant, furnishing architectural landmarks such as MoMA, Guggenheim Bilbao and the Oslo Opera House, while also remaining popular in private homes, hospitals, airports and public transport.

After launching its fourth collection of soft furnishings with Raf Simons at the Academy of Design in New York in March, Kvadrat has now teamed up with ‘upcycling’ initiative Really, and designers Max Lamb and Christien Meindertsma to present a collection of furniture made entirely from end-of-life wool and cotton. The launch exhibition at Salone del Mobile will detail the making of the solid textile board using cut-offs from the fashion and design industries, as well as unwanted household textiles. 

“Upcycling is necessary,” says Njusja. “We saw this as the next step in Kvadrat’s sustainability strategy. Naturally, we have a lot of cut-offs, and this is a way to do something beautiful with them.” The solid textile boards come in four colours – blue, white, slate and brown – based on their textile source, and can be used in many of the same ways as solid wood. 

“We approached Max because of his material research. He’s already experimented with engineered marble so we knew he would take an interesting approach,” Njusja explains. “He has designed 12 benches for us in such a way that we can recycle each piece and make new textile boards with it. It’s completely closed-loop.” 

Max Lamb and Christien Meindertsma’s designs, along with their research and prototypes, will be on display from 5 April at Salone del Mobile 2017