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

Omer Arbel

The Vancouver-based artist and designer publishes his first monograph, replete with experiments in lighting, sculpture, design and architecture

86.3. Fahim Kassam

Spherical glass as fierce as molten lava; an angular furniture set cocooned amongst a cave-like canopy; a nest of elongated, spindly arms attached to a series of bronzed bulbs; these are all but a few elements making up the portfolio of Omer Arbel, a Vancouver-based artist and designer known for his experimental approach to processes and materiality. Reaching acclaim for his work across sculpture, industrial design and lighting – and let’s not forget his co-founding of design and manufacturing company Bocci – his lengthy tenure has now been dissected in form of his first monograph, aptly named Omer Arbel, and published by Phaidon.

Omer himself has many titles: an architect, artist, inventor, designer and, perhaps the most unlikely, a competitive fencer. The latter a sport he enjoyed during this younger years, it was a close marriage of strategic play and discipline that enabled him to propel into more creative pursuits later on. “I always knew architecture and making things would be my path, and fencing was a cool side gig. There are lessons I carry with me from that era that come up almost everyday,” he says. “People describe fencing as ‘sprinting and playing chess at the same time’, but I think it is more like backgammon: intuition and willpower play an outsized role, with strategy, perhaps, secondary. Everything happens so fast, there is little time for analysis, so responses are intuitive and must be decisive. Maybe I’ve carried that method of decision making forward into my career, though its relevance is questionable given that projects take years to mature now, not seconds.”

23.2. Fahim Kassam

Even if Omer’s work currently adheres to a much slower pace, his decisive (and thoroughly disruptive) attitude shines through fully. This becomes clear within Omer Arbel, a publication housing his broad and experimental projects spanning lighting, industrial design, sculpture and architecture. Each of which is marked in a characteristic identity system of numbers – something he’s incorporated since the dawn of his practice. A “great tool for introspection”, the numbering also means he can skip over the menial and oftentimes tricky task of naming the projects.

Omer has now reached a “mid-career” point, so not only does he delegate more of the workload to his trusted team, but he’s started to reflect. “The nature of the monograph is to offer a survey that covers the entire output of the practice,” he explains, “to invite the reader into our ecosystem of ideas.” Designed by Derek Barnett, the book is constructed with transparent paper, allowing the viewer to identify texts and imagery through its layers – a kind of visual maze that gives a glimpse as to what’s coming next. “This felt true to our process, in which ideas are always infecting other ideas in the studio,” he notes. Meanwhile Stephanie Rebick edited and worked on the curatorial process, organising the chapters and content as well as a collection of excerpts. “Together these strategies offer a scrapbook quality,” says Omer, “at odds with the formality of the monograph trope, which I like.”

93. Fahim Kassam

Flick through the pages and you’ll notice the studio’s immense attention to detail and investigation, whether that’s in the literal sense of approaching a brief or through the use of materials, mechanics and applications of light. 64 is pinnacle to this, a project conducted over several experiments with hot beeswax and water set at different temperatures. Omer was inspired to work in this manner after reading Rudolf Steiner’s Nine Lectures on Bees – a philosopher who predicted the declining population of the honeybee. “It is a celebration of a long ritual of transformation, beginning with the bees making the wax and ending with lighting the candle,” says Omer. “Even the transportation of the object is part of the ritual.” The result is this metamorphic object, where twiggy formations of wax amount to a delicate candle structure. All previous associations of how a candle should look and behave are tossed away happily with this creation, and there are many of this kind.

75.9 Model. Fahim Kassam (22)

87, for example, is one of the first experiments the studio made with the folding glass technique, presenting the sheer durability of the material. The technique arose from a residency at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington: “Glassblowers there demonstrated what they called ‘a trick’, involving spinning hot glass rapidly on a concrete floor, which caused the glass to fold over itself many times while still malleable, yielding a pearlescent cast. Upon analysis, it became clear that small air pockets in the glass, folded and folded again numerous times, rapidly divided the glass matrix into numerous glass strings with a very small diameter. Each fold stretched and thus reduced the diameter of the air pocket and doubled the number of individual strands in an exponential relationship; thus, the more folds could be achieved, the most interesting the optical properties of the resulting object.”

The method involves a careful “vertical folding motion”, done so with just the right mount of glass for it to be well-handled by the glassblower, before filling it up with air bubbles with soda water, “increasing the intensity of the gossamer effect.” He adds: “The form of each loop is a direct result of the folding motion of the glassblowers. Introducing light on one end of the piece meant that it could travel within the glass filigree, creating a gradient across the length of the piece.”

Throughout the book, these more intricate structures are paired with more large-scale architectural pieces. But no matter the size, each protrude with the creators signature language: one of variety and skill. Omer is a designer who knows no boundaries. In fact, the term inventor might be better suited as his ultimate title. 

Omer Arbel is available to pre-order here and will be published at the end of the month

31.3. Fahim Kassam
Janaki Showroom, 87. Fahim Kassam
75.9 Work in Progress

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.