Design Indaba 09 || Day 2 || Commonwealth

David Boira and Zoe Coombes from Commonwealth projects in New York spoke on Day 2 of the Design Indaba.


Here we have a marriage between two cultures – the Spanish Boira and the American Coombes . Its interesting how many of the designers presenting at this year’s Indaba are Spanish.


The work this team shared with us was a strange mix of warm and cool, balancing on the cusp between the beautiful and the disgusting.  The term they used themselves was the tension between “the benign, and the menacing”.

For example, their “lard” series of furniture.  Here is the ” Lard Bureau “.

A fairly normal white clean lined chest of drawers, until one of the drawers slides open:


To quote from their site:

“the ‘Lard Series’ began as an attempt to investigate these otherwise dismissed visceral sensibilities …Lard, as an idea is evocative of both greasy unease and delectable comfort. Reflecting this ambiguous reputation, the Lard surfaces attempt to create desire through an uncanny sense of near definition. “

Looking closely at the “lard” surface inside the drawers, one finds a carefully designed surface which considers ergonomics as well as aesthetics:


“Pockets formed within the lard itself function as ‘near handles’, moments at which one can slip a finger in, to lift what lies above. The handle here is not simply an ergonomic void made to receive the hand in a pre-determined place, but rather, an elusive surface, which encourages moments of pleasurable discovery.”

You can read more about the lard series here

The Commonwealth studio are particularly interested in organic form, and in non-repeated, natural patterns as can be seen on their “fleshless floor” project, in which a spread of bubbling liquid inspires the raised texture of a floor.


This reminds me very much of some of the work of Marcel Wanders – both in the organic shapes similar to his snot vases, and in the interest in side stepping the repetitive aspect of mass produced design.

A strong theme of the talk was their belief in “material engagement” – that the designer must be aware of the mechanical processes that go into the manufacturing of their work.

Commonwealth close the gap between the design and manufacture  by including much of the manufacturing process in their studio.  This has the effect that the designer can no longer ignore the physical realities of manufacture such as the dirt, noise and toxic nature of many manufacturing processes.

The designer must take responsibility, must find alternative methods and materials, and engage with craft.

The discomfort of this relationship, between the designer and craftsman was nicely illustrated  in the making of this set of door handles:


David and Zoe shared with us the disconcerting moment when the mold came off this bronze casting and revealed not the gleaming perfection they were expecting, but a rough, dull, messy object.

I appreciated this insight.  I used to work in a bronze casting foundry and remember how much work it is to take that rough casting through grinding, filing, polishing and patina stages to the ironically “untouched” machine made look of the final piece.

The relationship between the two speakers was an entertaining undercurrent.  David was playful, and Zoe earnest.  While he teased her about her insistence on cleanliness, she told us that the material she would most like to work in, is mud.

It was also a joy to watch the very pregnant Zoe speak with such calm authority and lack of self conciousness.  This is not the image of motherhood we usually see.

They left us with the final thought that when you are striving to be inoovative, keep things simple as ” it is difficult to experiment in a complex system”.

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