Food for Thought

Posted inID Mag

By: Jill Singer | April 7, 2009

Valencia’s CuldeSac collective does its best work around the dining table.

CuldeSac’s packaging design for El Mil del Poaig, a new brand of olive oil


It’s late afternoon in early August, and Pepe García, the 34-year-old co-founder of Valencia’s CuldeSac, is trying to rouse the 20 or so post-prandial students gathered around a picnic table in the shadow of the Dependence, an old stone house that serves as the main sleeping quarters here. “Here” refers to Domaine de Boisbuchet, a 19th-century estate that sits on 370 acres in southwestern France, just north of the river Vienne. Purchased in 1986 by Vitra Design Museum director Alexander von Vegesack, Boisbuchet plays host each summer to a series of weeklong design and architecture workshops led by the likes of Konstantin Grcic, Shigeru Ban, Aldo Cibic, and Matali Crasset. It’s the second year CuldeSac has been invited. In 2007, García and his fellow bearded co-founder Alberto Martínez devised a course called How to Cook a Chair, in which the students used a simple wood seat as the raw material to create something else entirely. At the end of the week, García and Martínez chose the best project, burned the rest in a fire, put the ashes in bamboo containers, and sent them home with each student.

“We had a feeling last year was too conceptual,” says García. “This year we wanted to do something physical.” For Made by Human Body, he and Martínez—this time with three other studio members in tow—arrived at Boisbuchet armed with 90 pounds of Alginate, a powder that mixes with water to form the purple putty used to create dental molds. For the first two days, the students experimented, sticking fingers, noses, fists, even nipples into the Alginate and making plaster casts of the results. By day three, the workshop had turned into a Project Runway–like challenge to create over two days a tabletop item that would incorporate a body part or texture and in some way reflect life at Boisbuchet.

That CuldeSac’s brief should center around mealtime is unsurprising. (This summer, they’ll return to lead a third workshop that asks students to freeze, inject, rotomold, carve, upholster, or extrude chocolate.) Cooking and its rituals are an integral part of daily life at Boisbuchet, but they’re also what define CuldeSac as a studio. Among its members, there are constant references to food. At Boisbuchet, for example, García dismissed one student’s complicated proposal as “too much rice, not enough chicken” and said of the studio’s critical process: “We don’t waste time trying to say things nicely. We say them, and you have to have a big stomach to digest them.” There are also projects directly related to food, like a recent limited-edition wood-crate-and-glazed-porcelain package for El Mil del Poaig, an olive oil produced locally by Joaquin Solano, a well-known Spanish actor who is also a friend of the studio.

And then there’s lunch. The now 18-strong collective—divided into three groups, one for industrial design, one for experience design, and one for graphics—works out of an old warehouse in a gritty southwestern pocket of Valencia, and each day its members gather for a home-cooked meal. (On CuldeSac’s website, a Twitter-like feed reveals the particulars of the menu: “25/02/09: Garen ha preparado una lasagna de verduras y una ensalada de ruccola.”) Adjacent to the studio, CuldeSac keeps a small living space that houses interns who can’t afford lodging, visiting collaborators, or even novelists seeking inspiration. As Martínez explains, “To stay with us is to live the CuldeSac experience, and the only condition is that our guests cook for one day. On that day, we talk about everything but design. It’s a nice thing at the beginning of the week, when we don’t really know each other.”

For CuldeSac, meal is metaphor, a way to break borders or to evaluate how they might work with a client. At last year’s Milan Furniture Fair, the studio debuted the Sofa Lamp, with its Chesterfield-inspired matte black shade, for Moooi. Of their relationship with the Dutch manufacturer, García says, “It was quite antiseptic. We sent them a proposal for the project, they liked it, they took control of it, and that was it. It was like we had a baby, and they adopted it, and they’re growing the baby and feeding the baby, and the baby will go to university, and we’ll be really proud of it.” But in summation: “I can’t really imagine Moooi coming to the studio for lunch.”

CuldeSac’s Compasso d’Oro award–winning watch for Lorenz (top) and Re-Cyclos for Lladró (bottom)

On the opposite end of that spectrum is Jerry Helling, creative director of Bernhardt Design, with whom CuldeSac has worked closely since 2006. CuldeSac was formed four years earlier by García and Martínez (who went to university in Valencia together and then to the Royal College of Art in London, where they “didn’t like each other much,” says García), but they owe their international success in part to Helling, who called on a whim after reading a thumbnail-sized article in Wallpaper about one of their first chairs. “We were just starting Global Edition,” explains Helling, referring to the North Carolina manufacturer’s collection of timeless designs meant to bridge nationalities and styles. “They were the first people I asked to be a part of it. I gave them a choice of 10 product categories, and their question to me was, ‘Which is the most difficult?’ And then they said, ‘Okay, that’s the one we’ll take.’ Who does that?” The resulting Whisper chair was a labor of love that took 11 prototypes to perfect. Crafted from solid maple, Whisper’s chamfered edges are drawn with a single pen stroke, and “when you make one change,” explains Helling, “it throws off the line of the whole chair.” Helling’s dedication wasn’t lost on the studio—“usually by the fifth prototype, if it doesn’t work, people just give up,” García notes—and at last month’s Milan fair, CuldeSac debuted its second design for Bernhardt, an upholstered wood-frame sofa that avoids slipping into classicism by playing with proportion and scale. “Jerry,” says García, “is really a gentleman.”

It’s the ultimate compliment coming from a designer—and a studio, and a country, really—who prizes emotional connection above all else. It’s what brings CuldeSac back to Boisbuchet year after year (at the end of Made By Human Body, the finished projects were sealed in a plaster totem with García explaining that the best thing to take home is “the feeling you have here”). And it’s clearly what their clients prize as well. A quick sketch of recent projects reveals a near-total commitment to working with family-led heritage companies, from Lladró to Lorenz, the 60-year-old Italian watch company for whom they designed last year’s Compasso d’Oro award–winning Neos. “We don’t like having a normal relationship with clients,” says Sophie Von Schönburg, who, with Garen Moreno—the studio’s only American—runs the experience arm. (She should know: Von Schönburg came to CuldeSac by way of Lladró, where she was working in marketing at the time CuldeSac launched its famed Re-Cyclos collection.) “It’s much more intimate than that,” she says. “
They become our ambassadors as well.”

If the past year is any indication, CuldeSac won’t lack for clients eager to spread the gospel. “They’re not these sketch artists who come up with an idea on a napkin,” says Helling. “They obsess about every detail. They seem laid back, but all the time, they’re agonizing. They spend all this time, I guess, ‘making the paella.’”

CuldeSac will debut these bowler hat–inspired designs with Indera in Milan this month below Whisper chair for Bernhardt

For more workshop photos and a Q+A with Boisbuchet founder Alexander Von Vegesack, go to Jill Singer is the managing editor of I.D.