Running with Scissors

Posted inID Mag
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Julie Mathias and Michael Cross are Wok Media’s product designers.

Wok Media’s designers are inspired by acts that are illicit, ill-mannered, and just plain silly.

“Killing things, breaking things, kicking– basically the dark, violent side of childhood.” Michael Cross is ticking off the influences behind Wok Media, the London-based design practice he shares with his former schoolmate, Julie Mathias, and her husband, graphic designer Wolfgang Kaeppner. Cross and Mathias, the group’s product designers, grew up in the U.K. and France, respectively, but share an interest in taboos that know no borders. Together they have investigated crossing water with electricity, sticking body parts into moving machinery, and hurling objects as a method of interior design. Their Flood lamp features a bulb submerged in water (it creates a haunting light and no shocks). Their Blow fan goes on with a puff of lung power and turns off when users insert fingers into the blades. Their Sprinkle rug–wool tufts backed by silicone–is designed to be flung onto the floor in handfuls, like toys in a temper tantrum. If they haven’t gotten around to designing products that evoke insect torture, it isn’t for lack of trying, they confide. They have mulled over the childhood impulse to pull wings off bugs but are still waiting to figure out a sensible application.

Mathias and Cross may be drawn to these investigations because at the age of 26, they are close to childhood themselves. In fact, they are barely out of school. They graduated a year ago from London’s Royal College of Art after presenting Flood, Blow, and Sprinkle in their degree show. Mathias came to the RCA from graduate art studies in France, where an interest in adult memories of childhood led her to photograph people with their favorite toys. Cross, in his first year at the RCA, worked on projects he describes as “flawed fairy tales, filled with futility and hope.” He made jewelry with messages to be redistributed by magpies, which are legendarily attracted to shiny things. (The birds had to be trained to pick up the objects.)

Tufts of silicone-backed, machine-washable wool are sprinkled (hence the product’s name, Sprinkle) over the floor to form carpet islands, seen here in the home of Wok cofounders Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner.

The two met in 2003, in the middle of summer. “We were the only ones here,” Mathias explains dryly as we sit in her soon-to-be ex-office at the RCA, littered with three toilet basins, twigs, electrical chords, a hair dryer, and many pairs of goggles. “There was no one else to talk to.” She has a brown bob, bright orange Birkenstocks, and, despite the dark preoccupations of her work, the sweet, naive expression of Audrey Tautou in Amelie. Cross has short hair and long lashes and wears shorts that match Mathias’s clogs.

Flood was their first joint piece. They wanted to immerse an illuminated light bulb in water, which is particularly daring in the U.K., a nation so afraid of electrocution it bans outlets in bathrooms. “People have this nervous excitement with it,” Cross says of the lamp. He is determined not to lessen the suspense by publicizing the technological principles that allow him to produce it safely, other than to say they’re remarkably obvious. Only if Flood is viewed as transgressive can it offer a powerful moment of release from the forbidden. Blow, a white fan that rests within an elegant cluster of electrical cords like an egg in a nest, is also for risk-takers. Operated by a propeller with small resin blades, the fan hints at the dangers of thrusting a finger into the works, but you can do it comfortably–in fact, that’s how you turn it off. Little wonder that Alice Rawsthorn, director of London’s Design Museum, says that using Wok Media products “is like embarking on a design adventure.”

The studio’s name refers to the informal mixture of its principals’ talents. Kaeppner, who first met Mathias when she was on an exchange program at his school in Germany, sometimes collaborates with Cross on graphics projects and contributes ideas for product designs. “With a wok,” Mathias says, “You put in all these ingredients. You have lots of flavor and possibility—more than with any one discipline.” The stir-fry also accommodates competing tastes. Cross insists he is “absolutely opposed to nostalgia,” whereas Mathias locates nostalgia at the root of their work. She dislikes “sentimentality,” and he wants to suffuse design with “personal experience.” After the steam clears, one suspects they are saying exactly the same thing: They want to get a charge out of people.

How they’ve succeeded. Since graduating, Wok’s work has been shown twice in the Design Museum and appeared in two British Council exhibits–a third is scheduled in September for the ExperimentaDesign biennial in Lisbon. Droog is producing Blow, and the British company Good Acres is making Sprinkle. Ron Arad, chair of RCA’s design products department, has asked Cross and Mathias to participate in a forthcoming gallery show in Munster, Germany, that features the work of his best former students. And yet the trio remains studioless. They work in their flats since they can’t afford a joint space, and they prowl through London’s flea markets looking for raw materials.

Their most recent project, a series of bookshelves for Experimenta, is inspired by tree branches they picked up during last fall’s monsoon season while conducting design workshops in Sri Lanka sponsored by the British Council. They were struck by the sight of limbs tearing through houses or seeming to grow out of water. Named Lunuganga after the village, the shelves have a poetic form indebted to another RCA teacher, Tord Boontje, whose work teems with floral and animal motifs. But Wok pushes the organic theme into its own provocative territory. The shelves are being hand-cast in metal at great expense, and Mathias laughs as she imagines them in lavish homes, with their illusion of piercing and breaking down walls.

In another project merging nature and domestic culture, they recently designed a toilet for Ideal Standard, the European branch of American Standard. At a client meeting, the designers spotted a tiny model of a toilet with visible pipe work and imagined what would happen if the pipes were tied into a knot. A prototype followed with a knot shape bulging in the ceramic base. “That way it’s shocking,” Mathias says. She wants people to wonder what happens to the waste. “Does it go all the way around in the knot?”

Children might ask such a question before moving on from anal preoccupations to, say, pyromania, and Wok Media would be marching right along with them. The partners’ current obsession is fire–they’re thinking of new ways to design chimneys–and just as they revel in the paradoxes of nonthreatening risks and sloppy hygiene, they are investigating the contradictory nature of combustion. Says Mathias: “Kids just like to burn everything, and adults see fires in their homes as comforting and warm.” Well, at least the bugs are safe. For now.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer based in London, England, and upstate New York.