Blue Chair, In the collections of La musee des arts decoritif, Paris and Vitra Design Museum, Basel. (photography RCA)
Margrét, Sidechair. Shot silk and wool cover.In the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (photography Steve Speller)
Genghis, Armchair with 'Tafbi' and wool cover. In the collection of the Ulster Museum, Belfast (photography Steve Speller)
Annelies – swivel chair and table in its linen and silk garment. Black American Walnut base and table, Linen seat cover and silk back cover.In the Collection of Manchester Art Galleries & Museums UK (photography Steve Speller)
Annelies – swivel chair and table in it's alternative velvet garment. Black American Walnut base and table. Devoré velvet. In the collection of Manchester Art Galleries & Museums UK (photography Steve Speller)
A Prelude: It is very much in vogue to call one's self a curator. But to be included in an institutional collection curated by those who have the education and experience to make decisions about items worthy of inclusion in the authoritative timeline of design is something special. This nod is to be celebrated and savored. And Bius, a design team that resists and exceeds the simple cliche of art as design (as if designers needed to demand the hyperbolic weight of the word artist to afford their work sanctity and prowess), has been recognized by the top institutions in the world for their contributions to the field. Bius' designs are not simply museum-worthy, they are recognized and celebrated by actual museums. They reposition the predictable and normative boundaries of "taste," revealing the limitations inherent in claims regarding the accuracy of the aesthetic palette. Still, each one of their designs is also an emotional coup, exuding the character and depth of the novels you should be reading. Any questions? I refer you to Genghis (see above).
The husband-and-wife team of Mary Little and Peter Wheeler together form Bius, a design studio based in New Haven, CT. In additions to private collections in Europe and North America, their work can be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Vitra Design Museum, Basel; Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; and Museo de las Artes Decorativas, Barcelona. For their first limited edition collection, they've decided to concentrate on the ottoman. The Curated Object's JoAnn Greco talked with the designers.
First, what does Bius mean?
MARY It's a play on words — using the fabric term of bias and mixing it with "by us." It's a nice simple word that really appealed to us.
Tell us about a little about your professional partnership.
MARY I'm from Northern Ireland and Peter is from London, and we met many decades ago, but decided to go into business together in 1997 when we were living in London. We were doing a lot of one-of-a kind commissions for private clients and arts organizations. One of our clients in the U.S. encouraged us to move here, he said there was a much better audience for what we do. We applied for teaching jobs and both landed work in the Bay Area. After a while, we decided to move to the east coast and to explore the possibility of creating some edition work. The design world has changed so much in the last 10-15 years, we thought it might make sense to try and go forward in a new direction.
How has the design world changed?
MARY Well, people are just so much more appreciative of design and unusual ideas.
So how did you move from your specific disciplines, Mary, of sculpting, and Peter, of industrial design, into furniture design?
MARY Actually, we're both trained as furniture designers, both trained at Royal College of Art. I've never been trained as a sculptor, but I work with form and character so within our own studio, I define myself as a sculptor.
PETER And, I've always principally concentrated on production work.
Peter, can you speak a little more specifically about how that experience finds its way into your current work?
PETER A lot of my previous work was for commercial clients, like, say, cubicles that divide the bathroom stalls. My then-partner and I designed a system that allowed for very efficient installation of those. In these kind of commercial uses, the object would be a system with a series of components with a coherent logic. And I suppose that's one of the things I bring to what Mary and I now do. It allows for us to have a coherent production. Everything is planned and there are stages that you go through, paying attention to both the form-making and how that interacts with the way the piece is constructed. So, the construction informs the aesthetics.
And how do those approaches manifest themselves in your design process? How do you approach a project?
PETER If you're working for an individual, you have the constraints that that client requires: the use that they're going to put that piece of furniture to, where it goes, the budget, how it's constructed. All of that is inevitably tied up with the artistry, the character develops from all of those things. Constraints are a positive thing, if you don't have any, it can take you forever.
MARY When we have a brief from a manufacturer, or one we've created ourselves in response to interviewing the appropriate individuals, we start to generate ideas. Inevitably, once we start to develop the work, it takes a different form. When you make something in three dimensions, it's quite different from what you expected when you were drawing it in two. So, we move very quickly into the 3D world, we make a lot of 3D prototypes..
What is it about the ottoman that so appealed to you, as the first way to enter retail?
PETER We chose that very pragmatically, because of the amount of investment we'd have to put in. It turns out to be a really interesting vehicle for small scale experiments, though. If you're doing a chair, you have a lot more things to consider.
Can you discuss your approach to fabric?
MARY: The Hiroshi ottoman, for example, is named for the craftsman who made the fabric for us. We had a very small piece of it, so we treated it like golddust. We wanted to use the fabric in very small amounts, so we developed the idea of having the fabric just peep out of the seam. The seam is sewn and then slit, the shibori just peeks through.
PETER These two pieces were done for a gallery in Palo Alto, for a group show, and they really were in love with the shibori because JoAnn Edwards, the owner, had seen some other pieces that Mary had done, some chairs. The fabric is irreplaceable, it can't be made again. The pieces have to sell for a certain price in the gallery, so we have to use it in very sparing way. The result is quite a surreal aesthetic ... the shibori seems to be exploding. This use evolved out of a conversation about how best to incorporate the fabric, then together we pared it down, then there were lots of trials to see how difficult it is to do, what the result is going to be aesthetically, etc. From a technical point of view, the way it breaks through the seam is quite complex. There are only certain places on the seam where you can have that break, and then there's the issue of constructing the structure inside that will allow the fabric to peek through.
MARY I'm the one experienced in sewing and pattern-making, so for something like this, I might make a lot of very rough trials, and Peter can come along and talk about the direction it needs to go and then we'll create some more trials. He might come along and fold it, or turn it upside down and make it work . . . there's a great deal of to-and-fro.
Many of your pieces are in museums. Tell us a little about those, and what makes them specifically museum-worthy, in your mind?
PETER They are unique in their form-making, the way the form comes from how the fabric is used. The structure is purely from the fabric. A lot of our techniques come from haute couture fashion or costume- making. The things that tend to be collected are really us experimenting with the cloth and how you can get form in a cloth simply by the way you cut it, just as a fashion designer would construct a suit or dress. In fact, fashion is a good analogy for us. We're really interested in the idea that a chair is one of the products that interacts closest with our bodies — it can almost be 'worn'.
MARY For me, why a curator chooses something is actually mystifying. But I do think it has to do with the work we are doing at any particular time. It's a reflection of the times.