Frame Magazine
In going for the contrast, Commonwealth designs and produces an innovative mix of the natural and the artificial.

Words: Merel Kokhuis. Photography: Noah Kalina

Why did you name your company Commonwealth?
David Boira: Well, I'm from Barcelona and spent much of my childhood in Puerto Rico, and Zoe [Coombes] is from Canada. Although we now live in the States, we have a geographic history we can't deny. Rather than using our surnames for the company, we wanted something that would underline our background, bind together different worlds and show that we're a mix of various design aspects. There were no political reasons involved, but 'commonwealth' is a very old, very distinguished, monarchy-like word. Freaky. Antidemocratic. We like that.

How did you end up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn?
We wanted to be in New York, but not in Manhattan. Williamsburg is nice and industrial, creative and fresh. We definitely wanted to be close to the subway to Manhattan, though. In this old factory building, we have the chance to make our own products. We have enough room for our machine- and even some spare space for gallery options.

So you have your own gallery as well?
Not any more. The main topic of our studio is design. We decided to add a gallery to use the space optimally and to make Commonwealth an even steadier business model. But the credit crunch has changed our company drastically. We used to have two employees, but sadly we had to let them go the same week Obama was installed as president. Such a big contrast between bitterness and happiness. It was a hard decision for us, but we had to save the boat from sinking. Our employees had no specific tasks; the four of us worked together on all our projects.

Has the studio changed since they left?
Now that it's just the two of us, we can rethink the direction of the studio and follow that road slowly and carefully. We have a specific idea that we don't want to spoil by having to take jobs for the money instead of the message. And since the company is this small again and we've taken a step back, we are actually right where we were in the beginning. We spend our days drawing and sketching again, something we haven't done since our years at university.

What is the company philosophy?
Our roots are in architecture, but what we want to do is furniture, furniture, furniture. It's a completely different kind of language compared with the design of buildings. More possibilities in terms of technology and techniques. Not that we're just focused on techniques, but that aspect is important to us. The furniture world is fresher. Furniture is smaller, faster- but also much harder, more difficult for us to handle. That's challenging. And here in Brooklyn, there are still a lot of small, interesting manufacturers we can work with. There's a glass-maker, a woodworker, a painter and so on. First we wanted to do everything ourselves, but now we see the value of the people around us. Collaborating with others gives us a chance to translate our digital ideas into actual pieces. Working together, we achieve an end result- all without hiring anyone on a permanent basis. It's co-production with local craftsmen.

And you produce many of your designs right here, in this studio.
We are the owners of a CNC machine. We design a product on the computer, and the machine translates it into a physical object by carving into the surfaces of the sheet material we use for many of our pieces. The machine cuts through almost every material, but it can also remove just the top layers in order to create intricate surfaces. We took a risk by investing in this 25-year-old machine, but since it can do the most important part of the production, it absolutely pays off. Normally, these machines are used by carpentries. Presumably, Ikea cuts everything with CNC machines, but we use ours in a more experimental way instead of just for the sake of efficiency.

What material do you mill with this machine?
One material we like is an American material called Richlite, which is made from many layers of compressed paper. It's a very strong, very environmentally friendly material that the manufacturer is marketing as a green alternative for Corian. Unfortunately, it only comes in eco-colours other than our favorite, 'Darth Vader Black'. But our machine can also mill other materials, including marble.

How do you divvy up the work?
I'm the idiot with the weird ideas. Zoe is the thinker- she determines whether my freaky designs are even possible. I'm 'what', and Zoe is 'how and why'. We balance each other out. Together we figure out the production process. Somebody once said that we really 'come from the production part of the process', and although we see ourselves as designers, that comment is correct in a way. We are focused on the production bit.

Everything you make has a typical Commonwealth form. When do you consider a product finished?
The forms come from the setups in our software. We follow several basic rules, just like any other designer. We want the pieces to be tactile and to have sexual associations. It's not that we've created a new form; every shape has been already been invented.

To me, the forms look like a friendly nightmare.
That's a great way to label our style. People associate our work with stuff like aliens and insects- we hear that a lot. Sometimes our work is compared to that of Matthew Barney or Giger, who make sets for alien movies. But we think the forms come from combinations of things we've seen on our journeys to Barcelona, for example. The work of Gaudi has been a huge inspiration. And we always go for the contrast. It's a challenge to see how far we can go in combining artificial with natural- and scary with friendly.

Can you describe the process used to make one of your latest pieces?
We made this mask for a movie by combining an artificial green base with pony hair. Getting the pony hair wasn't that hard- it's easy to buy from people who own show ponies, because they use fake pony tails, but it took us 30 hours to attach all the hair to the mask. While designing the mask on the computer, we already knew it would need both the hair and a strap, so we included holes for attachments. We're always thinking about how things can come together beautifully. We're happy when people who see our work for the first time say something like: 'Wow! Somebody put a lot of effort into those connections."

Is nature a source of inspiration?
Obviously, there's a lot of intelligence in nature. And sometimes we pick up on that. Our latest project, Lard-Onthophagus, was inspired by the way that bugs use colour- by the way that the parts of their bodies in need of emphasis are more brightly coloured than other parts. Colour in insects can also be a means of camouflage. We copied that system while spray-painting the tactile surface.

Where do you start- with form, function, material or colour?
We start by designing the form, but we already know what material we would like to use. Zoe is really good at figuring out which material will work for what we want. So the material sort of conditions the form that the object is going to have. When using a pourable material, for instance, we can aim for something very amorphous. For another project, we might have to tone down the form a bit. Maybe it's just a case of doing multiple things at the same time and then trying to connect them.

How has your work evolved in recent years?
We moved from architecture to design. We were boring people when we were architects. We were thinking like architects. Now we've opened up to artists, graphic designers and other creative people and collaborated with them. In the beginning, we did that a lot with graphic agency Maxalot. Currently, our work is more personal and expressive. We love what we do.

Has your education influenced your work?
We're always running from architecture. We learned a lot, but we knew nothing. Many architects know a bit of everything, but no details of one little thing, like a specific material. For us, now, the challenge is to make something without everybody recognizing immediately what it's made of and exactly how it's produced. We want to make things that human beings can embrace. That would be very difficult for us to do at the scale of a building but maybe it is possible at the smaller scale of a chair, or even a vase, for example. And we're not alone in this. People like Patricia Urquiola and BarberOsgerby also studied architecture before they started working as designers.

Mass-production with manufacturers or limited editions made right here in the studio?
It's always important to have a combination of both. We do work in a studio, not in an office, and we do have the potential to start building relationships. But, at the same time, we are a young studio. So we have to make things on our own initiative as a way of demonstrating our capabilities. We want to work with big manufacturers, but we don't want to lose ourselves- the people we are right now. We need to continue designing and making things here as well. It's crucial to preserve a sense of what's possible and what's not. That's more and more to be desired in a world where Ikea has made things so easy for us. In a couple of years, we still want to be involved in the production process rather than to be so absorbed by a bunch of other stuff, like lectures and fairs, that we're not touching the actual products any more. We need to maintain a continuation, a Commonwealth language. We want to keep things simple.

What happens in the near future?
In the months to come, we are taking a break from all the work. Because we've never had a baby before, we don't really know what's going to happen. We're still looking at the manual. It's a little bit scary so for now we are taking things one step at a time.

One week after this interview took place, Zoe Coombes and David Boira had a healthy baby boy, Pau Tomas Boira.

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