When the Rosetta spacecraft deployed the Philae lander to land on a comet last November, the world held its breath. It had taken 10 years – covering more than 6bn km – for Rosetta to catch up with its target, comet 67P. At so vast a distance, even radio signals travelling at the speed of light take up to 50 minutes to reach earth, making real-time control of the landing impossible. The descent was nail-biting as the seemingly fragile Philae pirouetted through space, before bouncing – twice – on the comet’s surface, finally landing in the shadow of a cliff over 300m miles away. No wonder it held TV audiences around the world spellbound. Philae fans were again enthralled when it woke up briefly in June after 211 days in hibernation, only to seemingly lose contact with mission control once more.
Little surprise too that space is back on the design agenda as a primary source of inspiration. Visiting Design Miami/Basel in June, it was obvious that the “Philae effect” was having an impact much closer to home. The Swarovski-sponsored Designers of the Future, for example, was showcasing, among others, Terraforming (Dune table, price on request), a project about a crystal planet by Studio Swine. Founded by artist Alexander Groves and architect Azusa Murakami, Swine is an acronym of Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers, so it is unsurprising that space holds such allure. Groves says its appeal is that anything seems possible: “It’s as if design can exist in two places: the real world and a fantasy and where none of the usual rules applies. The lack of gravity means there’s no problem with weight – and that makes space an exciting place to make architecture.”
While the crystal planet is clearly playful, it is based on fact – most notably the discovery of 55 Cancri e, 40 light years from earth. This fast-orbiting planet really does twinkle like a diamond in the sky, because its surface is thought to be covered with diamonds and graphite. Its existence led Groves and Murakami to fantasise about what it would take to populate such a planet, using the gem-cutting skills of the sponsor. The centrepiece of their stand was a table where xero-chatons – the tiniest precision-cut crystals in the world – vibrated and danced to different soundwaves. Adjacent to this, the Dune timer – comprising over 3m precision-cut crystals – rotated every 10 minutes like a giant hourglass. Swarovski will soon launch an edition (price on request) of this hypnotic design.
This is not the first time that Studio Swine has played with space themes. At the same show last year, it showed its Metallic Geology cabinets with Pearl Lam Galleries. Made from aluminium foam, these looked as though a meteor had landed on a plinth, yet opened to reveal intriguing secret cabinets. Available to order through the gallery, each unique cabinet retails at about $30,000.
Gallery Fumi, also exhibiting at this year’s Design Miami/Basel, had as its centrepiece the Boullée table (edition of eight plus two artist proofs, £18,000 each) by Brooksbank & Collins – an interlocking sphere, disc and axial base in mirror-polished and etched stainless steel that appears to have dropped straight out of the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sam Pratt, co-founder of Fumi, thinks deep space will always be a place of inspiration: “We look up at the stars from childhood and yet we don’t know much about space at all. Perhaps it is not surprising that designers want to look outwards, rather than inwards – after all, events such as the Philae lander are the equivalent for this generation as when man first walked on the moon.”
Certainly Tom Brooksbank, director and co-owner of Brooksbank & Collins, would second that. The Boullée was directly influenced by an image sent back from the Voyager spacecraft as it left our own solar system: “It was, in effect, the last glance back before it entered interstellar space. It showed a view of Neptune and the little crescent moon of Triton and we wanted to create a table that captured that image and the power of the moment.”
For Brooksbank & Collins, it is the certainty of geometry that is as much a part of the appeal of space as the aesthetics. “The laws of the universe are definitive, not subjective,” says Brooksbank, “so they exist regardless of interpretation. In these uncertain times, that certainty preoccupies us. We are awestruck by the shapes, patterns, movement, beauty and power of those heavenly bodies.”
Irish artist-designer, Niamh Barry, who shows through Todd Merrill Studio New York at fairs such as Design Miami/Basel and the Collective Design Fair in New York, creates elegant light sculptures of deceptively simple, interlocking hand-formed rings that often carry names that are inspired by space terminology. “Apoapsis”, for example, is the point at which an object is furthest away from the body it is orbiting, while “Penumbra” refers to the area of partial illumination surrounding the darkest part of a shadow caused by an eclipse. Barry says that her response to space is more intuitive than it may appear: “I am influenced by many different things so would never look at space in isolation, but of course it is visually interesting. I also like the play between outer space and how we interpret space in our own environment. A piece such as Apoapsis references orbiting, and I use light to emphasise that quality.” Barry makes works to commission, but her latest piece, The Sum of One and Two, which plays on the idea of infinity, is available for $45,000.
American artist Jeff Zimmerman, who exhibits with R & Company in New York, has produced the sculpture Unique Full Moon – a series of hand-blown glass moons that float serenely on the wall. Customers can build an entire constellation of moons, each one unique and costing $7,500. Zimmerman says: “All my work is about abstraction, but working in glass. What interests me is studying patterns in nature – the same spiral you see in a snail shell you can find in solar systems. These repeating forms, such as spheres, are created by physics in all different scales – micro and macro. A lot of my work is a meditation on that idea.”
At the Masterpiece fair this year, art and design atelier Based Upon launched a cosmos-inspired artwork, The Birth of Tramazite (£36,000), handcrafted in tramazite, aluminium honeycomb and bronze, which co-founder Ian Abell describes as having “a quietly volatile energy that places the eye of the viewer at the very heart of our expanding universe”. For artist-designer Tom Palmer, it is the breathtaking beauty of natural phenomena in space that he strives for when creating galaxy-like arrangements on mirrors. This technique, entirely his own, involves a silvering process that evolved almost by accident when he was researching telescope-making. He experiments continually with several chemicals and resins to achieve various effects, but enjoys the fact that he can never be completely certain how the final creation will look. While he admits to being “terrified” at the idea of going into space, he is intrigued by its potential: “I love that it is not touched nor made by people and yet everyone can see it. It is synonymous with unconquered frontiers – the challenge for me is in trying to capture something that is so massive in something physical.” All Palmer’s works are unique and made to commission: a Luna 10-panel screen (about 2m x 3m) in Shou-Sugi-Ban pine with a giant moon in burnt gesso is about £9,400, while circular mirrors (about 1.2m in diameter) cost from about £4,800.
Rug designers are also enjoying the potential of space aesthetics. Jan Kath, the globally renowned German rug designer, created the Spacecrafted collection (£2,520 per sq m) for Front London, inspired by the vivid colours in images from the Hubble telescope showing delicate nebulae and gas clouds. It took Kath more than 15 years and a team of highly skilled, specialist weavers to create these extraordinary hand-knotted rugs in wool and silk, which are in effect a recreation of high-resolution photographs of space. To create the pixel effect required more than 150-200 knots per square inch and utilised up to 60 colours. Kath credits the Himalayas, where he travels to have rugs made, as inspiration: “When I first travelled to Nepal, I realised how starry the sky really is away from the light pollution of civilisation – you really do feel as though you can touch the stars. Equally fascinating was to see the first pictures from the Hubble telescope back in the 1990s: the exploding colours, infinite expanse and inconceivable depth of that awe-inspiring stellar spectacle was something I wanted to use for years in my work – but it is only now that technology has allowed us to produce those images in the highest resolution possible.”
Danish textile artist Astrid Krogh, who exhibits with Galerie Maria Wettergren in Paris, has produced a series of eight circular light sculptures called Skylight (€35,000 each) that convey the cosmic feeling central to the artist’s fascination with light, time and transition. These luminous wall sculptures change colours in a meditative rhythm, analogous to the light transitions of the sky. Krogh says this sensorial colour experience reflects the “poetic vocabulary” of natural phenomena: “This work is inspired by the sky and the wonders of the universe. It conveys a feeling of the infinite vastness of space, while lending a meditative feeling to an interior.”
Space is also influencing furniture design, most notably with Ochre’s recent collections. These include, for example, the Eclipse lighting collection (from £1,596), Celestial Pebble lighting (from £1,620), mercury-glass Moon table mats (from £294) and Moon tables of different sizes with mercury-glass tops and steel frames (from £1,824 for a low, round design of 70cm in diameter). Co-founder Joanna Bibby says the designs are not obvious space-inspired motifs, but try to capture some of the mysteriousness of the universe: “There is something ethereal and unknown about space – an intangibility and timelessness that is also very beautiful. The Moon table is so called because when we were first playing with the material, we realised that when the patination reflected on the wall it did in fact look just like the moon – while Celestial Pebble seems to hover and glow like some small heavenly body.”
Younger designers may rue the fact they missed out on the great 20th-century Space Race, but there is no doubt that we are experiencing a second wave of astronomical excitement with the achievements of Hubble, Philae, Voyager, New Horizons and others. Studio Swine is optimistic that Virgin’s plans to launch commercial spacecraft may one day offer designers such as themselves the chance to take up a design residency in space. As Groves says: “I am convinced the opportunity will occur to leave the earth’s orbit – at the very least. One thing we learnt in our research was that it is very expensive to take anything into space, so you are much better to craft objects once you get there – what could be more exciting than to design new forms and aesthetics for a wholly different environment to our own?”