Anton Alvarez is a Swedish-Chilean designer based in London and Stockholm. A recent graduate of the Royal College of Art's Design Products MA, Alvarez originally studied fine art and cabinetmaking before completing an Interior Architecture and Furniture Design course at Konstfack, the University College of Arts, Craft and Design in Stockholm. Alvarez's work focuses on the design of systems and the creation of tools and processes for producing products. Alvarez's work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Design Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Labelled as the design rebel of the moment, Alvarez admits that the underlying theme for his creativity has always been a compulsive need to do the opposite of what's expected of him, that stems back to his teenage years. It was then that Alvarez discovered his design talent as a graffiti artist in his native Uppsala in Sweden. Where the other graffiti artists he was surrounded by would carefully prepare their illustrations and draw out their designs before taking the paint can to it, rushing to fill them in before they got busted, Alvarez was notoriously known for his improvisational, 'freestyle' approach. "Even if we were asked to do something simple, like a table, I'd see if water could support a group of objects instead. I wanted to do whatever I thought was the farthest away from the obvious answer."
When it came time for his most ambitious project to date - his RCA graduation thesis this past June - Alvarez and his team were challenged to develop briefs of their own choosing, meaning that they didn't have anything to push back against or base their ideas on. Adding fuel to his fire, Alvarez unsurprisingly subverted [though unconsciously he assures] the rules and expectations that he'd learnt at cabinetry school to instead create a revolutionary technique that united a mix of materials in the most expressive way possible, while avoiding the time-consuming precision long associated with wood joinery. "Though I have the knowledge and skills to stick by those rules, I find it boring", he says.
The technique was immortalised by a machine named the Thread Wrapping Machine, which is essentially a spinning wheel armed with glue-coated string that winds a messy cocoon around pretty much anything that will pass through its central void. The machine allows for different types of material to be bound together to thus create pieces of furniture, whether a stool, lamp, chair or bench. All the while, the threads used give varying finishes and different decorative patterns, making each one unique. "I definitely see it as a new craft, and now I'm experimenting with different materials, sizes and ideas. I'm just waiting to see where it will all go." It's evident that to Alvarez that any material is fair game: At the 2012 London Design Festival, he incorporated pieces of expensive crystal into the futuristic Technicolor spear created for Swarovski's Digital Crystal show. The pieces made with the machine went on to be sold at West London design shop Mint.
It doesn't stop there for Alvarez, who in October last year had to produce 180 wrapped seats for 290 guests in less than 30 days for an RCA-sponsored benefit dinner, hosted by the organisation Outset. It was this that led him to further aspire more and more to the technical side of design, more characteristic of his former studies. "To do such a big production, I had to learn the machine really well, and as I was learning, I had to of course ensure that I was making the pieces as good as I possibly could."
Last year Alvarez launched a studio space in East London that we'd describe as an otherwordly landscape of cocooned forms. Since then, he's been courting clients with his technique, as a platform to convey that he isn't trying to alienate people with his form of rebellious design but rather is trying to find unexpected ways to give his clients what they want. "I'm trying to push what's possible in a given context," he says. A point further communicated by another project for London Design Festival where his RCA class was invited out to the English countryside by Hardwood Export Council to Terence Conran's Benchmark furniture factory. Each student in the class was asked to build a chair using the factory's technicians but to also calculate the environmental impact it would have using a sophisticated set of algorithms. While the rest of his class were dutifully following their requirements inside, Alvarez instead chopped down a tree from a surrounding forest and used a chain saw to carve it into a bench where it lay. "I ignored all the parameters they were giving us so I could get a real understanding of the actual environmental impact. I wanted to cut the tree, produce it where it grew, and leave it there. The chain saw was the only tool that left any trace." Conran later commented, "his early work 'out in the real world' truly showed great promise and maturity, to apply traditional skills with new ways of looking at problems." It's clear that throughout all this Alvarez was successful in reframing the project's discussion in his own terms and to bypass the original criteria. "If I make a wood joint, the craftman who's teaching me could always say - 'This won't work because wood reacts this way or will move this way when wet.' But if I'm the only one who knows about a technique because I invented it myself, there's no one who can say it's wrong." As Conran also one said, " where creativity and innovation are the defining characteristics of a good designer, there must also be an ability to think laterally and to create inspired solutions to the everyday problems of everyday life" - a statement that sums up Anton Alvarez perfectly. Wallpaper magazine have even been quoted as saying, "If designers were superheroes, Anton Alvarez would be Spiderman."
We took the opportunity to speak to Anton ahead of this year's London Design Festival:
Anton, what do you have in store for this year’s London Design Festival?
I’m taking part in a small gallery exhibition at 19 Greek Street in collaboration with Gallery Libby Sellers. Apart from that it’ll be meetings, openings and catching up with friends and colleagues from all over Europe. It seems that absolutely everybody is in town during this week.
Do you think design has changed since the recession? Would you say that it’s taken a more honest approach, alike to your techniques and systems?
I’d say it’s always interesting when there’s a change in the environment, whether it’s moving to another part of the city or another part of the world. All these things will have an inevitable effect on what material and methods you work with. Economic conditions can of course be seen as part of that environmental change, where with an unlimited budget only certain things can be made.
You’ve been working with the Thread Wrapping Machine for over a year now, do you see yourself developing the machine further or do you have a view to invent a completely different design system?
Throughout the duration of actually building the machine, I really felt my own craft becoming born and developing with it. I made discoveries and encountered things in the process that continuously challenged me. What I’m working on now in the studio is partly about developing those things but also I am working on aspects that are perhaps indirectly related. I like to keep those things to myself until I properly understand what it can be.
Which designers inspire you, or perhaps did inspire you when starting a career in design?
The artists, designers, creators and innovators that have inspired me are those that have a defining and unique style. Peoples like Parisian graffiti writer Horfe, Thor Heyerdahl who was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer that sailed over the big oceans with a self-built raft, Karin Dreijer who creates magic with her music, Fever Ray or group project The Knife.
What’s your ultimate design dream? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
I see myself continuing to work in my studio, in an exploratory way as possible, as I’ve done before and during the Thread Wrapping Machine period. I always try and let the process lead me into the next project, to present my research along the way in whatever shape it might take and apply my knowledge and discoveries too.
If you weren’t living in London, which design city or destination can you see yourself living in?
At the moment, I’m spending quite a lot of time in Stockholm. It’s such a beautiful city, while also being a palatable size. Last week I was in Berlin to participate in a seminar and really liked the vibes over there.
Post LDF, what other projects do you have lined up for the future?
I’ve been invited to work on several commissions with various big brands that will have me apply my thinking and the developing my research throughout. Apart from that, I’ll be continuing my collaboration with Swedish electro-music duo Dödens Dal, while this month I will be trying out a new project working on forms of collaborative workshops, taking place in Bratislava and the Swedish School of Textiles. Despite all that, my main focus for now is to find some personal time to work on self-initiated projects in the studio.
Who makes up the Anton Alvarez team? Is it just yourself or do you work with others?
My aim is to be as independent and flexible as possible. I have one assistant in the studio, but my team generally extends to outside the studio walls. By collaborating and thus creating small autonomous groups, we have the facility to connect knowledge and skills from different independent actors, which allows for a stronger and more flexible infrastructure than within a big traditional studio.
Anton Alvarez, Studio 204 LAF (Limehouse Art Foundation), Towcester Road, London E3; antonalvarez.com