Blossoming cherry trees and their pastel-pink flowers are the official mark of spring. In Japan, the arrival of these blooms, which only last for a week at the beginning of April, is honored in a festival called Sakura. The event has been part of Japanese culture for centuries, and today cities around the world host similar events. In Washington, D.C., the festival also commemorates diplomatic ties between the United States and Japan.
Sakura served as the inspiration for New Spring, a multisensory installation designed by Studio Swine for the fashion brand COS at Salone del Mobile, Milan’s annual furniture fair. “There’s something quite moving and melancholy about being under a tree and enjoying the passing of the seasons,” says Studio Swine, which represents a collaboration between Japanese architect Azusa Murakami and British artist Alexander Groves. “The appreciation of beauty and the awareness of impermanence, that feeling that this moment marks a new beginning.”
In Milan, the London-based designers created a 19-foot-tall sculptural abstraction of a tree whose branches produce 200 water vapor–filled bubbles every minute. Once popped, these bubbles–which are made from a proprietary solution that evaporates when it comes in contact with skin but momentarily stays whole when it touches fabric–release mist into the air. Studio Swine worked with a perfumer on custom scents, including wood, flowers, and fruit, for the mist contained within each bubble. When the aromas come together, they evoke the smell of spring, as well.
The natural world and identity inform much of Murakami and Groves’s work. The studio is known for developing experimental techniques to make their products and objet d’art (Swine is an acronym for “Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers”), including furniture and objects made from ocean plastic, shoes inspired by meteorites, and accessories crafted from human hair.
New Spring–whose bubble-blowing inner workings took six months to perfect–is an exploration in creating weather; it’s generating, rather than responding to, the environment. “Weather is ephemeral, unpredictable. It’s also a feeling as much as it is a physical thing, which are all really interesting qualities for a sculpture to have,” Studio Swine says.
COS is a fashion brand, but it mines the broader art and design world for inspiration (for instance, James Turrell was a big influence on its 10th anniversary capsule collection). That’s why it hosts architecturally adventurous installations for Salone. Last year, COS worked with Japanese architect Sou Foujimoto, who created a forest of light using sensor-activated spotlights, mirrors, and fog. In 2015, the company collaborated with Snarkitecture to build a labyrinth from long, thin strips of white fabric. This year, Studio Swine’s obsession with process and materials caught the eye of Karin Gustafsson, COS’s creative director. “That makes a difference in their final product,” she says. “The way they came up with it is equally interesting.”
While the idea of a mechanical tree that grows buds of scented mist bubbles was inspired by spring and the sense of optimism and renewal that accompanies the season (a sensibility that inspired Pantone’s color of the year, too), it was also about people coming together to share an experience. Politics weren’t a part of the design brief, but in today’s fraught political climate it’s impossible not to read into the symbolism of a Swedish-owned brand (H&M owns COS) working with a British artist and a Japanese architect on an installation that’s taking place in Italy. The collaboration, which comes at a moment when many countries are grappling with nationalism and populism, shows us just how exciting design can be when it mixes diverse cultural references with new techniques. Salone draws attendees from all over the world (an estimated 300,000 people from 165 different countries) and many of them will experience this installation while they’re there.
“We saw Milan Design Week as a democratic event that is truly international, and so saw an opportunity to create something that celebrated that,” Studio Swine says. “As the world becomes increasingly globalized, design has an opportunity to create a sense of place connecting us to a landscape and a history.”
A festival centered around sofas that can cost as much as a car definitely generates eye rolls from most of us, but that it brings together hundreds of thousands of people who speak or appreciate a common language of design is heartening.
New Spring is on view April 4–9 at Cinema Arti, Via Pietro Mascagni, 8, 20122 Milan.