STUDIO SWINE'S HAIR HIGHWAY - WHEN FORM FOLLOWS FUTILITY
London-based Studio Swine has a clear preference to dig up materials that are fragile, futile, almost invisible, thrown away, overlooked and forgotten, and that might even raise a feeling of disgust, in order to transform them rather provokingly into luxury items, but also into a proposal for an alternative and more sustainable global industry. Totally in line with that spirit, Hair Highway, which is at the moment also on show in the Poème Brut exhibition at the Design Museum in Ghent, Belgium, includes a collection of objects and an award winning video in which they rethink the future of what in China is already the subject of a billion-dollar trade, human hair, literally turning man into his own material.
Hair Highway is much more than just a collection of objects
Hair Highway is also an idea, manifesto and a proposal, starting from the question 'What if?
Japanese architect Azusa Murakami and British artist Alexander Groves.have a unique way to get themselves noticed. Already their studio's name, Studio Swine (which they humourously but also significantly present as an abbreviation of 'Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers') made them from the very beginning stand out from others. So do their designs. Like nearly all the other projects of the London based studio, Hair Highway is much more than just a collection of objects. The items also came with an award winning film, which documents the context and process of their making in a very imaginative and poetic way, and which helped these one-offs to spread themselves worldwide in hyper-reality. But above all, Hair Highway is also an idea, manifesto and a proposal, starting from the question 'What if?' Spanning across disciplines, and combining a deep research into materials and into new technological and industrial strategies, the project explores themes of regional identity and the future of resources in the context of globalisation and sustainability.
All of Studio Swine's projects consider the impact of design at the global scale,
and rely essentially on the same approach. In Sea Chair, a project that brought them instant fame, the question that stood central was: What if we could offer the dying British fishing.industry new opportunities by reconverting its ships into floating factories that would make furniture from the invisible plastic particles which are poisoning the oceans? The pieces they produced to illustrate this production process were only prototypes. And so were the objects they created as part of Can City, a project that came into life when after graduation they embedded themselves in São Paulo's community of catadores in Brasil, informal waste collectors who pick up aluminium cans and collect payment for recycling. Can City, also on show at the Ghent Design Museum, involved building a mobile furnace with which to rove the streets, melting and sand casting metal scrap into precious furniture, and glass bottles into lightbulbs.
As its name implies, Hair Highway nods to the famous Silk Road,the ancient route that connected east and west, and also served as the main platform of exchange for plenty of other materials, religious, aesthetical, and philosophical ideas, and politics. The project explores the possibility of similar and much needed modern day cultural crossovers, to which not silk, but another, largely overlooked but typical Asian material would stand central: human hair.
Central to the project stands the question: What if we could use human hair, which is already the subject of a booming industry in China, as a sustainable alternative to dwindling supplies of natural materials such as tortoise shell or tropical wood, and exploit it for uses other than the beauty market in which it is already used, by even giving -improbable as it may seem to western eyes- the material a luxurious identity.
Video : Watch the captivating clip by the design collaborative and filmmaker Juriaan Booij.
For after all, the duo says, as the world’s population expands, human hair is one natural resource that is increasing in supply globally, and it grows up to sixteen times faster than the trees used for tropical hardwood such as mahogany which can take 300 years to reach maturity. They chose Asian hair because it "grows faster, is better quality, and thicker than European hair". Its shape and strength are different to Western hair, which grows at a rate of 10mm a month compared with Asian hair's 13mm. It is also incredibly strong - a single strand can take up to 100 grams. With an average 120,000 hairs per head, that means a single person has the means to carry 12 tonnes – the weight of two elephants.
And of course, another reason is the fact that buying and selling human chair is already a booming business in the east. China is both the world’s biggest exporter of human hair, filling the need for anything that goes from celebrity hair extensions tp used-car salesman toupées. "In the past it has evem been processed for a protein that's used in baked goods and soy sauce," says Murakami, though rising prices have led manufacturers to replace hair with chicken feathers."Virgin Hair" or soft hair that's never been treated, five-foot lengths grown over 15 year periods, and white hair from the aged are best-sellers, while blonde European hair is the most expensive product on offer, with 100 grams of golden locks fetching nearly $2,000.on the open market. Since China is also the largest importer of tropical hardwood, and with large parts of Africa and Latin America being deforested to meet the country's hardwood demands, Hair Highway wanted to research hair's potential beyond its wildly expanding role in the beauty industry. and see how it could be used as a renewable resource in an unexpected industry: home decor, where it could serve as a sustainable alternative for diminishing natural resources like hardwood.
buying and selling human chair is already a booming business in the east
blonde European hair is the most expensive product on offer, with 100 grams of golden locks fetching nearly $2,000
Groves and Murakami spent five months in a town with a life that largely revolves around the hair industry. The project documents this journey in a film and a collection of highly decorative objects, created for Pearl Lam Galleries. The pieces include the small combs that are now also on show in Ghent, and other smaller vanity items like a set of decorative jewellery boxes, vases and trinket holders, as well as a large inlayed screen and a combined mirror and dressing table. To create the items, the strands were laid out flat in a thin layer and coloured resin was poured over the top. Once set into a solid block, the material acts like tropical hardwood. It was sawed into sections and glued back together to create patterns from the different colours. "We treat it like it's wood, switching around light and dark panels to make chevron patterns," says the duo. The simple shapes of the pieces were executed in an aesthetics that had itself inspired by Qing dynasty and the geometric lines of 1920’s Shanghai-Deco. "That was a golden age in Shanghai and it is still an aesthetic that is intrinsically linked with its character,„ says the duo.
But once they had their own studio, the pair wanted to go one step further. For the Hair Highway project, they travelled to the heart of the natural hair extension market in Shangdong, China, to visit a hair market and film parts of the hair trade. "Since working with hair we have always wanted to follow the route back to the factories that process it, the traders that take it to market and the people that grow and sell it," they explain. With filmmaker Juriaan Booij, the designers documented stitching, pressing and wig-making: all the processes that manipulate raw product into real commodity. "We always make a film alongside the products," says Groves, "and in this case we knew we wanted tell the story of the road. Rural roads ending up in the big city, and then go out to the world through international shipping.“
In a drab, smog-filled open air market, locks of all lengths and colours are sold like loaves of bread. Specialised vendors have stalls where hair gathered from nearby villages can be sorted by colour, washed, ironed, and sewn into wigs and extensions. While these vendors are responsible for some of the world's most glamorous manes, the market itself is threadbare.“Already when we arrived there was a huge market, „ says Groves, „ Men were arriving on motorbikes with things like rabbit skins hanging off the handles. They brought sacks of hair from women in the surrounding villages. The sacks unfurled to reveal masses of pony-tailed tresses: pure white from elderly ladies and soft, jet-black hair, all the more sought after if it is untreated. At first it seems quite Mad Max, but it isn't.“. .
The geometric forms in amber and deep red emanate antiquity and glamour, but a closer look invites both amazement and disgust since the use is subverted by the rather unconventional material. For after all, Hair Highway is also a project that questions perception, preconceptions, values and habits: "We are used to wearing silk, which comes from insects, and wool which is sheep hair – human hair too has that moment where it becomes dehumanised, and no longer seems to be what it actually is“.