With and against the Flow
Sarah Kueng and Lovis Caputo have been working together for twelve years. As Kueng Caputo, they have opened a temporary cardboard hotel, copied the work of their classmates, created stools out of a combination of sand and mortar, made leather look like stone, sprayed fake shadows on porcelain objects, upgraded ordinary bricks by glazing them, organized walks as conversational overtures to critical thoughts on design, issued do-it-yourself designs, and are currently converting a stable into an apartment. All of these diverse projects clearly reveal how much Kueng Caputo appreciate handcrafted work and consistently testify to the humorous, colorful approach of two very sharp thinkers. But there is a more profound and less conspicuous aspect to their work, marked by a self-reflective, thoughtful gravity. They are acutely aware of the ebb and flow in the design industry.
One of their first collaborations was their graduation project at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2008. They decided to explore the challenging subject of the copy. As Lovis Caputo puts it, “In design, you’re always trying to make something new and you don’t want anyone to copy you, and yet people are always talking about being inspired by others. This paradoxical rhetoric already starts in school.” They singled out one aspect in several of their classmates’ diploma projects and reinterpreted it. The resulting series of replicas or “copies” was presented at the graduation exhibition along with the originals. “You could tell pretty quickly that it was about a dialogue between the objects,” Sarah Kueng says. “As a result, people took a closer look at the originals because our copies drew attention to certain details.” The project, with the matter-of-fact title Copy, caused heated debate, and the diploma jury just barely passed it. Shortly afterwards another jury, that of the Swiss Design Award of the Federal Office of Culture, selected it as a winner. The same thing that one body of jurors sees as going too much against the flow can be found worthy of an accolade by another.
The prize included a six-month residency in New York. However, since Caputo was refused a visa to the United States, she organized a trip to Japan during the same time. The Copy project instantly piqued the curiosity of designers in both places. The New York Salon 94 gallery invited them to present their work and soon afterwards chose to represent them. Suddenly Kueng Caputo found themselves sucked into the then burgeoning market for collector’s items in design. In the years that followed, a Danish gallery, Etage Projects, also started representing them, and they received invitations from galleries, alternative art spaces, museums, trade fairs, and biennials. The now widely known series of Sand Chairs and Never Too Much are among the things they created in the process.
The market for one-of-a-kind pieces and very small series enabled Kueng Caputo to become inde-pendent and chart territory outside of conventional mass production. They still do some work in the high-end segment, such as a recently created collection of objects for the Fendi Fashion House that was showcased at Design Miami 2019. But even before the collector’s market went into decline in the wake of the financial crisis, Kueng Caputo had deliberately begun to pursue projects no longer geared exclusively toward affluent consumers. Over the years, they created several do-it-yourself designs. They also teach regularly at national and international design schools, seizing the opportunity to inquire into the conventional practice of design and find future-oriented solutions. In addition, they often work with specialized artisans, whose knowledge should be preserved and fostered. In 2016, for instance, as part of a Japanese development project under the guidance of Teruhiro Yanagihara, they created the porcelain series As If in close collaboration with the venerable Kin’emon Toen company in Arita.
Kueng Caputo are increasingly concerned with the social relevance of their endeavors, for the longer they navigate the business world as independent designers, the more acutely aware they become of the currents and forces that are at work. Kueng Caputo see the Swiss Grand Prix Design as an opportunity to take stock. As Caputo puts it, “The prize gives us the freedom and time to question, to reexamine certain things, to reposition ourselves after twelve years, to think about what direction to take next.” And Kueng seconds that, “It gives us a chance to think about what we as human beings and designers have to do, given the situation in the world today.”