LETTER—NESS: Michael Savona and Thing Thing

Published:  November 11, 2013

Michael Savona is a graphic designer, interested in projects of a curious and unusual nature. Thing Thing is a art collective interested in experimental production with recycled plastics. Together, they collaborated on a set of chairs, initially inspired by the shredded typographic styles of Bruno Munari. We talked to Savona about this extraordinary collaboration and its unexpected outcome.

How did this collaboration between you, a graphic designer, and Thing Thing, experimenters with plastic, begin? 

The ‘tt’ and ‘m’ were originally part of a rotomoulded plastic, typeface-as-seating entry to New York City’s Battery Park ‘Draw up a Chair’ competition, and later shown at NYC Design Week. Though this was the first ‘official’ Thing Thing/ Michael Savona collaboration, I’ve worked with Thom Moran (of Thing Thing) in an ongoing manner for a number of years.

We were both part of a project called the Balloon Factory, where we made balloons from scratch at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. We currently collect work we like at frontieriors.us. Last fall, I designed the Making Friends poster for Thom when he started working with Simon Anton, Rachel Mulder and Eiji Jimbo on the occasion of the Venice Biennale; shortly afterwards they became Thing Thing.

What was your process, together? 

The project developed in two waves – the competition entry and the finished pieces for NYC Design Week. Initially, the process began over phone and email but developed more fully in person in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

There were always multiple efforts moving forward simultaneously, each providing feedback for the other. Having five people on hand meant we could work closely and widely. We could design the letterforms and waterjet cut steel moulds in the same day, all in the same fabrication studio.

The scrap plastic is collected.

The plastic is sorted into colour.

Why did you decide to use letterforms? Why these particular forms?

We chose letterforms since they could offer different scales of view and engagement for public seating. You can relax on a ‘b’ while you place your coffee on an ‘l’. Your child can sit on a child-sized ‘t’ while your dog is leashed to a dog-sized ‘j’. People can experience furniture from a distance. Letters are playful, even when left alone. A park can use a typeface for identity and promotion.

We were looking at Bruno Munari’s ‘ABC with Imagination’ project for Danese in terms of building an entire alphabet out of a few shapes. Munari succeeded in circular and linear forms; we hoped to build ours a bit more unpredictably with softer geometry.

Were there other shapes you had wanted to explore?

Well, yes and no. I think we always thought of the shapes in terms of their manner of manufacture. For example, we were originally making moulds of plate steel, which meant the edges had to be faceted.

Also, the prospect of making 26 different moulds would have been costly and time intensive. We settled on three shapes – ‘j’, ‘rainbow’ and ‘white space’ that join to create numbers, an exclamation point and an alphabet of chairs. Characters that would not stand with little effort were able to lie down. The finished typeface became known as ‘Battery Relaxed’ that featured the combined best-to-sit-on uppercase with the best-to-sit-on lowercase.

The ‘tt’ and ‘m’ are fairly straightforward in that they are only made of repeating ‘j’s. Since they were our favourites and also our namesakes, it seemed a good place to start. And, there was still much to discover and explore in colour, pattern and methods.

The letter moulds.

Experimenting with shape and letterforms.

What was the process of turning your ideas into 3D objects?

The process was very complicated and circuitous, but also ‘simple’ if we were to repeat it at this stage. Thing Thing has bins of plastic they’ve collected, cleaned, shredded and sorted, so we had an opportune beginning, working with a custom material. We made an aluminium mould of the ‘j’ form, filled it with plastic shreds, heated the mould and compressed the plastic. While the mould cooled, we ran internal positive air pressure to keep the ‘j’ stable. With the plastic ‘j’ demoulded, we could finally post-machine and heat-weld multiples together to create near watertight, hollow and structural objects.

Were there failures along the way? 

Certainly. Letter-wise, some forms weren’t cooperating as chairs or letters. Machine- wise, there were fires. Plastic-wise, we were working with a material suited for blow-moulding, so our shapes were warping during the cooling process. In all production cases, it took five hours to see if a single ‘j’ was usable. The whole process was an exercise of constant adjusting, note-taking and workshopping.

What was it like collaborating with Thing Thing?

Working together was relaxed and easy. Thing Thing is an optimistic group. They work with many strengths: as designers, mechanical engineers, educators, plastic manufacturers and friends. Their process is ambitious yet light-hearted and their creations follow suit. Not every day can you see a rotomoulder built over a weekend. Or realise that you can inflate semi-molten plastic with a basketball needle. Or play pool together when work is done.

The end result is a functional object created by a graphic designer using typographic forms – have you worked this way before?

I designed a voice-activated night light called the Shhh light – cursive ‘s-h-h-h’ with Corian letters backlit that would illuminate when spoken to. The idea being you could talk your way through a dark hall or chat yourself to sleep. For my practice, I think it means that things can look like other things; that you can provide a certain amount of openness and familiarity to forms and people will discover a use that works for them or their home.

'm' form

‘m chair’ designed in collaboration by Michael Savona and Thing Thing

'tt' form

‘tt chair’ designed in collaboration by Michael Savona and Thing Thing

Looking back, what did you learn from the collaboration? What do the stools mean to you now?

Mostly that something exciting can happen with five people working so closely for so long. And that deadlines are always good motivation, and to lean on trust and intuition. We uncovered a totally new process of manufacture where we could produce many self-similar objects that were also open to variation.

The ‘tt’ and ‘m’ have new lives in my home now. They still have their letterness intact, but are evolving into different roles – ‘m’ as a bedside table and ‘tt’ is a bench near the dining table.


Interview by desktop.
Words and images by Michael Savona and Thing Thing.


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