COS presents a 3D-printed pyramid pavilion by Arthur Mamou-Mani in Milan
Take an exclusive look at Conifera at Palazzo Isimbardi for the fashion house’s eighth Salone del Mobile sojourn
COS – the London-based fashion house known for its simple, timeless collections – has a particular affinity for art, architecture and design. Under the leadership of creative director Karin Gustafsson, its collections are less concerned with show-stopping and barn-storming, but instead exude a quiet, structural beauty.
COS made its Salone del Mobile debut in 2012, working with set designer Gary Card. ‘Salone was one of the places my team used to find inspiration,’ Gustafsson recalls. ‘At that point we didn’t even have a store in Milan.’ Card effectively created a pop-up store and COS followed with another temporary outlet in 2013, courtesy of French design studio Bonsoir Paris. Gradually, the programme has become more experimental and experiential, less about clothes and more about aesthetics and inspiration. Collaborators have included Nendo, Sou Fujimoto and Snarkitecture. Studio Swine’s smoke-filled bubble-spewing tree installation, New Spring, stole the show in 2017, while last year, Phillip K Smith III’s mirrored Open Sky (W*230) took pride of place in the courtyard of the Palazzo Isimbardi, a 16th-century building with 19th-century enhancements.
This year, COS is returning to Palazzo Isimbardi, this time commissioning the young French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani. With a strong focus on research and technology, Mamou-Mani’s London-based studio has created open-source 3D-printing software that is widely used across the industry. Last autumn, he designed Galaxia, the sacrificial temple-like structure that formed the emotional heart of Nevada’s Burning Man festival. This ascending spiral of timber trusses, which was solemnly destroyed by fire at the festival’s conclusion, wound up on a COS mood board. ‘Arthur’s work was inspirational,’ says Gustafsson. ‘The call came through when I was still in the US,’ Mamou-Mani recalls. ‘I had just had a very emotional experience. And our first conversations with COS were all about how to be impactful and make meaning.’
An interlocking modular form, part-sculpture, part-pavilion, was proposed for the Palazzo Isimbardi site. One early concern was the issue of plastic. A variety of polymers are used in 3D-printing, but COS offered him the freedom to experiment, and Mamou-Mani decided to push the boundaries of current technology. He mixed polylactic acid (PLA), a renewable polymer made from starch vinegar and glycerine, with pulp derived from Douglas fir to create a base filament for the 3D-printers. ‘It has a timber texture but is waterproof and can be extruded, like plastic,’ he explains.
The installation is 25m long and consists of 700 ‘truncated pyramids’, printed over a period of four months. Starting outside the palazzo and winding through its colonnades before terminating in the internal courtyard, the form integrates into a tightly defined space. ‘We liked the idea of creating with new materials,’ explains Gustafsson. ‘At COS, we constantly challenge ourselves creatively. We’re into materials and how they perform, as well as new ways of making. The process informs the end result.’
The design evolved from an early organic proposal to the final geometric modules, shaped to accommodate any space and inspired by the palazzo’s rigorous classicism. ‘Everything has this rectilinearity,’ Mamou-Mani explains, ‘and there is also a striking contrast with nature.’ The name of the piece, Conifera, references the organic connection between the forms, material and garden location. Mamou-Mani describes it as a counterpoint to Galaxia, which had a very finite shape. ‘The COS project is very constrained by its site– you don’t often get that in parametric design,’ he says.
The project was a logistical challenge. ‘Every time I am out of my comfort zone, I know something interesting is going to happen,’ Mamou-Mani says. ‘I’m a very curious person and I enjoy it when design goes beyond our field.’ Each of the 700 elements is identical, printed across four different sites, one in London and three in Italy. Timing was an issue; with each ‘block’ taking up to four hours to print, the studio had to ramp up the number of printers they used to meet the deadline, teaming up with the Italian company WASP (World Advanced Saving Project). Although the studio has worked with engineers such as BuroHappold and Arup, this project was developed with Bath-based engineers Format, who also worked on Galaxia.
As Conifera threads its way in and out of the palazzo’s arched colonnades, the components shift from ‘solid’ wood colour to translucent, pure bioplastic. The variety of texture is unusual for 3D-printing and is due to the inherent variety of the Douglas fir used in the filament and how it is cut and dried.
‘You have gradients of colour. We’re not obsessed with a uniform finish,’ the architect explains. ‘Karin introduced me to the philosophy of wabi-sabi – the acceptance of imperfection. It’s almost meditative.’ ‘I have always worked that way,’ adds Gustafsson. ‘Personally, I design with fabric not drawing, so I believe in not being too controlled by the process. It’s about being open-minded and looking for potential.’
‘The piece can be reimagined and reused – it’s something that won’t stop with Salone,’ says Gustafsson. ‘It’s like how we don’t dictate how our clothes are worn. We think of them as components that can go into a wardrobe in many different ways.’ Located in Heatherwick Studio’s Coal Drops Yard (W*236), London’s newest COS store – a three-storey temple of good taste with a rotating collection of art, photography and periodicals that complement the effortlessly stylish clothing – reflects the brand’s new aesthetic eclecticism. Gustafsson hints that Mamou-Mani’s installation will find its way here, presumably taking a different shape along the way.
The opportunity to experiment has certainly not been lost on the architect. ‘Architects are used to top-down processes. They can find it hard to let go,’ says Mamou-Mani. ‘We burnt our last building, so we know all about letting go.’ Conifera won’t suffer the same fate, but it should certainly sow some creative seeds for the future. §
As originally featured in the May 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*242)