Study O Portable 16.02.15

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Bernadette Deddens and Tetsuo Mukai have been compared to poets in their desire to explore esoteric and elliptical themes. Their often witty, surreal approach has attracted some illustrious collaborators and makes them a truly distinctive voice in the world of design

Study O Portable is easy to like but not particularly easy to define. Conversation with the founders, Bernadette Deddens and Tetsuo Mukai, can range across obscure subject matter and periods of history – from 1960s French poetry to horticulture and philosophy. They are critics of design as much as they are designers and makers. Founded in 2009, the studio has quietly established a loyal following, and its annual exhibition, organised under the title Workshop for Potential Design, is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the London Design Festival.

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Fuzz side table for Gallery FUMI

Deddens and Mukai met at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem in the early 2000s, having been attracted by inspiring teachers such as Marloes ten Bhömer and Wilma Sommers. "Arnhem was free, conceptual and diverse," says Deddens, who grew up in a small town in the north-east of the Netherlands. Mukai, originally from Yokohama, Japan, studied fashion but found that he was more interested in design, so decided to come to the Amsterdam home of a studio that was beginning to transform his ideas, Droog.

The name Study O Portable expresses their desire to "make small things with big ideas" and to keep mobile: "We wanted to keep the possibility that we could pack up and move. We like the idea that we could do a job anywhere," says Mukai. They concede that after five years of running the studio, they have accumulated more stuff and have become a "bit more stuck" in their current home in London.



Vicky Richardson



Harry Borden

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The class divider is decorated with dotted chains that are supposed to represent a bead curtain

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Erasing Bricks at (Because) Hammerspace, 2014

They might be staying put, but their work is still testing new ground. Key pieces include A to Zanthoxylum, a set of 26 pencils, each made from a different species of tree, inspired by an arboretum in Stoke Newington; and the Fuzz series – small objects and tables commissioned by Gallery FUMI, made by applying layers of resin onto a rotating form.

In 2010, Deddens and Mukai set up Workshop for Potential Design – a platform for testing ideas and collaborating with designers they admire. The title was inspired by 1960s French collective Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. The group included poets and mathematicians who were intrigued by the effects of self-imposed constraints on the use of language. Georges Perec, for example, wrote an entire novel without the letter "e".


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Abacus Lights for the Waste Not, Want It exhibition, 2014

The first Workshop for Potential Design show considered a theme that keeps reoccurring in Study O Portable's work: Objects with a Void. Having set the title, they invited six designers to create a response. Among them were Peter Marigold, Paul Elliman and Gemma Holt, regular collaborators who were invited back to take part in the (Because) Hammerspace exhibition in 2014. Possibly the duo's trickiest theme to "get", this latest show returned to the theme of the void by referring to the imaginary storage space from which cartoon characters pull objects when grabbing them out of thin air. Study O Portable's response to this self-imposed brief was a set of surreal giant erasers in the shape of bricks, inspired by Joseph Gandy's 1830 drawing imagining Sir John Soane's Bank of England in ruins.

Curator Brent Dzekciorius says Study O Portable is "almost like a repertory theatre group, working with the same group of actors and being inspired by their interpretation of an idea ... Their work is like poetry. It's amazing." Perhaps words and history are so important to Study O Portable because its practice is about the search for meaning. "Historically it's easier to see how things are connected and interlinked," explains Deddens. Not quite designers, poets or artists, they happen to have found themselves in the design world, and design is all the better for having them.

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A to Zanthoxylum pencil set


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