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Off The Grid at Gallery R'Pure

A designer camping trip with Frederick McSwain and François Chambard's first collaborative collection

by Perrin Drumm in Design on 24 May 2013

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If glamorous camping is "glamping," does that make designer camping "damping?" Whatever you call the pristine, outdoors-inspired objects in "Off the Grid"—the collaboration between designer François Chambard of UM Project and artist and designer Frederick McSwain—the exhibition playfully riffs on the title, from literal interpretations of grid-based design to more free-thinking explorations of what it means to take the design off the grid.

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For Chambard, it means scaling back his characteristically technical approach to handmade and one-of-a-kind objects by looking to products created before electricity. He made a few new additions to his Craft System; the cheeky lamps he debuted at Wanted Design last year. Instead of clusters of small light bulbs and the other gadgetry that typically adorns the lighting series (think theremins, miniature greenhouses and spinning light attachments), Chambard contrasted the smooth, polished Corian lamp bases with inexpensive votive candles inset in the top of one, while another was equipped with a wick burning in a small enameled tin cup of oil and water—no plug required.

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He also made the most beautifully spare indoor A-frame tent (aka adult fort) that doubles as a light fixture and a set of large, gleaming anodized aluminum and Maple wood trunks that close with basic woven nylon straps, a spin on rugged military cases. You wouldn’t want to travel outdoors with such precious cargo but, according to Chambard, they embody the "beauty of undesigned design objects. They’re vibrant, not austere. These are objects that tell a story."

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McSwain, perhaps best known for his large-scale portrait made from 13,138 die, reappropriated another commonplace object for his approach to off-the-grid design: the milk crate. First created to stack and carry goods, the plastic milk crate has since been repurposed for everything from bike baskets to bed-frames. McSwain’s crates, made of machined aluminum in rich jewel tones, call attention to the crate’s highly graphic form and the gridded pattern while still retaining every bit of the design’s original practicality. He’s also "pre-stacked" them into chairs and stools, available in 10 different colors.

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On the opposite wall, McSwain has mounted a row of black Maglites in a lighting installation we just might copy at home ourselves, but one of his strongest pieces is the Cumulus table. Unless McSwain had pointed it out to us himself we probably would have overlooked the tabletop’s subtle gridded pattern made from a vector graphic of a picture he took of a cloudy sky. These understated, poetic pieces and the exhibition as a whole is set against textile artist Elodie Blanchard’s wall-mounted "Urban Camouflage," woven from hand-knotted fire-retardant fabric.

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When we first arrived at the gallery, the two designers explained how McSwain is the "thinker" and Chambard is the "maker." Though there’s enough evidence in the room to point out how each man is indeed both these things, there’s a marked balance and cohesion to the show, something that’s not always the case when two artisans who only recently met work together for the first time. A match made in heaven, perhaps? The work is undeniably engaging—the bright colors and simple, playful shapes are immediately accessible, but the thoughtfully considered approach to each object is what gives these pieces real staying power.

Images by Francis Dzikowski (Esto)

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