After meeting as students at the Royal College of Art in London, British-born Michael Cross and French-born Julie Mathias have collaborated on the design of stylistically surreal and technically ingenious products and lighting.
When Michael Cross and Julie Mathias approach a new design project they do so by “taking an object we know and beginning again”. Their objective is: “the radical re-evaluation of objects, rather than a refinement of what they already are. The question is not how to make them slightly better, but how they might be entirely something else.” They also ensure that their finished work elicits an equally provocative response from the user.
For the Flood lighting installation, Cross and Mathias plunged dozens of electric light bulbs and coils of brightly coloured wire under water. The result is an eerily exquisite piece that, by defying the taboos about mixing electricity and water, encourages us to question our notions of safety by flirting with danger. They then created a shelving system in the sinister form of the coils of twigs they spotted in a Sri Lankan backwater and devised an electrical fan that only starts when you blow at it.
Cross and Mathias met as students at the Royal College of Art in London. Born in the Scottish islands the Hebrides in 1979, Michael Cross studied industrial design at Sheffield Hallam University before enrolling at the RCA with Julie Mathias, who was born in Lyon in 1978 and had previously studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Saint-Etienne. Since graduating from the RCA in summer 2004, they have worked together as Wokmedia. Cross and Mathias were awarded a bursary from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation after participating in the Design Museum’s Design Mart exhibition in autumn 2004. Their work was then showcased in the Great Brits exhibition organised in Milan during the 2005 Milan Furniture Fair by the British Council and the Design Museum.
Q. When did you first become aware of and interested in design?
A. As children, Julie loved playing with Lego and drawing on her walls, while Michael made the things he was too mean to buy, and struggled to fix the things he’d dismantled. Design was a natural progression for both of us.
Q. How were you influenced by your design education?
A. The most important thing we both took from the Royal College of Art was the culture of working for yourself – rather than for a consultancy – and the confidence to try. There is a culture of diversity within design there and it left us with a real appreciation of and respect for many different kinds of design. We consider ourselves fortunate to be working outside the restrictions of any particular movement or group.
Q. When – and why – did you start to work together?
A. We met in the summer holidays between our first and second years at the RCA. We became friends and began working together one project at a time for fun rather than with any agenda.
Q. How do you work together?
A. Our methods of working are quite different, and this is what we have mostly learned from each other. We have no set formula for working together, we discuss, and then we act, making prototypes from the very beginning. The ideas are paramount. Materials and technologies are routes to realising those ideas rather than ends in themselves. There is no set division of roles, we just both work until the project is done.
Q. How did you develop the Flood light, Sprinkle carpet and Blow fan?
A. Flood, Sprinkle and Blow all came about as a set of works which look at the subject of childhood as a perspective on design. The products are adult ones seen through an anarchic and irreverent filter. We re-imagine without their associated dogmas.
Q. What are your objectives for your work as designers?
A. Our role in society is to add something to inspire, to connect with or relate to. Our work seeks to reach people at an experiential level, that is to say we put something of ourselves into it which resonates with those who come across it. The work should be able to exist without explanation so that people can interpret the experience of seeing or using it on their own terms.
Q. How important is function to your work?
A. Function makes our work accessible to, and understandable by, a wide public, and circumvents the barriers that can sometimes exist around art pieces, so that they feel able and free to interpret and to relate to it.
Q. You are part of a new generation of product designers for whom the narrative aspects of their work appears to be increasingly important. How important is it to you?
A. Narrative is critical. The work is initially based around our specific narratives but seeks to be open enough that those it meets are able to project their own narrative onto it. For example, the Lunuganga shelves made in the form of branches have a very specific story for us relating to their origin in the Sri Lankan jungle. There is no reason why anyone encountering this piece should know this, but everyone can relate to the experience of being in woods, and will therefore be able to write this experience onto the piece.
Q. What – or who – inspires you?
A. We take inspiration from all kinds of objects from a spanner to... There are some pieces we admire without knowing much about their makers, and there are also qualities we admire in people and their approach to their work more than the pieces themselves. We have great respect for our peers, and draw all kinds of inspiration and strength from them. The people who most influence our work are those with whom we can discuss it.
Q. What are your objectives for the future?
A. Our main objective is to continue making our own work independently. This is very difficult for designers to achieve from the beginning and as long as we’re making progress with that we will be happy.
Visit Michael Cross and Julie Mathias' website at wokmedia.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain