Jessie Wong and architect Jessica Barter of architecture and interior design studio, Bureaux
At the end of April, we hosted the first live event of our Lounge Series. How we want to live was a design discussion between architect Jessica Barter of award-winning architecture and interior design studio, Bureaux, and Yu Mei founder and creative director, Jessie Wong.
Gallerist Sarah Hopkinson was on hand at our Newmarket Lounge to ask the questions and facilitate. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
Sarah: What do you find the most challenging part of your design process?
Jessica: I find the most challenging part of our design work is avoiding trends. These days, every client comes to us with a Pinterest board. They've bombarded themselves with all these different ideas: "I want this vanity, this light above the dining table. I love this kind of marble that's everywhere at the moment." It's our job to try and find some quiet and some stillness in the design process. We try and work back from the latest design trend that they've seen, to a place where they're asking themselves: how do we want to live?
Jessie: My challenge is refining down. When I was studying, all of my collections would contain every single idea I could possibly cram into a piece of the work. I remember one of the comments from my lecturer, Simon Swale, was to turn off the tap of ideas. He made me realise you don't have to squeeze the meaning of life in every single collection.
From there on in I’ve set myself strict parameters. Everything has to be looked at through a precise lens. The one thing that I always come back to is that simplicity is complexity resolved. Everything should align and make sense in the language and the voice of Yu Mei.
Sarah: One of the defining characteristics of contemporary art is that it is often untethered from use value. There is an argument that its 'use' is to provoke thought—but ultimately—it doesn't need to be practical...
So I wanted to ask about form and function, and how you navigate the intersection in both of your practices.
Jessica: Function is hugely important to us. In our studio, we have no tolerance for something that isn't comfortable or doesn't work. Whether that’s a table that you can’t sit up properly at, or a space that's neglected because it's awkward—there are a million examples.
Our job is to design for spaces and scenarios that run alongside habit and behaviour. You're walking in here... then you need to get something out of this cupboard. You need to apply function to everything. It should be seamless.
Jessie: When we're designing it's a similar thing. Each Yu Mei bag is named after the personality of someone who had a need that wasn't being met. A good example would be our Claudia Tote. When you pick up that bag, the handle's drop is long enough to pick it up without your elbow getting caught—you can put it on with one hand. And that’s important; you don’t want to be battling with your bag strap and opening the car door at the same time.
But it’s important for me as a designer to understand that people’s needs change with life-stages. Often when customers come into a Yu Mei lounge it’s a symbolic moment for them. They’re buying a bag because they’ve started studying, or because they’ve been promoted, or because they’re becoming a mum. So what is functional—and what isn’t—changes over the course of a life.
Sarah: The world has this enormous warehouse of design history. We have more access to design—more access to images of design, and those images are in higher circulation—than any other time in history. Where do you draw inspiration from?
Jessica: I think when you run a business, so much of your work time is spent on the running of the business. So those moments for being inspired, become slightly fewer and far between.
Travel is an obvious answer, I really noticed the absence of that during the pandemic. I like to look back in time, and across different cultures. But I also tend to take a lot of inspiration from people's lives that I know...especially those who are amazing hosts. Food, cooking and sharing that with people I love is a really important part of my life. The whole concept of hospitality and generosity is something I think about a lot when designing.
Bathing is another big one, perhaps it provides the opposite to the reaching out of hospitality, and nurtures, is more inward-focused. There is a shift in your sensory experience of a space when your body is in water that I find really inspirational. Some of my most potent architectural experiences have been in bath houses, pools and saunas.
Those are some of the moments that I get really excited by and look to recreate the feeling, rather than the look
Jessie: I remember after the lockdown, I was so sad, because I just didn’t feel inspired at all. But going back to the [Aotearoa] Art Fair, I felt like life just improved. We've always looked at galleries and we've traveled and tried to have an artist model.
At school we always had to do an artist model and do a deep dive into the ideology behind their work. I've just continued to bring that practice to each collection. So generally, there's always been an artist that has helped inspire a palette, or it's been a response to an idea in the work.
Ultimately though it comes back to the ‘use-case’, and the person that will be using the bag, and those people are just the real, everyday people around me.
Sarah: I wondered if you could talk a bit about your approaches to materials.
Jessie: Deer Nappa was such a good choice for a handbag because it's the perfect hybrid. It has the softness of the lambskin but the strength of the cowhide, and it's light. It was just perfect for those larger laptop toting styles. I'm also really interested in the material because of the way that deer are farmed. It's very different to lots of other different types of farming practices and deer farmers really have to have a big passion for what they’re doing. They're very majestic animals.
The skins we use would otherwise be landfilled as byproducts of the venison industry. But I'm also interested in what the next step is for that material; how we can change the tanning process or innovate. That's hard, because tanning is a very insular industry. You can't just Google what to do. You have to just go to all sorts of random places in Italy, in Japan, China and Hong Kong and knock on the door and hope that they're open to new approaches. But there are people there who are interested in shifting the dial environmentally.
Jessica: [At Bureaux] we've got this new space, which is solely a materials library. And it makes me so happy to be in there. It’s got French doors out to a green courtyard, and it's just filled with beautiful organised different samples. We've got stone samples, timber samples, leathers, plastics, everything you can think of.
And aside from what I've talked about—around how we first determine how people might live in a space—the other thing that happens from the beginning of our design process is that we pull together a physical palette.
So we're thinking about what a cladding might be…what the roof looks like; at the same time as what the kitchen bench might be, and what the curtains might be made of, and that this particular leather needs to be worked in. All to create the overall palette of a project.
Questions around materiality and how a client wants to live have to be resolved in tandem. Our early stages always is working to stitch both together.
Sarah: Jess, a mutual designer friend of ours, Jamie McLellan, said something in a talk that stuck with me. He said that: if design is problem solving, and we can't 'solve for carbon', we won't have the luxury to solve all of the other issues that we have.
I wondered if you could both talk a little more about regenerative materials and sustainability?
Jessica: Keeping up with the sustainability conversation is more urgent than ever. It’s not straightforward; the industry is unsustainable—we shouldn't be building more buildings.
We're in that luxury space, with a lot of the work we do, and I think that's really interesting. There's more freedom to problem-solve. At a studio level we've developed a sustainability action plan. And a lot of it involves keeping up with best practice;. the way that we deal with waste and implementing basic design principles. Designing with less concrete, and steel, and all these sorts of things.
But I'm just as interested in trying to find a way of helping people just, live a bit differently. At home, we just swapped our gas oven out for induction, and it's better. There's all these little tweaks that we have the power as designers and specifiers to just gently shift people. A lot of our clients are not actually super interested in making a sustainable decision, they just want the best. So it's about finding a way to give them the best and be better. I find that exciting.
Jessie: It's something that we've explored a lot. We can't hide from the fact that we're in the business of creating products. We create something new, from materials that would otherwise be wasted—that part is fine—but what are we going to do, continue to make bags, and bags, and bags for the rest of time? What happens to a leather bag in 300 years?
What I’ve found, is that it's easy to talk about the materials and processes that go into how a thing is made, because that's our business. I know what goes into a Yu Mei bag. But what's hard, is to think about what kind of footprint a product like this leaves behind when we're not here anymore.
So for Yu Mei, it all comes back to this idea of stewardship. As a business, we have to innovate in a way that means an entire bag can be returned to the land at end of life. It’s complex, and we don't have the entire answer yet. But we are exploring research opportunities with partners here in New Zealand. It's not something that can be solved alone, or overnight, but it's a long-term ambition of ours.
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