After spending ten years designing jewellery for Cartier and running her own accessories brand, Lara Bohinc began designing functional pieces for living spaces, launching her own studio, Bohinc Studio, in 2016. Defined by a cosmic roundness that draws inspiration from the planets and their circuits, as well as the unruly, voluptuous forms found in the natural world, Bohinc’s designs look to the capacity of form to express lightness and solidity, grace and assertiveness. As someone who self-describes as “obsessed with shape”, Bohinc creates furniture and domestic objects that exist as personalities in space while retaining a sense of functionality. Recently, she has been commissioned to design a public installation for the Miami Design District. Utopia spans four installations made up of irregular, softly bulbous forms that look as though they have mushroomed from the ground to form tables, benches and light sculptures – as well as 900 egg-shaped birdboxes dispersed through the trees – inviting people to sit, play and gather. Suggestive of little humanoid figures which face one another, Utopia imagines an urban environment where nature exists in harmony with people, while providing the impetus for passers-by (human or avian) to do just that.
Interview by Nell Whittaker
Portrait by Kate Martin
NELL WHITTAKER I love this new, very friendly collection. How did it come about?
LARA BOHINC It was a very wide brief – to create arresting vignettes around the Miami Design District. The concept behind Utopia was partly inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome in the area, which to me doesn’t look like a fly’s eye, but more like cells or a growing organism. From that idea, I imagined how it would be if the cells started to multiply, overtaking the design district. I was also exploring the idea of the egg as the beginning of life, and in general, looking at the kinds of shapes that look like they’re mushrooming and building. When we were developing the individual pieces, the conversation also turned to rituals of gathering, and that’s why it became all about sitting, especially at night, when everyone gathers around well-lit spaces. In the old days, that would have been around fire.
NW Does designing in this civic way, where you’re thinking about people’s needs, feel like a departure from your previous work – or does it very much fit in with your vision of what design is for?
LB Design has to be functional, but it also needs to be emotional, something that you react to like a child with enthusiasm – something you want to do, something you want to see, something you want to sit on. It needs to work at this very instinctive level. What was different with this commission was the scale and the fact that it was outdoors. It’s not limited by the size of a house, so height is not so restrictive. The benches, for example, are five metres long, which would barely fit in position in even the biggest house.
NW What emotional landscape do these pieces operate on? I like the phrase in the objects’ description, that the figures supporting the tables “face each another with a friendly disposition”. Where did those personalities come from?
LB When I started designing, it was all play. They are like cartoon characters, in their personalities, and in the beginning, they all had cartoonish names – the big sculpture was called Dancer because it looks a bit like a dancer. In the end, it’s called Spirit, because it embodies the spirit of this collection. This idea of objects being friendly started during the pandemic, when we were very alone. I wanted the objects to become like friends – you don’t want to go crazy and start talking to your furniture, but it can be something that’s good to hang out with, something that feels encompassing and friendly, something that’s lovable, something that you want to touch.
NW Tell me about Spirit, the dancer that brings light.
LB It also looks a bit like a waiter who’s trying to please you. It’s got all of these connotations – serving you, dancing with you, pleasing you, bringing light. That’s why it’s called Spirit. We have also positioned it right in front of Buckminster Fuller’s Dome, the centre of which looks a bit like an alien exiting from a spaceship, so it also looks like an alien, the first one to step onto Earth. It’s the guide.
NW What was it like working with cork? In the past, you have used traditionally noble materials like marble to create these light-touch geometric shapes. They look very light, but they are in reality very heavy. In this case, perhaps the objects look very heavy and are in fact very light.
LB I have wanted to use cork for a very long time because it feels so nice to touch. It’s silky, it’s very warm. It’s naturally waterproof, so it’s highly appropriate for the task, and it’s one of the most sustainable materials on the planet – the trees are never cut down for their cork, we simply collect it and then compress it. That’s how you get these blocks, which were shaped using 5D robotic milling machines. Inside the form is steel construction, because this is a public sculpture so it needs to be safe. It’s all screwed to the ground. But I didn’t want the cork to look like traditional cork, a brown or beige we might associate with the 1970s. I wanted something a bit more pop, in the bright pastels I associate with Miami. Now, about the weight – I also thought that cork would be very light. But these pieces are so heavy! The object, even without the steel inside, weighs something like 250 kilos. You need four men to bring one part of the sofa together. At the beginning, we thought, this is going to be really light and we’ll need lots of steel to weigh it down, and we were completely wrong. You can choose different densities, but this project had to use very dense cork because it’s outside, withstanding quite extreme weather – from very bright sunshine to tornadoes and torrential rain.
NW Was uniting the steel skeleton and the cork body a technical challenge?
LB If you look at, for example, Spirit, nothing is symmetrical – everything is slightly offset. The steel is straight, so everything has to be constructed at angles – the whole has to be sliced through. The bench comes together from something like ten components. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle, but it does give sturdiness to the construction. For me and for the workshop, this was the first time we’ve done anything of this size, so we wanted to be extra sure that the pieces can take the weight. Children might also like climbing over them, so you don’t want these things to fall over.
NW With the egg piece, there’s another egg that is visible in a hollow at its base – available to, as you say, “the curious or the small”. Was it important to think, through the design process, how children will interact with the pieces?
LB With design, I always say, “If children like it, it will be successful.” We all have an inner child. When we say, “Wow!”, you don’t think about it, you just react like a child. Lots of people come to the Miami Design District with their families. It’s nice to have something there that’s not just a playground, something where people can sit, but that children also find entertaining. The egg, though, is for everyone. The bird houses have a hole for the birds, and I wanted humans to have a hole too. That egg is basically my height, around 1.7 metres, so all the humans can go back into the egg.
NW What it’s like to be working across scales? Your background is in jewellery and more domestic-sized objects, which serve a different purpose in a room.
LB The bigger the object, the more impressive it feels, because that’s our nature. I wanted to use this opportunity to make something really, really big because it’s very rare you get the chance. But whether you’re designing something very small or something very large, it poses the same challenges.
NW You’ve said elsewhere that the same design principles apply in any discipline you’re working in. What are those principles?
LB The shape has to provoke some sort of emotional response, whatever that is positive or negative. Then, it needs to be unique – something that hasn’t been around before, that contributes to the visual landscape of the world we live in. Then, the material approach is important, and the impact on the environment.
NW The sphere, or the circle, is an important shape to you. Much of your work employs round shapes, particularly the planets, which are round shapes in elliptical orbits. What is appealing or interesting to you about circularity?
LB The circle is the most perfect shape because it has no beginning and no end. It is geometric, yet it feels organic because it has no edges. It’s there in the beginning of life. Cells are round, the egg is round-ish. Everything to do with life starts with the circle.
NW The installation’s title is Utopia, and it’s an optimistic design proposition. The city and nature are often described as being in conflict, that urbanity is a kind of war zone for nature. How optimistic can we be about our ability to coexist in harmony?
LB It’s a really tough question. We live in really dark times, with everything that’s going on in the world. I wanted to create something that was dreamy and positive, even if it was naive. In the design district, they have brought in a huge variety of different trees, and they grow orchids on them. There are a lot of birds. That little part of town is very pedestrian, and very green. I live quite centrally in London and even here, we have foxes, birds and squirrels coming to our garden. If we bring more green spaces to cities, it’s very possible that we could better coexist with nature. ◉