The simple yet intimate act of using bare hands, to intrinsically engage with what one creates, appears to be a vanishing art in a largely technology-driven, machine-led landscape. Instruments and other technological interventions now predominate not just the final processes of manufacturing but also the stages of brainstorming, creative evolution, and prototyping. Geometries become commands and colours become mere numbers, as the preliminary trials and errors for any design become less and less human. However, some designers nurture their passion for working with their hands, through hands-on experimentation, interaction with materials, or quite literally, splashing vivid paint on their creations. One such design duo who found common ground in their love for ‘thinkering’ and manipulating materials is Jef De Brabander and Kathleen Opdenacker.
Brabander and Opdenacker founded their design practice named Nortstudio in the North of Antwerp, back in 2016. Through the years, the studio has produced an oeuvre comprising furniture designs, accessories, and lighting designs that blur the lines between 2D and 3D through their graphic volumes. "After working on our individual projects, we decided to team up and start working as a couple together. We immediately experienced the advantages of working as a couple. Complete trust, understanding each other and never blaming one another, made it right from the start," the Belgian designers relay.
Their recent collection of vibrant lamps conforms to this ethos and language, embodying the meticulous craftsmanship and material exploration that the designers prioritise. Fold is a series of lamp designs created by simply cutting and folding a thin metal sheet. Each lamp is an assembly of two parts of distinct colours, allowing the light source to reflect different coloured light when placed in various positions. The interplay between graphic elements and colours creates leeway for achieving different atmospheres with the same design. “Inspiration can come from various sources. We consider ourselves sponges that absorb our surroundings. Geometric and simple forms, along with saturated and intense colours, are a constant in all of our designs,” says Opdenacker.
Trained as a graphic designer, Opdenacker is loyal to the expressive use of colour and geometry. On the other hand, Brabander studied industrial engineering and worked in the construction industry before using his fabrication and problem-solving skills on a smaller scale. Their works take cues from the structural details of architecture, the bold shapes and palettes of Italian design, and the colour combinations from paintings and fashion magazines. These distinct shapes and colours are filtered through their intuitive process of experimentation. Opdenacker explains, “From a young age, I have always had a fondness for vibrant colours. This use of colour is also reflected in our clothing and the decor of our home. Over the years, a real coherence is emerging in our collections. It is a great compliment to us when someone says, ‘That is a typical Nortstudio design!'."
Drawing inspiration from diverse places and experiences such as a captivating building, a painting at an exhibition, a colour palette from a magazine and so on, the product designers draw initial ideas in a sketchbook. These two-dimensional form studies then evolve into three-dimensional sketches. Scale models and cardboard prototypes are crafted as physical manifestations of the elementary concepts. It is only at the final stage, that colour comes into play—an important moment when the creative duo ensures that the colours enhance the forms. “Sometimes it works immediately, but sometimes finding the right colour takes considerably more time. We let the prototypes circulate in our own home for a while so that we can look at them regularly and make improvements,” Opdenacker relays. Finally, the lamp is conceived employing the selected material, which in this case, is steel.
During the design process, the Belgian design agency was guided by several possibilities and technicalities, such as laser cutting and folding steel. Due to their propensity with using multiple colours in a product design, the duo devised the table lamp in two parts, allowing each part to be powder-coated separately and later, assembled. “As lighting designers, we also depend on existing lighting sources,” notes Opdenacker. For large and medium-sized lighting, Nortstudio designed a fixture that keeps the lamp visible. The dimensions of the LED tube lamp also influence the dimensions of the fixture. Relatedly, for the small lighting, they opted for a simple white socket. The assembly of the lighting source takes place on one half of the lamp and since the other half is slid over it, there are no visible screws—culminating in a clean silhouette. “The rounded shapes in the lamp serve both, an aesthetic and functional purpose. They allow the lighting cable to come out from the back or the side of the lamp,” the designer points out. The longer element and precise lines in the larger lamps are beautifully illuminated when the lamp is switched on. The hues of the lamps, although striking on their own, form a harmonious whole when the three are together.
The sleek designs by Nortstudio may appear simple, but in technicality, they present a significant challenge. The exploration of production techniques, and the surprises and transformations that entail, form the crux of the Belgium-based practice. Their prevailing and practised curiosity about materials becomes a driving force in all their creations. “They are an essential part of the process: it is the notion of transformation during the process that gives direction and is in part what makes the outcome so exciting,” they share. The vivid body of work, with its latest addition Fold, reiterates an unabashed knack for experimentation and pushing boundaries that the studio seeks through the possibilities of materials and techniques. Amalgamating colours, materials, and techniques into one-of-a-kind designs, Nortstudio injects the unusual into the mundane in surprising ways.