Studio Swine looked to the abandoned town of Fordlandia, built in the depths of the Amazon by car magnate Henry Ford, to inspire a furniture collection that combines the town’s back story with a Brazilian mid-century aesthetic

The Amazon is known for its biodiversity, but one abandoned landmark in the region stands out, offering an intriguing look into the era of industrialisation and one man’s vision of the perfect lifestyle. American industrialist and carmaker Henry Ford founded Fordlandia in 1928 to secure a supply of rubber for Ford’s production line and to make his own version of Pleasantville a reality.

The project failed, but the intrigue surrounding it persists and has inspired a ground-breaking new furniture project by Studio Swine, which will be displayed in a solo show at Pearl Lam Gallery as part of Art Basel in Hong Kong next March. 

Studio Swine is a joint venture between partners in work and life—Alexander Groves from the UK and Azusa Murakami from Japan—and aims to “straddle the spheres of sculpture, installations and cinema.” Today Groves and Murakami live in New York but in 2013 they were working out of São Paulo and determined to create a body of work that reflected their admiration for mid-century Brazilian furniture. 

“We love the Brazilian tropicalism movement,” says Groves, on the phone from Brooklyn. “And we knew we wanted to create a collection infused with tropical modernist influences, but back when they were making their most famous pieces, they were using these amazing Brazilian hardwoods. Of course, it wouldn’t be right to use those woods now, as they’re highly endangered, so we needed to find something else.”

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At a São Paulo drinks party in 2013, they heard about an abandoned Amazon town that had once been the setting for a utopian American community and decided they had to visit it. A few weeks later, deep in the Brazilian rainforest on the banks of the Tapajós River, they discovered Fordlandia, a place preserved in time.

A Utopia That Never Was 

Ford built the community as a rubber-sourcing hub. But when the project failed in 1934, the town was abandoned and its vast factories and Cape Cod-style houses were overrun with wildlife as the rainforest reclaimed the land. However, a small number of people continued to live there; population numbers have varied over the decades but today some 3,000 residents call it home.

Six years ago the couple walked through the shuttered shops, which were then home to flocks of wild parakeets and the occasional sloth, and knew they wanted to create a project inspired by this extraordinary place. Together they researched the history of the town and quickly discovered that Ford had created roads, schools, a hospital and houses for his “ideal” city, along with a set of strict rules—no alcohol being one of them—to govern the behaviour of the town’s inhabitants.

They also looked into the history of rubber and discovered that it is indigenous to South America. The material originates from the Amazon, and the booming rubber industry in Southeast Asia has been created entirely from imported South American seeds. But there’s a catch. Because rubber is an alien species in Asia, vast monoculture forests can be planted without fear of disease or infestation. But in its birthplace in the Amazon, any attempt to create a rubber-tree forest has led to disease and infestation, as caterpillars and insects quickly attack the trees.

“It’s really fascinating to research,” says Groves. “It makes you realise how extraordinary nature is. Out in the rainforest, rubber trees rarely fall prey to such problems, as they’re protected by the entire ecosystem, but as soon as you create a monoculture, nature’s protective barriers stop working—which means that for rubber as an industry to survive in Brazil, the trees need to be integrated into a working forest.”

When Life Gives You Ebonite

Groves and Murakami created a furniture collection inspired by an alternative ending to the Fordlandia story, which failed precisely because of the challenges of cultivating rubber in Brazil. “We decided to make a series of pieces made in ebonite, which is the product of vulcanised rubber with sulphur and linseed oil,” says Groves. “It’s a really beautiful material, and in its own way it replicates the dark tropical wood that is so hard to find. It’s a really niche product, used for saxophones and clarinets but not much else. I love how tactile it is and how it is so warm to touch.”

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The entire collection, made of rich ebonite and inspired by mid-century Brazilian tropicalism, feels unique: sleek dining chairs feature rattan seats, bent legs and curved backs, while the rounded lines are repeated in floor lamps, which have large, undulating supports, and in armchairs with zigzagging arms.

Giving Back To The Amazon 

As part of a drive to preserve the Amazon and prevent deforestation, with huge swathes of the rainforest being cleared to make room for farms or destroyed by wildfires, Studio Swine has also partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature to help local people set up businesses collecting residue from wild rubber trees and selling it to companies around the world.

“Rubber is in many ways the unsung hero of industrialisation,” says Groves. “It is just as important as oil and iron but because it isn’t as sexy, we forget about it. But it is an extraordinary product and it is no surprise that it has been worshipped by human civilisations for centuries.”

Originally commissioned by and exhibited at London’s Fashion Space Gallery, all the pieces will be available to buy in Hong Kong through Pace Gallery and Pearl Lam Galleries from next March. The duo also created a book about the project with contributions from model and actress Lily Cole and Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Through creating the collection and the book, Groves and Murakami aimed not only to produce items of intrinsic beauty, but also to highlight the vital importance of the rubber industry in Brazil and thereby preserve more of the natural forest. “We were inspired by Henry Ford, who in his own way cared deeply about the environment,” says Groves. “Fordlandia is a tale of human hubris, yes, but as we went deeper into his archives, we realised Ford was a pacifist and a vegan who believed nature and industry had to find a way to co-exist.”

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