Homes are increasingly littered with “smart” objects claiming to better our being, such as mirrors that can pinpoint potential problem areas on our skin and wifi-connected washers that order detergent to our doors when supply is running low. But for Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner, the London-based pair behind Soft Baroque, smarter doesn’t always mean better. From mirrors that obscure your reflection with plumes of pleasantly scented mist to shelving units that can be downloaded to your computer desktop or installed in an office IRL, Soft Baroque’s unique designs are both comical and critical, at once underscoring our materialist consumer desires and our increasingly virtual experiences.
“We have a slightly cheesy way of putting it, which is that we make art about design,” says Gardner, who has a background in furniture and object making. He explains that design is meant to solve a specific problem, while art is meant to offer a broader cultural comment, “and our work kind of goes back and forth between those two things.”
The result is a rapidly expanding oeuvre of unique designed objects that incorporate both pleasure and utility, but not always to the same end. Consider their Fireworks Chair from 2015: Simple and stark in its plywood design, it is lit on fire and explodes into a dazzling shower of sparks once the user no longer wants it. “We wanted people to think about what they needed out of an object and when, and what makes them like it and why,” Štucin says, explaining that it might not be the most ergonomic chair on the market, but it offers a lot of value in terms of entertainment.
The pair met while studying at London’s Royal College of Art, although it wasn’t until they were included in a group show together towards the end of their program that they realized they had similar design interests. “We both played a lot with illusion and reality,” says Štucin, who moved away from photography and graphic design after finding herself “frustrated by the flatness of images.”
Together, they founded Soft Baroque in 2013. The name is a nod to how this extreme taste can be molded and manipulated. “It’s a style about materiality and it borders on grotesqueness, which is how our commercial world functions,” Gardner explains, adding that they also liked the connotation of “soft” in our current digital era, given that software is an omnipresent part of daily life as it is shaped by its users, “which is how art and design work now—there’s no one way to do something.”
“Their works translate conceptual visions into the realm of functionality and daily-life objects,” says Maria Foerlev, director of Copenhagen’s Etage Projects, who helped the duo launch one of their most acclaimed projects to date, “Soft/Hard Surface Service” for Design Miami/Basel in 2016. Comprised of luxury textures like wood grains and marble digitally printed onto soft silks to form seemingly hard shelves and benches, the series effectively showcased “how aesthetics affect us, and how ideas can translate into aesthetics.”
After a few years of non-stop shows at venues as varied as New York’s Swiss Institute and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Štucin and Gardner spent the summer slowing down at a residency at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy, an hour outside of Milan. “We’ve been bowled over by the 13th-century ruins here. You can see centuries of restorations, it’s a patchwork of new and old,” says Gardner. “I mean, you can see in our name, we’re sympathetic to such ornamentalism.” Štucin explains, adding that Soft Baroque’s end goal is to make works that are about more than just excess. “Objects need to be animated, kind of like they’re half alive,” she says. “We think of them like pets—they have a life of their own, one that isn’t just about fulfilling a function.”