In the Zurich studio of the design duo Kueng Caputo, past the dust and rubble and chip-size samples of ceramic glaze, the site of today’s action is the kitchen. There’s a pot of vegetable soup with rosemary, carrots, and bacon simmering on a banged-up stove, and a massive bowl of spaghetti Bolognese sits on a table, covered by a ceramic dessert plate. “Everyone we work with is like, ‘No more vegetables! Where’s the meat?!’ ” says Lovis Caputo, offering me an elbow instead of her smudged hand to shake. Sarah Kueng, Caputo’s design partner of 13 years, is just around the corner getting her makeup done for the W shoot that’s about to take place. You get the feeling that this is not a daily occurrence when she bounds in, fresh-faced but with a rough workday ponytail, looking for something with which to remove the pigment under her fingernails. The old brush by the stainless steel trough sink isn’t strong enough, so she reaches for a fork instead. “These are working hands,” she says, laughing.
Her hands, and Caputo’s, have been in high demand since before the duo graduated from the prestigious Zurich University of the Arts in 2008, after turning heads the previous year at the Salone Satellite in Milan with Five Stars Cardboard, an installation of architecturally complex temporary shelters. This December, their firm, Kueng Caputo, is taking over Fendi’s space at Design Miami. It’s a high-visibility association, given the fashion house’s roots in technical innovation and its presence at the fair’s iterations in Miami and Basel, as well as at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, over the past 11 years. (Previously, Fendi has commissioned limited-edition works by the likes of Cristina Celestino, Maria Pergay, and Dimore Studio.)
“We never planned to work together, it just happened,” says Caputo, who introduced herself to Kueng by knocking on her door when they were in their mid-20s. “She was living with a friend of mine, and was the only other woman I knew of who was interested in industrial design, so I asked her to go have a coffee.” Kueng overhears and adds, “My first interest was in computer programming, but when I built a bed for myself, I realized I needed to do something with my hands. I thought, Oh God, this is it!”
The two went off together on a European road trip looking for design schools, but ended up back in Zurich. They both loved the architect Lina Bo Bardi, the designer Eileen Gray, the design collective Memphis, and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi—and shared a deep appreciation for craftsmanship. (Just out of secondary school, Caputo was the only woman in Switzerland to go for a welding certificate.) Since they started collaborating at university, Caputo and Kueng have designed every piece together, from sketch to model to execution. “We’re like an old married couple now,” Caputo says. “We finish each other’s sentences.”
Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn started exhibiting Kueng Caputo’s work at her gallery, Salon 94, in 2009, and gave them a solo show five years later. Even then, their creative vocabulary was well established: Assertive hues are a constant, as are elemental geometric forms and an insistence on the intervention of the human hand. Their Sand Chairs, chiseled slabs of colored sand and mortar, look like psychedelic mini Stonehenges. Kueng Caputo’s furniture also comes in various marbles; their tableware is made of nubby Japanese porcelain and painted leather. Their repertoire is broad—they did the interiors of the trendy Silosilo café, in Zurich, and, for a private commission, lined an architect’s entire farmhouse in the Jura valley like a cocoon, using leather, felt, and wood. The fact that Kueng and Caputo feel the need to hand-paint and -cut pretty much every element in their work is both an asset and a drawback. “We can’t really scale up,” Caputo says.
“I’ve known Lovis and Sarah for 10 years,” says Rodman Primack, the executive director of Design Miami, who founded the New York design firm RP Miller and has worked with Salon 94. “They are very unassuming, and instead of pushing themselves forward in a superstar way, they wait for their work to tell their story. They do what I love for designers to do, which is explore materiality and create new processes.” Primack was instrumental in bringing Kueng Caputo to the attention of Silvia Venturini Fendi. “Their primary focus is how new techniques can be applied to craft, which is exactly our approach at Fendi with leather and fur,” she says.
Roman Molds, the title of Kueng Caputo’s collection for Design Miami, is inspired by the unadorned travertine arcades of Fendi’s Roman headquarters. (Designed by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula, and Mario Romano, the building was originally commissioned by Mussolini for the 1942 world’s fair—which was canceled due to World War II—and is one of the most striking standing examples of rationalist architecture.) Kueng and Caputo stacked glazed bricks in a variety of colors into shapes that mirror the iconic arches that surround the exterior of every floor. A parabola of brown bricks act as the base of a yellow leather table; deep Mediterranean green ones form a curved conversation settee; and a dusty pale blue stack of them becomes a leather-topped palm tree held together by a freestanding steel rod.
“A brick is such a normal thing you see everywhere,” Kueng says. “Every culture has its own. They all use earth and fire, but otherwise they’re all different. Usually, if you look on a map, you’ll start to notice that you have a brick factory every hundred kilometers. Because they’re so heavy and transportation is the most expensive part, the world is full of brick factories, networked all over the planet, all with their own clay and chemical compositions. We had a crash course in chemistry, seeing how different samples reacted to the glaze. This was like the most attention given to bricks ever. They’ve been more or less massaged every day for weeks.”
Another mundane construction element you see nearly everywhere is corrugated tin, so the duo molded leather panels into waveforms that they then fastened to canvas Fendi Peekaboo bags, completely overlaying them. The initial inspiration may have been Roman, but the result is very Miami—a city neither Kueng nor Caputo had visited before the commission.
Caputo and Kueng show me their outdoor lab in the studio’s backyard, where there is also a small potager garden of tomatoes, chard, and aromatic herbs. Bricks of varying hues are piled here and there, leftovers from samples that the designers ordered from around the world—though in the end they went local. What they’ve done for this project comes much closer to fine art than anything most of us understand as industrial design: The pieces will never be sold, nor will they be put into production. But the line between design and art, or how people categorize their work, doesn’t really concern Kueng or Caputo. “It’s a question we always get asked, and I’m not even sure if it’s interesting,” Caputo says. “Industrial design interests us because it’s not just for one person—it’s for the masses. But then, in the end, we realized that most mass production is not really the best quality. And we really like quality.”