Visual Culture

6 Couples Who Are Shaping Contemporary Design

Kat Herriman
Jul 27, 2015 10:21PM

The history of modern and contemporary design cannot be told without couples. It begins at the turn of the 20th century with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald—two founding members of The Four, the iconic Glasgow School collective that pioneered Art Nouveau’s distinctively industrial armature. The narrative continues through the mid-1900s with the rise of famous duos like Charles and Ray Eames, Aline and Eero Saarinen, and Florence and Hans Knoll, who are remembered for their landmark contributions to architecture and design. Each arrangement working slightly different than the next, these partnerships are at the heart of design’s most seminal trends, methods, and aesthetics. Take for example the successful partnership of designer Anne Ferrieri and Giulio Castelli, which resulted in the birth of Kartell, or the pervasive influence of Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne on contemporary sculpture. Beyond furniture, architects like Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn also brought collaboration to monumental proportions, as in their Trenton Bath House, while cross-discipline couples like Quasar and Emmanuelle Khanh seamlessly united fashion and design with a pair of wide-eyed sunglasses.  

Impenetrable as an outsider, the dynamics of these working relationships remain tantalizingly mysterious. Pieces like Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s floral Queen Anne Side Chair and Eames’ EWC chair become the enchanting symbols for the greater collaborative mythology—a love story told with objects. Who can resist the allure of the functional romance?

With the preponderance of historic examples, it seems only natural that a new class has taken up the reins. Aligning themselves with a powerful legacy, these new international design duos are creating a visual lexicon all their own. Here, six contemporary design couples discuss their partnerships in their own words.

Dokter and Misses

Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin

Live and work in Johannesburg, South Africa

Dokter and Misses. Photo by Brett Rubin. Courtesy Dokter and Misses and R & Company.

Like two halves of a whole, graphic designer Katy Taplin and industrial designer Adriaan Hugo complete each other. Their work, a mixture of lighting and furniture, leverages Taplin’s colorful sensibilities with Hugo’s technical skills to great effect. Their award-winning “Kassena” series, a line of hand-painted cabinets, perfectly illustrates the outcome of this striking synthesis.

Artsy: What are the benefits of collaborating versus working independently? What are the frustrations?

Dokter and Misses: Working collaboratively allows us to use our individual strengths to reach our ultimate goal. We are able to support one another and can achieve more together than individually. We share the highs and the lows. Sure there are frustrations, but having a partner in crime far outweighs the odd rough patch we might have to go through.

Artsy: Who does what?

D&M: We design together with either of us taking the lead depending on the project. We have very different, well-defined business roles. Adriaan resolves products technically, so that they are production-ready, and manages the production team, while Katy heads up sales, marketing, and general paper-pushing.

Artsy: Do you think design lends itself well to collaboration?

D&M: It does, as long as one is working with the right collaborators; they must have a shared vision and be able to accommodate each individuals’ needs in order to work. Design is not only about the design team it is a collaboration between ideas and production methods and so design works really well when collaboration works.

Artsy: What do you bring to your collaboration? What does your partner bring?

D&M: Katy works at night; she brings color, patterns, images and words. Adriaan works in the morning; he brings sparks, a relentless stream of ideas, and technical knowledge.

We continue to learn from one another. Katy learns about production processes and materials from Adriaan; how and why things can and can’t be done. She’s still pushing him to do the impossible. Adriaan has learned to appreciate the power of graphics and type and that it’s okay to add a little cheese to the mix; he’s still learning to embrace colour. We try not to take life too seriously and have learned to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, this makes our partnership stronger.

Material Lust

Lauren Larson and Christian Swafford

Live and work in New York, NY

Courtesy Material Lust


If design has a dark side, Lauren Larson and Christian Swafford are it. Best known for their sculptural furnishings, the New York-based couple balance their often brutalist forms with resplendent production techniques. Pieces like their Duat table lamp and Crawl chair exemplify their deliciously primal approach.

Material Lust, “Geometry is Gold” collection, 2015. Courtesy Material Lust

Artsy: When did you begin working together?

Lauren Larson: We knew of each other when we were studying at Parsons School of Design—Christian was studying Product Design and I was studying Interior Design. He invited me to his first gallery show a year after we graduated and we have been together every day since.

Christian Swafford: At first we felt it was important to cut our teeth in the design field under someone else for a couple years before we felt it was right to start Material Lust. This really strengthened our individual tastes and gave us some much-needed insight into the business side of things.

Artsy: Who does what?

LL: I am more conceptual and Christian is much more technical and gives it life.

CS: Without Lauren our work would not be beautiful; without Christian our work would not stand.

Artsy: Do you think design lends itself well to collaboration?

LL: As long as both parties have a similar vision for the future, a collaboration can be fruitful.  We collaborate out of necessity at this point.  We have become so dependent on each other’s talents that we have become a sort of design pandrogyne.

Artsy: Who is your favorite historical design couple?

LL: Les Lalanne. (They also met at Francois-Xavier’s first gallery show.) They coined their own style at the time—inventive and surreal—exploring materiality, techniques, and subjects. Her feminine sensitivity with his stylized forms created work with incredible depth. Our children’s collection was heavily inspired by them.

Muller Van Severen

Fien Muller and Hannes Van Severen
Live and work in Ghent, Belgium

Muller Van Severen. Photo by Frederik Vercruysse

The son of iconic Belgian designer Maarten Van Severen, Hannes Van Severen has modernism in his blood, but it wasn’t until he met artist Fien Muller that he realized his potential. Both classically trained as sculptors, the couple created their first furniture series as a one-off experiment for Valerie Traan gallery. Their debut collection featuring leather swing loungers outfitted with delicate street lamps catapulted the couple into the limelight—soon after Muller Van Severen was born. Simple and sophisticated, their work toys with visual convention while remaining perfectly functional.

Muller Van Severen, The Cutlery Project, Valerie Objects. Photo by Frederik Vercruysse. Courtesy Muller Van Severen

Artsy: How did you meet? When did you begin working together?

Fien Muller: We met in sculpture class, in art school at Sint-Lucas Ghent. I had already finished photography and wanted to do two more years of sculpture. Hannes was in the same class.

Artsy: What are the benefits of collaborating versus working independently? What are the frustrations?

FM: The benefits are that you don’t always have to work, but you always can work when you feel like it…. The downside is that you tend to work too much.

Artsy: Who does what?

FM: We don’t have fixed functions. We do everything together. Sometimes the first idea, design or sketch comes from Hannes’ mind or pen, and we build further on the idea together, sometimes it’s the other way around...

Artsy: Do you think design lends itself well to collaboration?

FM: I don’t think design is the easiest medium to be working on together, because all of the choices made are very personal. It does work very well for us, however. We trust each other and accept each other’s criticism because we really appreciate each other’s work, personality, background, and talents.


Sophie Mensen and Oskar Peet

Live and work in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Courtesy OS ∆ OOS

Driven by concept rather than function, Dutch-Canadian couple Sophie Mensen and Oskar Peet walk the precarious border between art and design. Works like their Key Stone chair, which is made from the rearranged components of a Roman bridge, showcases the way the duo apply material research to their autonomous designs. Expertly executed, their pieces bring a renewed sense of wonder to the commonplace.  

Left: Keystone chair, 2015; right: Primary Fluorescents lamp, 2015. Courtesy OS ∆ OOS

Artsy: How did you meet?

Oskar Peet: We met during our study at the Design Academy. Sophie was just back from an exchange program in Estonia and I saw her around at a party and I dared to talk to her… the rest is history.

Artsy: What are the benefits of collaborating? What are the frustrations?

O∆O: Luckily there are more benefits than frustrations. We can both easily understand the needs of a design studio. Nobody is waiting for you at home. It’s a special thing to be able to work together with someone you love. The things we can share together everyday and while traveling for our work is something we cherish. Frustrations include not being able to stop working when the weekend is also included in the workweek. Separating business from the relationship is also a task when business is tough.

Artsy: What does each partner bring to the collaboration?

O∆O: Oskar brings his technical knowledge he learned from his mechanical engineering days, and his ability to work with precision. He also supplies the drawings.

Sophie has a strong feeling for when something is right, she puts in the extra effort in the beginning to make sure the story is correct before even beginning, which only strengthens the end result.

Studio Swine

Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami

Live and work in London, UK

Studio Swine. Photo by Tom Cockram. Courtesy Studio Swine

Studio Swine is an acronym that stands for Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers—the incredible solution-focused practice of Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami. Research underscores every project from the international duo—including their newest series, “Gyrecraft,” which transforms sea plastic found in the North Atlantic Gyre into colorful tabletop objects using traditional maritime crafts. Created over an odyssey at sea, Gyrecraft demonstrates the hands-on approach Studio Swine employs to forge connections between the past and the future. 

North Pacific Gyre, 2015. Photo by Petr Krejčí. Courtesy Studio Swine

Artsy: What are the benefits of collaborating versus working independently? What are the frustrations?

Studio Swine: The benefits definitely outweigh any frustrations. The ability to work from morning to night and weekends, sharing our different skills, all really give us an unfair advantage. We both have different views on how a project should be and that can lead to tighter concepts. It’s great that essentially we are both driving towards the same aspirations and ambitions, it makes it easier to motivate each other during all-nighters.

Artsy: Who does what?

SS: We work on some things together and other things separately. Generally, Alex tends to work on the overall story, the storyboarding for the films, setting up funding, and finding materials and collaborators. Azusa tends to direct the design aesthetic, find references, and create presentations and the website. We both work on the actual fabrication together.

Artsy: Do you think design lends itself well to collaboration?

SS: Yes. It’s all about creating a team; in filmmaking everything is so specialist and you have to orchestrate a lot of different people; in making objects it can involve a lot of craftsmen or be just us two in the workshop making everything from scratch, where we’ll be quiet and cut off from the outside.

Vavara & Mar

Vavara Guljajeva and Mar Canet

Live and work in Tallinn, Estonia

Varvara & Mar. Photo by Paco Puentes. Courtesy Varvara & Mar

Vavara Guljajeva and Mar Canet linked up in 2009 over their shared affinity for the intersection of technology and art. As a result, the development of production methods is a key part of their joint practice. Their “Circular Knitic”—the fiber equivalent of the 3D printing machine—exemplifies how the couple employs their right-brained backgrounds in order to create pioneering fabrication techniques.  

Varvara & Mar, Speed of Markets, 2014. Courtesy Varvara & Mar

Artsy: What are the benefits of collaborating versus working independently? What are the frustrations?

Vavara & Mar: Every collaboration is a unique experience in our point of view. Collaborating with one person might be enjoyable and with another super complicated and stressful. Speaking about our collaboration and experience, the benefits are a collective mind, discovery of new disciplines and audiences, and more energy and motivation. We are so used to working as a duo that we don’t experience any frustration working together.

Artsy: Who does what?

V&M: We divide the work in order to be efficient and not annoy each other. Somehow it happens naturally—we never fight for tasks. We fight about the outcomes sometimes, but not the roles. Mar would do software code and graphic design usually. Varvara would do hardware, 3D modeling, sound, and knitting parts. Wood work and digital fabrication we do together, helping each other, or just one of us if the other does not have time.

Artsy: Do you think design lends itself well to collaboration?

V&M: Not necessarily. Design is a creative field that is much more open to collaboration than art. Traditionally art means an individualistic approach. At the same time, the artists working with new mediums, like technology, are very used to working in collectives or teams. We are looking at design through a comparison with art because we relate with these fields the most.

Artsy: What do you bring to your collaboration? What does your partner bring?

V&M: We are quite similar and at the same time different. Similar because we share interests in the digital age, innovation, art, and technology, but we have quite different personalities.

We both bring creativity, curiosity, knowledge, and an eagerness to learn and get things done. Mar brings a logical mind, problem solving abilities, programming skills, and a designer mind. Varvara contributes with organizing abilities, electronic skills, and a hands-on approach. What is most important to us is the ability to make our ideas complete when we work together.

Kat Herriman