This pioneering approach fits with a career that has defied convention throughout, from Utzon-Frank’s unusual route into design (she originally trained as a goldsmith) through to her working process, which, instead of beginning with a detailed brief, involves making a model of absolutely anything and seeing where it leads.
“It started out as a way of combating the fear of the empty paper, or in my case, the empty table,” explains Utzon-Frank. “I was studying at the Royal College of Art and I had become tired of writing briefs. I was generating elaborate narratives about the things I make to justify making them. In actual fact, a lot of my decisions were based on the fact that it looked good – I don’t have a deep explanation for why I chose blue. So from that moment on, that became my brief – whatever looks good, is good.” To this end, in the remaining three months of her RCA course, Utzon-Frank resolved to reverse the traditional design process and simply craft a model each day with no definite outcome in mind.
THE POWER OF EXPERIMENTS
The unorthodox process unleashed a flood of exciting results, ranging from intricate, twisting paper sculptures that danced in circles when spun, to a physical rendering of Utzon-Frank’s thought process, featuring a web of string threading from one page to the next, gradually refining from a complex mesh into a single point, representing how a diverse network of influences and ideas distil into a final outcome. For Utzon-Frank, this new, experimental working method hasn’t just helped to generate fresh ideas, but has also unlocked new ways of thinking. “Some of the complex string structures can take 15 hours to make,” she explains. “That time becomes quite meditative and your brain begins to wander off. In that moment, you come up with your next idea.”
This open-minded approach to design enables Utzon-Frank to venture beyond the labels of ‘product design’ or ‘architecture’ to create pieces that intersect all categories of design. From this, Utzon-Frank developed a model featuring a cube of black strings with a plate, which as it moved from top to bottom transformed the strings from organised straight lines into a web of chaos. This then developed into a second model that swapped the strings for ribbons of fabric, which twisted from flat to side-on as the panel moved. “I showed the model to my professor and he told me to put it in a box and head straight to InnovationRCA to file a patent,” she explains. From this, KUFtwist was born, an innovative system with the potential to be adapted into anything from window blinds or a room divider to an interactive art installation.
The latest incarnation attracted considerable attention at the Saatchi Gallery last year, where Utzon-Frank teamed up with textile designer Fay McCaul to create a large-scale KUFtwist screen, featuring dichroic acrylic rods that added a shimmering, iridescent glow to the ribbons. Soon an audience was compulsively sliding panels up and down, observing how patterns emerged as the ribbons smoothed from twisted to flat.
“It’s fun to see their minds explode with ideas as they play with the piece,” says Utzon-Frank. “When I was a child I couldn’t enjoy museums and exhibitions because I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. So for me, people interacting and exploring my pieces is really important. It also initiates some fascinating conversations which often inspire what I make next.”
A SENSE OF PLAY
This interest in hands-on interaction runs as a theme through Utzon-Frank’s work, which appeals to a primal instinct to explore with our hands – pushing, folding and manipulating. The kinetic energy of the audience is often the final ingredient that brings each KUFstudios piece to life. The origins of this design ethos can be traced to Utzon-Frank’s training. “My goldsmith master taught me how important it is that all jewellery is connected to the body, and to keep it in mind when you design,” she explains. “All my early jewellery adapted to the movement of the wearer, and I just scaled that up to what I do now. I believe you’re designing for people, so you should have people in mind.”
This people-orientated approach to design informs Utzon-Frank’s unique ability to pique an audience’s curiosity, as evidenced by her remarkable sculptural cakes. Presented as slabs of geometric marble, expectations are subverted as they are sliced open to reveal concentric layers of sponge cake and ganache. Applying a designer’s eye to a realm usually only occupied by chefs, Utzon-Frank has even developed gradient flavours, a technique used in Terence Conran’s birthday cake, which progressed from almond and sloe gin to damson plum flavours as one munched through it.
Maintaining a flexible attitude to design has enabled Utzon-Frank to think about her craft not as one discipline to be developed singularly, but as a continuous thread of inspiration, which weaves through all categories of design. “I’m currently working on folding sculptures created from stone paper for Clerkenwell Design Week, I’m also developing cocktail cakes with a mixologist and looking to create more bespoke KUFtwist pieces for private clients,” she explains. The potential for where KUFstudios ventures next seems limitless.