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Studio Murmur on Small Quarters, Loll, and Design "Locavores"

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Welcome to Curbed Interviews, a new column in which the talented Raina Cox (of If the Lamp Shade Fits and Curbed's Moonlighting series) interviews major players in shelter media and interior design. Have a suggestion for someone whose voice should be heard? Send it here.

When the recent economic downturn hit, Audra Bielskus, now 26, and TJ Thomas, now 45, found themselves let go from their design jobs at Michael Graves Design Group. The duo, partners in business and in life, decided to return to their Midwestern roots and set up shop in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. Studio Murmur is a design consultancy dedicated to creating innovative, locally sourced products for major companies such as Room & Board and Target. But don’t call them “green.” For Bielskus and Thomas, sustainable living and design is the norm, not the exception.

Tell us how you met and about your experiences working for Michael Graves.
Bielskus: We were both hired to work on a large-scale architectural project and developed over 500 pieces of furniture, lighting, gaming tables, and fixtures for a $4B casino and hotel resort in Singapore. TJ and I met at Michael Graves, and since the studio was more of a house than an office building, we shared a tiny little nook of a room where we worked together for almost two years.

We both had opportunities to work one-on-one with Graves for certain projects. It was a great experience to be in his presence and our time at the MG studio was invaluable. We are constantly referencing things we learned there to this day.

You started Studio Murmur during some of the darkest days of the Great Recession. What was your impetus and what kept you going in the beginning?
Bielskus: The impetus was really that we were laid off on the same day with half of our design staff. About four of us were from the Chicago area so we talked about just continuing what we were doing at Graves, with lower overhead and a much smaller name. We didn't miss a beat and just went for it from the beginning.

Where did the name “Studio Murmur” come from?
Bielskus: “Murmur” was the perfect word to describe the constant buzz that goes on in our office, as we are always discussing design and new ideas. Plus, we like onomatopoeia.

What are the challenges of being a couple who work together? Do you two have unique stresses or successes?
Bielskus: It's like any other mom and pop in many respects. The shared mission is overall beneficial to the relationship. There are days where we only seem to piss each other off. This happens with any co-workers, but if it's someone you really care about, it's easier to get past it and move on. In general, we tend to balance each other out nicely. When we work, it's really a yin and yang type of relationship.

Describe your design passion.
Bielskus: I’m fascinated how everyday objects around us affect and shape our daily lives. I want to influence how people feel and relate to the world around them through sustainable and thoughtful design.

What architects and designers inspire you and why?
Bielskus: Eva Zeisel is a ceramicist and and the first well-known female industrial designer. Her organic forms are incredibly beautiful and have a human quality, creating a narrative for her pieces. She remains a great inspiration because her body of work is so profound and Eva continues to design at age 104.

Also, Konstantin Grcic is an all-star German industrial designer and the founder of KGID in Munich. Grcic’s work has always been inspiring because he is known for pushing the limits of standard manufacturing processes, developing complex, material-driven furniture pieces.

Soon after starting Studio Murmur, you found success collaborating with Loll Designs, an eco-focused outdoor furniture manufacturer based in Duluth, Minnesota.
Bielskus: TJ and I were already developing a line of recycled flat-pack furniture for a company called Terracycle in Trenton, N,J. It was one of our first projects together while we were still living out east and making plans to move. We had been following Loll's brand and had a couple pieces that we thought would fit nicely into their existing line. Sometime in the winter of 2009 we simply decided to pick up the phone and give them a ring.

Our first conversation with Greg Benson, the CEO of the company, lasted for about two hours, so needless to say we hit it off! Shortly after, we pitched Loll a chair concept and it slowly developed into the Harbor Collection, which launched at ICFF last year. Room & Board picked it up after the show and has been carrying it exclusively since. We really enjoy working with the Loll team—they have become good friends of ours. We hope to keep the momentum going and have more great collaborations with them in the future.

This weekend at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), Studio Murmur previewed a new line of lighting for Loll Designs. Tell us about it.
Thomas: It’s all 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastics. They will probably be available later this summer.

Bielskus: The lighting has the look of a pendant. Some will have a hook to hang on a tree or a fence and others will be suspension lighting.

Thomas: We’ve been in discussion with Loll on trying to bring more of an indoor focus to their products. Due to the manufacturing process and the materials, it doesn’t always lend itself to a more refined indoor look. But at the same time we’re also looking at bringing indoor design to the outdoors. One of the trends we’ve seen lately is indoor-style fixtures, whether they’re floor lamps or hanging lamps, that have a more indoor look [even though] people are now using them outdoors.

Is the "green" factor paramount to deciding which projects you take?
Thomas: We have made efforts not to really bill ourselves as a “green” studio. Ideally, we see it as becoming an integrated part of everyone’s process. One thing that we are developing is a certain focus on working with people locally. That’s an upshot of the relationship with Loll in that they’re regional, close to Chicago. We’ve found in Chicago there is a lot of manufacturing resources here, a lot of great people, a lot of talent. We’re seeing a lot of opportunities in our own background to the point we’ve avoided sourcing and manufacturing off-shore. There’s a huge environmental impact by just making and distributing things on a more focused regional basis.

So are you design "locavores?"
Thomas: Exactly! A lot of the theories and ideas behind this are totally drawn from the food movement, from localized agriculture, and local architecture. Historically, people built with things that were available to them nearby. You didn’t see adobe houses in the northern Midwest and likewise you didn’t see pine or wooden homes in the Southwest. The cost of shipping and transporting things, I think, may force us into more of a locavore kind of mentality.

The [graduate] course I’ve been teaching this last semester is on design localization, but really one of the focuses has been on relationships with people and that’s where our relationships with manufacturers, with retailers, and with clients we find are really essential to what we do. It’s not just about making stuff.

What can we expect from Studio Murmur in the near future?
Thomas: We’ve got a couple of other things on the boards, including a beverage-ware product that will come out later this year.

We’ll be opening an online [retail site] and a pop-up store later this year with some products we’ve driven on our own. A lot of our work is for our clients and there are a few projects that we’ve developed in-house for ourselves and want to drive to the marketplace and test the waters without becoming full-blown retailers. We’ll be deploying [the pop-ups] around events and the holidays.

· Studio Murmur [official site]
· Loll Designs [official site]
· Harbor Collection [Room & Board]