In the late 1920s, in order to lock down a supply of rubber for his car empire, pugnacious motoring tycoon Henry Ford built an American Utopia, Fordlandia, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
Needless to say, it failed. Located on the Tapajós river in Brazil, the prefabricated town boasted straight roads, typical American houses, a hospital, school, library, hotel and golf course. Uniformed indigenous workers (the American workers lived nearby – in a township with running water) were organised into strict work schedules, wholesome ‘diets’ and prescribed leisure activities such as square dancing.
Cracks soon began to show. Inhabitants circumvented curfews by paddling upstream to bars and dancehalls. At the same time, ill-planted rubber crops were lost to plaques and pests. After a series of small revolts, Fordlandia was sold back to the Brazilian government in 1945 and left to fester poetically on the banks of the Tapajós.
In its latest project, London-based design duo Studio Swine – aka Azusa Murakami and Alexander Groves – conjure another reality for Ford’s flawed vision, in which the project fulfils its destiny, harmoniously bringing together nature and industry ‘in a symbiotic relationship.’
The result is currently on show at LCF’s Fashion Space Gallery. ‘Fordlandia’ offers a compact suite of objects which reference the settlement’s idealistic aims as well as the Brazilian tropical modernist movement. In a compact space, laid out as a single deserted living room, awaiting its industrious inhabitant, there are chairs fashioned from sinuous strips of ebonite, a hard black rubber, once used for car batteries; cushions made from the skin of the pirarucu, a large Amazonian fish; and a table crafted from reclaimed Brazilian walnut, inlaid with rubber.
Denim workwear and textiles designed in collaboration with LCF MA Menswear alumni Emma Fenton Villar and BA Textile student Erica Weide hang on the walls. To the eerie calls of tropical birds, a short film, created with Juriaan Booij, charts Studio Swine’s rigorous research process from visiting the last Ebonite factories in Germany and Japan to the abandoned town in the rainforest itself.
By the end of his life, Ford had sunk $20 million into Fordlandia – big bucks then and now. Studio Swine offers a sensitive response to his ill-conceived ambition, bringing all the nuance of 21st century materials and ethics into play.