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The Delicate Balance of molo Design

A Vancouver design studio uses shape-shifting paper products to change interior spaces

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“Once you’re treating design with intention, it can have a hugely positive impact on your psychology and on the way you feel in your space.”
—Stephanie Forsythe

Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, founders of molo design, met in a remote Colombian village. While there, they noticed that homes transformed as soon as the owner’s family grew. The walls weren’t permanent but were temporary partitions made of wood and fabric, and they allowed for adaptation. Since they didn’t reach up to the ceiling, they also allowed for airflow.

This experience in South America and a similar one later in West Africa led Forsythe and MacAllen to create their soft collection of flexible paper walls, lighting, and seating. Some pieces have since been added to the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian in New York City.

When Forsythe and MacAllen moved to Vancouver, they started to explore the idea of temporary space as intentional design. Thus molo, their design and production studio, was born.

Stephanie Forsythe 01-molo-gilded-paper-softseating-fanning-stool-scaled
Gilded paper softseating fanning stool

Why was paper the right medium for your vision at molo design?
Stephanie Forsythe (SF): Paper is flexible. It’s magical and it can transform. For centuries, artists, designers, and creative people have used paper. Whether they’re making music, sculpture, painting, or other creations, paper has a timeless magic to it.

We spent 11 years going back and forth to Japan designing a museum. While there, we noticed the Japanese emphasized delicacy in building. We believe this concept changes your mindset. If you’re surrounded by things that are designed to be treated roughly, this affects you. Whereas if you’re holding something in your hands that feels that “I should be gentle with this,” your whole mindset shifts.

Todd MacAllen (TM): There’s a luminosity to paper, so it gathers light. It’s not transparent. It’s partly translucent, and when there’s natural light it will gather it, and you’ll see it more at the edges. We have integrated lighting into a lot of the soft products to take advantage of that.

Stephanie Forsythe 02-molo-gilded-paper-softseating-fanning-stool-scaled
Gilded paper softseating fanning stool

How do your designs create that tranquil ambiance?
SF: The urchin softlight paper lamp, for example, is something you touch with both of your hands at the same time. It’s a completely different psychological space when you engage with it. You’re shaping it, freely forming whatever shape you’d like to create. It becomes a little more living, like the anemone sea creature. It’s almost like a pet.

All of our products, from softseating and softwalls to cloud softlights, also absorb quite a bit of sound. There’s a quietness that’s not just visual. Instead of sound bouncing around all the hard surfaces of a room, the sound goes up into these honeycomb cells. The construction creates acoustically absorbent three-dimensional pieces, transforming the atmosphere of your space.

What can intentional living or workspaces do for us?
SF: Once you’re treating design with intention, it can have a hugely positive impact on your psychology and on the way you feel in your space. It’s very positive when you have control over your space with the freedom to move, change, and adapt.

TM: It could also be one of the keys to how we help our environment and our planet. If we can’t take care of our own personal environments, then how can we take care of our greater world?
We should only take on things that we can maintain and be responsible for. We have to learn how to do that, be aware, and do things with intent. That’s all part of design. It’s a bit of a leap, but it’s also doable.

Stephanie Forsythe 04-urchin-scaled
urchin softlight

How do your flexible products at molo design inspire creativity?
SF: Our soft products give you a level of control and freedom that you’re used to only in your wardrobe. You don’t usually get to physically reshape and change the built spaces you live in.
Our flexible products probably trigger something from childhood when we all start creating spaces out of pillows, blankets, trees, or whatever is at hand. It’s something primal, an instinct for space-making.

TM: When we send our packages to our customers, everything becomes compressed into book size. If it’s a block, it will be shaped like a book. If it’s a wall, it will be shaped like a tall book, stacked up and compressed.

The customers then begin a process of investigation, usually tentative at first. They start by opening the package and gaining confidence with moving the pieces. They then put them together—stacking or attaching walls or blocks, or integrating some of the other pieces into it, such as lighting. That’s when they start to get a sense of how they can build with it.

As you get used to it, it’s fluid like a dance. The clients’ original idea of what they were going to do with the wall or block has gained an added layer of three-dimensionality. They will likely do a bit of improvisation at that point. Now they’re the ones creating the space and the shapes. It’s like origami.

brown paper benchwall

How important is the concept of balance in your designs?
SF: Life is always changing, so you need to be able to readjust, balance, and shift. Our spaces also need that kind of flexibility. There has never been a time like today, when the whole world is acutely aware of the need to adjust, reshape, and adapt our old environments.

TM: Design should make you feel calm. In today’s architecture, there’s a lot of busyness. If the design isn’t balanced, it doesn’t appear effortless. A balanced design feels effortless.

Stephanie Forsythe 12-molo-gilded-paper-softwall-space-partition-scaled
molo gilded paper softwall.

How do you balance sensory experience with functionality?
SF: In all of our molo designs, we strive to find a balance between the pragmatic and the poetic. The feeling you get in a space is the most important aspect. It should be able to flex, move, change, and provide a source of light, privacy, and acoustics. But the design should get to a point where the beauty transcends the functional details.

For example, with our gilded paper softwalls we use 24-karat gold. It’s so subtle, but when the sun hits it you’re amazed. For a moment, you might think it’s simply the sun reflecting on the paper, but the gilding is a little extra that elevates that experience.

TM: The idea of gilding came from manuscripts. We thought about how they were written and copied by hand. That’s quite a moment in time—recording history, recording a new idea or a new way of thinking for the first time. Those were precious moments.

tea lantern + tea cups

Do you have any personal rituals to help you achieve balance in life?
SF: Tea is a must for us. The first small object we put into production was a tea set. When we designed it, we realized it had a lot of parallels to the way we think about creating a space using an object.

Our teapot at molo design has a warming candle under it. It’s a small hearth that creates a centre for gathering with people or brings ambience for contemplation.

It’s one of those nice things that reminds you how connected we all are. Even though we live in a time of immense change and technological development, we have these objects and age-old rituals that can help satisfy our physical and emotional well-being.

“Life is always changing, so you need to be able to readjust, balance, and shift. Our spaces also need that kind of flexibility.”
—Stephanie Forsythe

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 111

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