Mehran Gharleghi – Code Words

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Believe it or not, there are a number of things a great designer and journalist have in common – not least the thrill of discovery and a naturally inquisitive nature.

Over the years, one of the key things we’ve discovered is that the more inquisitive the designer in front of us, the more likely it is we’ll be rewarded with a great article. Mehran Gharleghi is a perfect example.

Mehran founded Studio INTEGRATE – the innovative London-based architecture, design and research studio – back in 2011 but (and we have to be totally honest now) it wasn’t until our friends at Morgan Furniture showed us the brilliant new Rio collection that our own heads were turned.

Developed by Morgan in collaboration with Studio Integrate, Rio cleverly combines the craft of yesterday with the craft of tomorrow. As well as the traditional timber and upholstered elements, there is a 3D printed component that creates an intricate curved sculptural arm. It is constructed using a mathematical algorithm and printed in polyamide or resin. We immediately wanted to know more.

So, today we’ve headed into that coolest of boroughs, Hoxton, to meet with Mehran and discover more about his original and much heralded design philosophy.

The studio’s diverse work decorates the space, ranging from research projects looking into the fluid dynamics of ancient Iranian bridges – Mehran’s own heritage comes from Iran – through to designs for technology driven mobile phone and gaming accessories, 3D printed miniature GeMo vases and dynamic new architectural projects. As Mehran kindly grabs us a drink, we can’t help but notice the sizable library and the fact that a number of the books aren’t what we’d normally find in a design studio.

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‘What we do is design and architecture for people,’ Mehran tells us as he picks up a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. ‘These are my bibles. Books such as Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful talk about how the entire ecosystem is related and how each of them evolves. It’s written how an architect would write it – it talks about building blocks, how things grow and how things are put together. This is really the beginning of the idea that objects can be related – how a sculpture can be related to a table, to a building – and all of them are a series of codes and that led me to look at how we can use the language of design to extend possibilities. There are sections in the book that look at the relationship between species – how we are more than 40% related to fruit flies, for example. In other words, we studied fruit flies to understand more about ourselves. Therefore, when you look at things in this way – in code – you start to understand that there is not a great difference between an everyday object and a building. A coffee cup will have a similar DNA code to a city. If you then ‘grow’ them based on a body plan, you are then able to control them and evolve them and add more and more information to them over time.

‘Some of the theories might not be scientifically valid any more – but for designers this is still a great reference. All species, all things, are so related. The geometric differences are very small.’ Mehran describes as he shows us the book On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Thompson.

One of the studio’s first projects was the fascinating GeMo collection of vases and miniatures. The collection perfectly illustrates Mehran’s original design philosophy. ‘This is a series of individually unique vases – there are 500 of them and every single one is unique, but is formed from the same code. They are genetically modified. It’s a two-dimensional drawing which, rather than proliferating them horizontally, I proliferated them vertically and captured each one of the changes in the algorithm. They are all different – but they are really all the same.

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‘This is really my lifetime’s project. These are individual and yet accessible. You don’t even see the difference until you look closely.

‘This all relates to people and how people behave. Not everyone wants to be different from other people. It’s a fascinating process.’

Mehran’s right. This is an incredibly fascinating process and approach. We do all see ourselves as individuals, yet there is still a need to conform – to be not too different. We see it through fashion, through arts, through design and through architecture.

The studio’s original approach doesn’t look to mimic nature, but to take the essence of what is all around us and apply it to design. The aforementioned Rio chair is a perfect example of this – the beautiful 3D printed back and arms have been developed through research into the skeletal evolution, so are strong and yet incredibly light.

As we mentioned earlier, Mehran has also taken a great deal of inspiration and influence from the great architectural and design works of the past, and then looked to apply his own future methodologies and manufacturing capabilities. As an example he shows us a residential property in Croatia he has designed. ‘The whole building acts as a sponge,’ Mehran explains. ‘This is the Mediterranean – you have these amazing views and an amazing environment and yet these houses have these shutters which completely shut all of this off,’ Mehran explains. ‘So we used the genetic algorithm, not in terms of creating the overall form, but to allow it to settle down with its environment. So we have used these setbacks to allow the views to be opened while also filtering the sun. You don’t need the shutters any more!’

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Mehran has used modern technology, coupled with classical, ancient principles and local materials to deliver an amazing project that boasts incredible natural ventilation that is completely sensitive to its surroundings.

Moving on, we are shown more of the studio’s incredibly impressive concepts, including a vibrant multicoloured residential tower in South America that takes its inspiration from the stacked hillside of the favelas, and an equally eye-catching molecular lighting structure.

So what drives Mehran? He’s certainly not afraid of diversity. ‘I wanted to do architecture, one-off designs and every day product design – I wanted to link these things. It’s just a matter of scale. I’m really excited by the idea of linking supposedly different elements. When you look at these things closely, they all start to come together.

‘I’m not afraid of challenges. This is why I started my own multidisciplinary practice four and a half years ago after I finished working with Foster + Partners. I wanted to look at the word ‘design’ in a more holistic way, to drive it with research and to link it with other worlds.

‘I might not become the richest person on the planet – and I’m not afraid to fail. I do like to be challenged though. I’m focused on what happens next.

‘I don’t go after projects – I simply don’t have the resources to do so. I’ve been lucky that work continues to find me – and sometimes we don’t make money on unusually ambitious projects, but I’ll still look to take them on because this is my life, this is how I get my kicks and this is how we can contribute. I cannot change this.

‘People tell me that I’m wrong – but I’m not prepared to become an extension builder.’

Nor should he. We cannot think of a more suitable profile to sit within an issue that focuses upon the subject
of innovation.