Toilet paper. Chinese takeout. Cleaning supplies. These quotidian household objects form the conceptual framework for New York-based studio Jumbo’s latest line: the Creature Comfort Collection. Having spent countless hours relegated to their respective studio apartments during quarantine, Justin Donnelly and Monling Lee, the principals of the two-year-old practice, found inspiration in their interior landscapes filled with mass-produced everyday goods, which took on increasing significance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resulting quintet — a chair, a love seat, a mirror, a lamp and a vessel — also looked to translate the rapid expansion of the digital world brought on by physical distancing. It sought to explore how the newfound ubiquity of Instagram Live sessions and family Zoom calls was in evident tension with our material lives.
Wrapped in fluorescent green neoprene upholstery (also offered in felted wool, spandex and leather), the plump Sport Sofa makes reference to the form of a boxing glove while riffing on the pronounced seaming of tennis balls to accent its rotund profile. A dramatic, bulbous arm adds an asymmetrical edge to the sculptural design, an immediate invitation to rest after a taxing day of Zoom meetings. “As designers of physical objects and environments, it has been strange to release work digitally,” says Donnelly, “The chair is, after all, the most tactile design object after cutlery.”
With reports revealing an almost 25 per cent increase in alcohol consumption during quarantine, the tubular Squiggle Vessel is a graphic wine decanter finished in a similar neon hue that playfully elevates happy hour spent solo. Also functioning as a pitcher, watering can and vase, the cast aluminum vessel is designed to make a “gentle ‘glugging’ sound” when pouring yourself a glass, then another and another.
As cleaning products flew off the shelves in the early days of international lockdowns, such implements took on new meaning in the weeks that followed – as every surface was suspect and potentially teeming with germs. The silicone extrusions enveloping the Mop Lamp deliberately call to mind the cleaning device’s bundles of cloth while appearing like an underwater creature when illuminated.
Like cleaning supplies, there were almost unending reports filling the news cycle of toilet paper shortages, barren aisles and the shocking lengths gone to hoard the sanitary tissue. Subtly mocking and immortalizing this particular moment of the pandemic, the single-piece aluminum Hung Mirror makes subtle reference to the billowing material. “The mirror hangs on the wall from two oversized screws,” Jumbo says, “pooling plaintively on the floor as if it were a little too long.”
Rounding out the collection, the spun aluminum Fortune Chair is a more personal take on the designers’ quarantine coping strategies, which involved ample amounts of Chinese takeout. “During quarantine, takeout Chinese food has been a guilty pleasure,” Donnelly and Lee say. “Naturally, our favourite part of the experience is the fortune cookie at the end.” In anodized jade green, the seat incorporates the tooling marks made during the manufacturing process to accentuate its folding form.
Fitting for a furniture line inspired by (and produced during) quarantine, Creature Comfort launched as part of the inaugural virtual offshoot of digital publishing platform Site Unseen’s perennial offsite exhibition during NYCxDesign, a venture similarly spurred by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Releasing new work with Sight Unseen was a no brainer, whether the show was physical or digital,” Donnelly says of the launch. “And as a designer, you want to work with curators with a point of view, or the ideas won’t telegraph clearly. We are grateful for the stage they have given us to share our vision with the world.”
The collection also continues Donnelly and Lee’s own fascination with a particular tangent of contemporary furniture: a deliberate infantile cuteness they’ve dubbed neotenic design. “Unlike broader terms such as ‘cute’ or ‘kawaii’ – which include aspects of size, colour, helplessness and nostalgia – the term neoteny is strictly confined to juvenile morphology: objects that look childlike,” Donnelly explains. “Our Creature Comfort Collection delves deeper into the expansive waters of cute culture. Not only do the new designs incorporate childlike proportions, they also suggest movement and a toy-ish simplification.”
The pair recently grappled with this concept in the sprawling spring 2019 exhibition “Neotenic Design,” which featured works by Pierre Yovanovich, Konstantin Grcic, Jaime Hayon and Faye Toogood, to name a few, organized for A/D/O by Mini in Brooklyn, where Jumbo was also a member. In late April, the three-year-old design lab announced its official closure, prompted by the deep uncertainty and economic impact of the pandemic. “A/D/O’s closure is a huge loss not just for the Brooklyn design community, but for New York in general,” Donnelly says. “Although it was sponsored by a corporate entity, A/D/O had the feel of a public institution.”
“Not only did A/D/O act as a design-incubator, it served as a gathering place for creatives of different disciplines,” Donnelly adds, recalling the clandestine interactions the institution would spark — from encountering a future intern to having their logo designed over cappuccinos with a fellow member. “A/D/O was not afraid to take risks, and this is a lesson that New York City needs to take to heart as we emerge from the quarantine.”
Beyond providing space to re-evaluate the everyday, quarantine has also had another galvanizing impact on the duo’s practice — namely a renewed appreciation for mainstream cultural production and its connection to contemporary design. “For every hour we have spent on research, writing or design, we have spent equal amounts scrolling on Instagram or entranced by online series like Tiger King or Last Dance,” Donnelly admits. “For us, this realization laid to rest the notion that our intellectual pursuits are somehow more compelling or more valid than our interest in mass culture.”
From cute to kitch, memes to mops, Donnelly and Lee are keen to continue their investigation of the simultaneous minimizing of the physical world and the proliferation of the virtual. “If art is about communication,” Donnelly says, “then mass culture is the arena that deserves our most serious attention.”
New York design studio Jumbo turned isolation into ingenuity for its Creature Comfort line.