Valextra Meets Isabel + Helen
The design duo tell us about their process, their personal design heroes, and their project with Valextra.
Famed for their kinetic installations and animated sculptures, the London-based design studio Isabel + Helen was the perfect collaborator to bring Valextra’s equilibrium of sophistication and engineering beauty to life for our Salone del Mobile 2023 project, The Rhythm Of Valextra. Founded by Chelsea College of Art alumni Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner, the studio has carved a niche in telling stories through the medium of movement while keeping things lighthearted, whimsical and fun. Here, they talk us through their process and take us behind the scenes on our collaborative project.
Valextra: Buongiorno Isabel and Helen! Your work focuses on movement and mechanisms, what attracts you both to this form of expression?
Isabel Gibson and Helen Chesner (I+H): What first drew us to movement and mechanics is the incredible satisfaction and curiosity created by man-made mechanisms which are not only beautifully intricate and complex, but they bring to life something that was previously inanimate. You can’t help but be drawn to these objects and be amazed by how they work. We love to capture the audience’s imagination, conjuring up a sense of play and nostalgia, creating new contraptions and configurations that create striking visuals as well as revealing the incredible inner workings.
V: What appeals to you about highlighting the process as well as the final outcome?
I+H: For us, the process is often the artwork, it is a performance in itself and often includes a complex interaction of materials and parts to create the final outcome.
V: Where do you look for inspiration?
I+H: We look for inspiration in the every day. We take so many things around us for granted, but when isolated, they are all moments of beauty. Not only in nature, but also the man made there are systems that all work seamlessly together to create something new. For example, an exit barrier in a car park and all the years and years of engineering and complex mechanisms that have gone into quite simply making a large lever lift up into the air smoothly and drop down to a perfect close.
V: What attracts you to a particular project like The Rhythm of Valextra and how did you set out to convey the sophistication of our leather goods alongside their ergonomy?
I+H: The intricate and engineered process of making a Valextra bag is what attracted us to the project because so many hand-crafted processes are all interconnected to create the final piece. Being able to draw on all these rich visual practices and make something to celebrate it was highly inspiring.
V: Can you explain your process when it comes to starting a project like this?
I+H: We researched the manufacturing process and set about creating animated stories through sculpture.
V: How did you conceive the circular, multistorey installation?
I+H: The full sculpture represents each step of making a Valextra bag, tiered to show the stages, with the final piece coming together on the top layer. The circular tiers create infinite cycles of the different processes, each repeated when the next bag is made. It's a rhythmic visual production line of sorts.
V: What was your favourite discovery in the process?
I+H: Simple and humble, we really wanted to celebrate the painting of the black Costa edge. We really like attention to detail, the handpainted accuracy, and the black gloss in contrast to the soft matt leather, it almost feels like the icing on a cake. We wanted to highlight this within the sculpture, giving this process its own tier in a very simple way, rotating as if the paint brushes are painting the line as you watch.
V: How does it feel to have your collaboration with Valextra shown at Salone del Mobile?
I+H: We are delighted to be part of Salone this year alongside so many design greats. We also feel privileged to be working with Milan's very own Valextra, a creator of such hand-crafted, contemporary classics.
V: Who are your personal design heroes?
I+H: Ray and Charles Eames have always been a big inspiration for us. Their multidisciplinary practice spanned the art and design world, with such varied outcomes, from architecture and furniture, right through to children’s toys and film. They applied their bold and practical creative thinking to the everyday, whatever the outcome might have been. Form and function always features heavily in their designs, which is also a large consideration within our own work.
V: What would you like the audience to take away from The Rhythm of Valextra?
I+H: For them to feel like they have seen the inner workings of Valextra, giving them an insight to the craft that goes into each bag.