Here's an interview we did back in 2013!
Studio Souffle, London, UK
1) What made you decide to get into the world (and business) of inflatables? Was this an organic process (as you describe in your profiles)?
Gaia - I had come from the world of fashion. I studied dressmaking and tailoring in Portland Oregon and in New York. My main interest was performance fashion and in all my fashion shows I had an element of structure. Once I made some insect "pods" with layers of liquid latex dried into textured sheets that the models had to break out of them on stage. I always had an interest in architectural objects. So I transferred to Central Saint Martins in London to finish my degree in Performance Design for Theatre. Focusing on large scale props and costumes. After graduating I was looking for work and came across a company looking for someone with strong sewing skills, so I applied and 8 years later found myself here. My favourite aspect of this work is the fact that we get to incorporate some scientific research and experimental theoretical ideas and make them real, large scale three dimensional funny objects.
Mahani – I studied Product Design and after graduating I found it difficult to land a job as most companies were employing designers with 2 years or more experience. So, I ended up doing an internship at a London based studio specialising in inflatable structures where I stayed for 5 years and met Gaia. I was involved in numerous projects from small inflatable bath products and window displays to large scale semi permanent architectural projects.
One of the last projects I worked on there was the deciding factor for me to move on. It was a travelling Pavilion for Puma for the Volvo Ocean Race where I was Project Manager, Project Designer, Assistant, Client and Sub-contractor liaison all rolled into one. It was a highly stressful project but after seeing it built and how it turned out, my confidence grew. If I can do this, I can do pretty much anything! So, Gaia and I finally branched out on our own seeing as we work so well together!
2) Briefly, how does your design process work - do you use specific software to create concept 3D visuals / technicals etc?
Gaia - Usually we get a brief from a client, sometimes it's a very basic 2D sketch, sometimes a 3D computer generated model. Mahani and I work together to work out the technicalities and production process prior to design. Sometimes we brainstorm projects and exciting ideas that we want to make to push our skills further.
Mahani – The brief that we get from a client can vary from a very detailed visual or object that they need to replicate as close as possible to a one liner where we can get really creative and explore more. As well as brainstorming the technical aspects and how to achieve the (almost) impossible, we discuss how we can enhance the clients brand with our work and add a little Soufflé magic while still retaining their brand identity.
Once we have a clearer idea on the concept and direction, I then develop the design in more detail in a 3D program called Rhino and generate visuals for the client to sign off. This process can take a while. Once agreed I then develop the patterns for Gaia to start the making process!
3) Briefly, how do the inflatables work structurally? Do you do the printing too? Install the technology / lighting etc? Kind of fabric?
Gaia - We work with "airflow" inflatables here at Studio Soüfflé, meaning they will have a blower on all the time to keep them inflated. We have worked in airtight inflatables previously but when we set up this company we decided not to because there tends to be many issues with airtight products. The machinery used to make airtight inflatables can be very costly and to keep our company image and product to a high standard we made a decision to stay with airflow.
There are two different type of inflatable structures that we tend to work in the most; single skin or double skin. The single skin objects we can get very detailed with design and manufacturing so they are great for objects like polar bears, shoes, intricate christmas baubles, etc. The double skin structure technique is great for making smaller pods or large outdoor tents.
Mahani - The fabric we use is Rip Stop Nylon used for parachutes, rain proof garments, etc. It is a lot lighter than PVC which is conventionally used for inflatables such as bouncy castles. The Rip Stop is much lighter and has a nicer finish and not tacky like the PVC.
The fabric works well with lighting. We put zips around the base of the inflatable which not only acts as an air releaser during deflation but also as a means of inserting lights into the wall cavity. Colour changing lights gives a white structure an amazing ambient glow!
We are also constantly developing methods of incorporating different kinds of technology into the inflatables. The latest ones include a built in spotlight, cooling air vents which utilises the airflow within the walls and a built in tablet.
4) Where do you make them? How does your studio look? Does being East affect your style / outlook / lunch?!
Gaia - Our studio is an old chocolate factory that was then turned into a sound engineering studio for teaching kids how to use sound equipment. It's great because there are power sockets everywhere! We have painted it and put down some new carpet. It's now very colourful! We are right on Chatsworth Road in Hackney so occasionally we like to go up the street to one of the many new cafes to get something for lunch. But usually we are very busy working so we tend to stay in and focus on delivery on time! Also, Mahani brings her 1.5 year old daughter Medina into the studio so we often will all sit down together and eat.
Most of the production is done here. We print out very large scale patterns on a plotter and then cut them on the floor. I work on a 1930s Singer sewing machine that has been adapted to have an industrial motor, but it is great! Every thing is done here by hand. Except the very large structures, usually anything over 12m long we will send to a factory we have a very good relationship with in China.
Mahani - Our studio is crazy and fun as you would expect a design studio to be. We have turquoise walls with splashes of red here and there and purple carpet and toddler toys on the floor. It’s an organised mess!
5) How would you describe Studio Soufflé's signature style? What words describe your style / ethos?
Gaia - Fun, colourful, whimsical, quality, and we pride ourselves in giving clients fantastic easy to use solutions for a vast range of events or installations.
Mahani - Vintage Pop ;)
6) What has been your most exciting project/s? Or proudest project?
Gaia - A pop-up booth for product launching a new product for SNOG frozen yoghurt. It was very detailed, very colourful and we got to have a lot of design control.
Mahani - I have to agree with Gaia on this one. We had fun developing the design and it fits in with our design ethos and where we want to get to in terms of the types of projects we do.
7) What has been your most challenging project/s? What kind of obstacles do you come across?
Gaia - When we started Studio Soüfflé Mahani was pregnant, and about 7 months into our first year I had a serious knee operation that required a long time on crutches afterwards. So, Mahani with a brand new born baby and myself in a giant leg brace and crutches, hulled ourselves around London for meetings as a funny looking motley crew, trying to build our companies reputation. Luckily one our first clients was Selfridges and we did a "Breathing Window" for "No Noise" campaign in an Oxford street window. We had a lot of technical elements in the design behind the inflatable that you couldn't see. A lot of research and long nights went into the making and installation of that project. There were also some issues with the actual window. The glass was not in the frame very well so finally they decided they needed to replace the whole piece of glass so we had to uninstall and reinstall the whole thing three times. All of the work for the window displays are done over night. It took a long time to get my schedule back on track after that!
Mahani - The Jellyfish Artcar! This was one of our first projects and the client was adamant that it wasn’t made as an inflatable as they didn’t have a power source to power the fan. We had to deflate our inflatable hats and put on some new thinking caps in order to make it work. It was a success in the end plus we managed to fit all the bits into a suitcase for the client to take with him on the plane. Plus, I was 7-8 months pregnant!
8) What / who are your inspirations design wise? Hobbies / likes / movies / blogs etc...
Gaia - I have been very influenced by cult movies. Growing up I watched a lot of vampires films because my dad had a large vampire film collection. That led me to cartoons and other entertainment that always edged the mainstream. Mahani and I watch a lot of cartoons in the studio, we like to make the excuse that it's for her daughter... But... The colours and shapes are always around us and inspiring our work. We do a lot of research into other artists, architects, music, photography, religious architecture, nature, futuristic design.
Mahani - Cartoons, street art, doodles, furniture, architecture, Zaha Hadid, Karim Rashid, Marc Newson, my mom to name a few. I follow blogs like Designmilk, Retail Design Blog and Designboom as they always showcase inspiring designs but above all, our clients are what inspires us.
9) What is in the pipeline / what's new for you? (If you can discuss this of course)
Gaia - We are working on a project with a group to devised a structure that is inspired by holy Indian temples and they plan to take the structure around the world to lots of different festivals doing workshops in it. We also are planing to show at Design Week in Milan in April so we are working on some ideas for that now.
Mahani - 2013 has been exciting for us in terms of the new relationships formed with various people and potential clients. We are in discussion regarding a couple of collaborations and shows for 2014 so will have to wait and see how they pan out!