Fordlandia with Ligaya Salazar (Fashion Space Gallery)

Ligaya Salazar is the Director of the Fashion Space Gallery here at London College of Fashion. She is the curator of the latest exhibition at the gallery ‘Fordlandia’, which looks at Henry Ford’s failed utopian project and reimagines a world where  Fordlandia is a success, where nature and industry have entered a symbiotic relationship to create – sustainably and beautifully. Intrigued and inspired, I spoke to Ligaya about the exhibition.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the exhibition?
Fordlandia as a project was proposed to me by Studio Swine, an interdisciplinary design studio by Azusa Murakami & Alexander Groves.
Their work is very engaged with finding new kinds of materials, often sustainable, recycled or from waste material. When they proposed this project, it made sense because I could see the scope of it, going beyond just products and furniture and actually being a rich story that could engage with a wider design audience.
How did the LCF students get involved in the project?
Very early on Studio Swine expressed an interest in working with some of our alumni or current students. Initially it was on a wider scale so we looked at footwear, textiles and design, but in the end we narrowed it down to Emma Fenton-Villar – MA Menswear and Erica  Weide– BA Fashion Textiles: Print, as their work seemed to chime most with the project.
We started working on this in early 2015 when we had an initial meeting to discuss the project, inspirations and the types of things Studio Swine were interested in doing, then Emma and Erica went away to think about how their work could respond to that.
It seems like there is a real focus on nature and industry and how the two interact….
I guess what was really fascinating to Studio Swine and myself about Fordlandia was not necessarily its failure, but more the fact it had quite a lot of potential in the beginning but just wasn’t carried out very well. One of the first stumbling blocks for Ford was making all his native workers work from 9-5, which is obviously the hottest time of day. Historically, rubber tappers work very early in the morning and late at night to avoid the daytime temperatures, so this was one of the first indicators of the project’s failure. The speculative project question for this exhibition was, what if we did this now, in a more sensitive way; in a way that’s more at one with how people live in the Amazon, and how nature works in the Amazon.
The aspect Emma got really interested in was the fact that Ford made all the workers wear American workwear. Emma’s original final collection featured customisable denim menswear, so she looked into the traditional tribal tattoos of the Amazonian tribes and their patterns, and emulated them in the design of her denim jackets in the exhibition. In this way, she hinted at the combination of American workwear and native design with the ability to customise the jackets by cutting the float yarns. A lot of the things that the students and Studio Swine have been doing are about trying to think about how you would work this kind of project in a more modern and perhaps empathetic kind of way.
Can you speak about the materials and products on display?
The materials Studio Swine have used for the show are a part of this rethinking of Fordlandia. The chairs in the exhibition are mainly made from ebonite – created by vulcanising natural rubber. Ebonite has a really nice quality that when you heat it up to 80C you can bend it, so it behaves a bit like hardwood which is what a lot of the tropical modernist interior designers and furniture makers used. However, Studio Swine used 3D modelling software to create these shapes so there is an element of new technology in there too.
They also used fish leather from an Amazonian fish called pirarucu, which grows up to two and a half metres – it’s massive! Because they are regularly eaten, the skin can be made into leather, which would be a waste product otherwise. I was surprised how beautiful the leather is, it’s really soft to touch and unusual looking because it’s still has the look of the scales.
The other material they used, they discovered because of their interest in the automotive industry and how Ford’s engines were made. They discovered that when the engines are made, they are cooled off in water and this slack comes to the top – which is a mixture of alloy and bronze. They used this slack to make the tapper’s knife and also the bowl (in the exhibition). You can see how the natural shapes that occur when the slack rises and builds into layers has been maintained in the design .
Where are the items from?
There are some pieces obviously designed and made by Studio Swine, then we have the pieces by the students, and we also have found objects. The ebonite bowling ball was something we really wanted because it’s a traditional use of the ebonite material, so that was sourced and bought. Then we have a metal nut from Fordlandia that was given to Studio Swine by the last worker of Fordlandia who still operates there. They also bought back some rubber seeds and various natural rubber forms as well.
For the historic images I went to research at the Ford Museum in Detroit, where I went through a lot of the historical material including images, maps of the site and project reports from people who used to run the site. They very kindly gave us permission to reproduce these for the show.
Can you tell us a bit about the film?
We always felt it was really important for Studio Swine to be able to go to Fordlandia and see it in person to make the project as well rounded and comprehensive as it could be. They successfully applied for the British Counci’s Winston Churchill Fellowship, which allowed them to go to the Amazon and film with Juriaan Booij – a film maker and Ridley Scott associate director, who Studio Swine have worked with since they graduated from the RCA. Each of their projects is accompanied by a wordless process film documenting their project. They want their films to be understood internationally so the strength of the visual narrative is important, and it also makes the film really visually absorbing.
Some of exhibitions I have seen at FSG before have had clear roots in fashion, whereas this one doesn’t have so much of a direct link, but there’s still a lot inspiration for designers to glean from it. What do you think fashion can take away from Fordlandia?
I have always wanted the gallery to be interdisciplinary. I feel that students see a lot of fashion, they don’t really need to see any more. The reality of most fashion designers is that the inspiration is everywhere, it’s not just in each other’s work. Of course it’s important to see the work of your peers, and the gallery does seek to show some of that, but I do think that sometimes it doesn’t have to be just fashion.
Even though Fordlandia it isn’t directly fashion design, there are some elements of it that are related to clothes and textiles. However, what is really interesting is that there’s a whole layer of different things that relate. There is the innovation in material using sustainable or waste materials, there is also the visual inspiration of the tropical environment, this utopian project itself and its current decay.
I think the historical dimension is interesting because if someone takes inspiration and looks further into the project there might be other layers they discover around ideas of Fordism, the automotive industry and the idea of industrialisation – there’s so many layers that you can let yourself go into.
How did you go about curating this exhibition? It’s so interdisciplinary with so many different levels of interpretation, it must be a challenge to open people up to these but still maintain a focus?
Studio Swine had a very clear idea of what they wanted to achieve with their collection and very early on the notion of the interior came up, which I really liked because we haven’t used the space in that way before. I also liked it because a lot of the shows you see around London Design Festival are interiors but they don’t have those layers of stories, so I like the idea of playing with quite traditional way of showing furniture, but bringing in other dimensions.
Because we’ve totally refrained from having any labels inside the interior it allows for people to engage on different levels. They can just come in and experience it as an interior, feeling like you’re walking into someone’s living room. It’s something I feel is important with all the projects I do, where you allow people to just encounter the pieces without having too much information thrown at them, then if they want to there’s layers that they can access.
Fordlandia is at the Fashion Space Gallery until 10th December 2016. Free Admission