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Cold Hands, Warm Hearts. Photography by Dan Weill.
20th September 2017

Water: Q&A with Karl Toomey

Inspired by news reports that the earth could experience a mini ice age in 2030, London designers Studio PSK and Karl Toomey have developed proposals for a series of ice structures that imagine life in a frozen far away land. The results – in the form of small-scale 3D-printed architectural models – will be exhibited as part of upcoming group show Water, which has invited 13 designers to dive to the depths of their imagination by creating products and prototypes on an aquatic theme.

Although the science is hotly disputed, the reports that a period of low solar activity (similar to when the Thames froze over in the 17th Century) could cause an ice age were enough to peak the imagination of designers Studio PSK and Karl Toomey. ‘Cold Hands, Warm Hearts — Snapshots from a Culture Far, Far Away’ is their “science fiction” approach to Water’s aquatic theme, building on both studios’ interests in using design as a method for storytelling.

Peckham-based Studio PSK was founded by Irish product designer Patrick Stevenson-Keating, and operates in the space between technology and product design. Recent projects include a sci-fi themed AV experience to show the power of Sony's Life Space UX projectors, a polyphonic playground and the Bad News bot that, you guessed it, delivers bad news. You might also recognise Patrick’s economic experiment the Reciprociti Bank, which he developed as part of the Design Museum’s Designers in Residence programme.

Also from Ireland, Karl Toomey is interested in how design can convey humour. His book Funny Business, for example, tells the hilarious story of chatbots in the customer service world and his site is packed full of funny musings and wild escapades all conveyed through illustration, animations and objects. He’s worked with London graphics studio NB and was Head of Creative at It’s Nice That’s creative agency, Anyways, working for clients like as Nike, BBC, Unilever and Metro. Ahead of the opening of Water on 19 September, we chatted to Karl about his collaboration with Studio PSK and their imaginative igloos.

Creative, Karl Toomey

Tell us a little bit about the research behind Cold Hands, Warm hearts…

During our research we read a lot about melting ice caps, rising sea levels and even an oncoming 15-year mini-ice age (due 2030!). Regardless of how accurate an oncoming ice age is, life is going to change for a lot of people around the world due to climate change. Focusing on ice, we found it interesting to imagine how people might use ubiquitous materials such as snow and frozen water to create lives not too removed from ours, technologically and socially speaking.

What concepts are you exploring with this piece?

Because igloos by their nature are temporary, and because they are quite personal in that they are built by their owner, not a third party builder or architect, we thought it’d be nice to create structures that were designed around more human needs like relationships, mediation, growing and sharing. They’re transient igloos designed to promote and support emotional health, built as and when people require them. There’s something really warm in this idea that contrasts nicely with the cold, freezing world we’re depicting. All of this has the potential to be quite heavy and sentimental, so we thought we’d bring it back to a more playful place by presenting it as a fictional storyline.

Private View at Copeland Gallery for Water exhibition. Photography by Dan Weill.

How did you develop the idea?

At the start of the project, we really explored the different states of water (liquid, gas, solid), and how a culture could be shaped by them. We played with submerged Atlantis type cities, frozen superhighways and structures, and high-altitude cloud dwellings. We pretty much mapped out three speculative ecosystems. For the exhibition, we knew we’d have to strip everything right back, and when we did, the idea of igloos felt most poignant. In a way, they are such a succinct expression of water and design. A temporary dwelling made from a naturally occurring material — a perfect collaboration between human and nature. It was something we wanted to celebrate and push a little further with our optimistic, imaginative designs.

Karl Toomey and Studio PSK's collaborative project for Water

Do you think the igloos could ever exist in real life?

Rather than proposing our igloos as practical products or dwellings to be lived in today, we’re presenting them as speculative ‘what ifs’? We’re inviting the audience to imagine what life might be like where conditions are always freezing, and people have to live lives in very different ways. It’s not a story of survival though, more a series of optimistic snapshots from a culture unlike ours. Our piece is much more about storytelling than it is about proposing a useful, practical product. That said, we are open to supplying our igloos full scale to any interested investor or developer types out there!

Studio PSK
Private View at Water's LDF exhibition. Photography by Dan Weill.
Karl Toomey and Studio PSK's collaborative project for Water
Karl Toomey and Studio PSK's collaborative project for Water. Photography by Dan Weill.
Karl Toomey and Studio PSK's collaborative project for Water
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