Understanding Society is the Key to Better Design: Interview with Design Research Studio, ALTER THE AIR.
ALTER THE AIR is a design research studio founded by Sibo Peng and Mengya Huang in 2018 with the aim of using design at every level (architecture, cities, landscapes, interiors, products) to tackle the major issues of contemporary society.
We recently had the privilege of sitting down with Sibo and Mengya in their soy concept store at Rosenthaler Platz to learn a little bit more about them and discuss their approach to research and design.
After completing their architectural bachelor’s in China, Mengya and Sibo moved to Aachen, here in Germany, for their Masters. Already with visions for the future in mind though, they were quick to find the educational environment restrictive.
“Whilst studying, we already had clear thoughts in our design method. We found it essential to analyse and document local people’s lively activity on the spot as a main reference source before the design starts. But this differs from common architectural practices which mostly treat designs like industrial production without much consideration of users' feelings. Therefore we felt it necessary to found our own studio and realize our first project by ourselves, as we believed it would be a good case to show our thoughts.”
It was this line of thought that later led to the conception of their first major design project, Huadou, their soy concept store.
“Soy is a specific but representative topic. Around it we want to create a multifunctional space with a café, store and tofu workshop. Various activities have taken place here since opening, and so do communications. All of these were already part of the consideration before and during the planning, and will continue to be updated in the future.”
Sibo and Mengya then offered the story behind the name ‘ALTER THE AIR’, and how it relates to the deeper philosophy of their practice.
“The name comes from the word of a Chinese philosopher, Mencius, who said that ‘one’s position alters the air’. This word [in Chinese] means something like ‘you are what you eat’. Like where you live, where you are, all the things around you can literally change you - change your ‘air’. So that’s why we chose this name, because we really care about the atmosphere in the space, and the relationship between ourselves and the space.”
It became clear that societal and cultural contexts were hugely important considerations in the work of ALTER THE AIR.
“Being from China, we have a lot of different traditions… There’s a lot of rethinking and reconsiderations in making the designs, and so we like to say that our studio is a design and research studio.”
We began to discuss their approach to design, and more specifically, how they approached designing Huadou.
“We always start with questions. We raise a lot of questions about what we’re going to work on. But first, we need to find the right questions; the questions that deserve more research and are essential to lead design.”
“With these questions in mind, we do deep research. For example, with the interior design for Huadou, we went to China, because we want to know how people traditionally produce tofu and which kind of role plays tofu in their life.”
“We researched a famous tofu town in Sichuan Province - it’s very small and old. Our team documented all the tools and the whole process of making tofu the traditional way, and also the traditional architecture in the town. For example, in the town, we learned that bamboo is very eco-friendly itself. It grows fast, is very strong, and is also deeply associated with local people’s low-carbon life: bamboo is used for food（bamboo shoots), tools, furniture and even building materials. We used bamboo in Huadou because it matches the eco concept.”
“Research for us is very important. This is where we get the inspiration and the ideas - but we don’t want to directly copy the tradition. What’s important for research is to understand what we can learn from the tradition.”
I was curious where the name Huadou came from exactly.
“The name means gorgeous beans in Chinese. Or beautiful beans - because it’s about soybean culture. Why we chose soy as a topic is because it’s a leading character in Eastern eating culture - like milk is in Western eating culture. You’ll always find some soy element in a dish there, just like you’ll always find some milk products in the traditional dishes here… But when we were studying here, we found that people here - our German friends - almost have a prejudice against soy. They see soy as destroying the world… The Amazon forests are actually burning because of GMO beans for animal futter, so there is a prejudice against soy.”
The beans used at Huadou though, are not grown in South America, rather much closer to home, at a Bavarian bio-farm.
I couldn’t help but notice these striking stone and wood objects that appeared in every corner of the store. I was intrigued to learn that they’re in fact soy milk grinders, and despite their modernist appearance, their design is heavily inspired by centuries-old traditional grinders. My intrigue then grew when I learned that these particular ones were made by YUUE Studio - a Prenzlauer Berg design studio we’ve previously visited for this series.
Sibo and Mengya went on to further recount their visit to this historical ‘tofu village’.
“It’s a real tradition that the locals use fresh tofu to welcome people - and this is the same grinder used in China for hundreds of years to grind the soybeans. So we decided to show it here not only because it represents the soy culture before industrialisation, but also the soy milk made from it really tastes better - sweeter - because the grinding temperatures can always be very low, so the original flavour of the beans is kept in - more than with a machine. Our customers use it to produce soy milk during our tofu workshops.”
“We think it’s interesting to take soy as an example from which we can discuss a whole series of things. From soy milk, to soy sauce, to the vegan philosophy and lifestyle of reducing the consumption of meat... Everything can come together.”
Thank you to Sibo and Mengya for the delicious coffee and delightful conversation. You can find links to Huadou and ALTER THE AIR below.
Words by Ewan Waddell.
Photography by Ewan Waddell & Sibo Peng.