NSEPS (Not So Expanded Polystyrene) – Silo Studio
Published on June 29, 2015
Silo Studio is the design collaboration of Attua Aparicio and Oscar Wanless, who formed the partnership while studying on the Design Products course at the Royal College of Art (2009 – 2011). Currently based within a plastics factory on the southern bank of the Thames.
Coming from backgrounds in engineering and design, the core of Silo’s work is to look at industrial processes and materials, bringing them into the studio to develop. By adopting a hands-on approach, which they refer to as ‘Handmade hi-tech’, they aim to discover possibilities that the production line does not see, developing the expressive potential in industrial materials. A mix of craft and technology.
Focused in the study through experimentation with industrial materials and processes aiming to adapt them to a more craft approach. Silo look at how industry makes things, trying to find a simpler and more expressive way, seeing new potential.
They invented a new manufacturing process that involves steaming polystyrene beads inside fabric moulds. They used the process, called NSEPS (Not So Expanded Polystyrene), to create this range of furniture. Steaming causes the beads to melt, expand and fuse together, distorting their moulds to create writhing muscular shapes.
“When we first started this project in school, Attua and I were good friends looking to do a project together,” recalls Wanless. “We both liked molding, and we both liked wonky sort of stuff. We were looking for a material we could mold that wasn’t really on the radar of other designers. Polystyrene is very-low grade, and it’s been around since 1948, but no one’s really ever done anything with it besides, like, cups or insulating panels.” Adds Aparicio: “Or packaging, because it’s so lightweight.”
They couldn’t buy the granules used to make it in small enough quantities, and no industrial supplier wanted to help them. “We were calling companies and telling them what we wanted to do and they were all saying, ‘It’s too dangerous!’” Jablite was the first company to take a chance on them.
Jablite’s factory floor, where the majority of the U.K.’s insulation panels are made. The panels are placed underneath buildings during the construction process. “They’re very soft and allow for clay heave—which is water swelling in the clay underneath the structure—to come up and not crack the building,” says Wanless.
“We did our first experiments with a kettle,” says Aparicio. “At first we thought, it’s going to explode! But polystyrene doesn’t actually expand that fast. I think it’s less explosive than popcorn.” Even so, Jablite was cautious at first, advising the designers to stick to traditional production methods. “They’re all about volume next door; their goal is to do stuff really quickly,” says Wanless. “They were telling us the way they know.”
“You get these weird sort of gradients because of the way the granules layer, which is something you can’t do with injection-molded plastic because it’s liquid,” explains Wanless. “So you get this new visual language which you don’t see in much else. Everyone thinks our pieces are printed.”
To make a certain piece, the designers first sew a simple mold from a coated textile. “Because polystyrene expands at 212 degrees, and you can wash clothes at that temperature, we thought to use fabric,” says Aparicio. “It’s so much cheaper to be able to sew your own mold, not to mention faster and easier to change. It’s more like drawing, in a way.” The mold gets packed completely full with granules.
“While we were working on our graduation project at the RCA, we actually brought some pieces back to Jablite to show them, and they didn’t believe it was polystyrene,” says Wanless. “It was so dense, and they couldn’t really see the cell structure. They had to break it in half themselves to understand that it really was polystyrene.”
“We often have failures with the mold exploding. It’s very lovely when it happens, though—it does something weird where it liquefies because of the pressure and you can see the granules extruding themselves.”
“We use high-pressure air to blow the paint around so you get these weird, monstery sort of things. A lot of our pieces, I don’t want to call them animals or people or monsters, but they’re slightly zoomorphic, in a way. And there’s a kind of darkness about them.”