Forest & Whale is the design studio leaning into longevity and circular thinking
Gustavo Maggio admits that the name Forest & Whale has raised a few eyebrows over the years. The design studio that he set up with his wife, Wendy Chua, in 2016 takes its name from the natural environments of Singapore and Argentina, the two countries where the couple respectively grew up. “We became more interested in doing projects that gave a higher priority to materials and environmental impact,” says Gustavo. “And we wanted the name to remind us of why we were starting the studio.”
Having grown up in Singapore, Wendy felt a strong affinity with the city’s tropical forests, while Gustavo – who grew up in Buenos Aires – wanted to pay homage to the majestic southern right whales, which migrate annually during mating season to the seas off Puerto Madryn, two hours south of the Argentine capital. Hence the moniker Forest & Whale. For Gustavo, it’s a good thing that the studio’s name provokes quizzical looks. “Every time I’m asked, I have to explain out loud why we chose the name, and it’s a really powerful reminder,” he says. “Each time I feel more sure that it’s the right way for us to go.”
Over the past seven years since he and Wendy founded the studio, the duo have built a practice that spans everything from product and furniture design to social care and service design. When Gustavo and Wendy talk about the central tenets of their work, two ideas stand out: longevity and circularity. Let’s look at the former. “From a design standpoint, it means to design things that aren’t following a certain trend or theme,” says Wendy. “You design something that is timeless and that will not go out of fashion.” The couple’s designs for Scanteak, a furniture store in Singapore, are testament to this mantra – the standalone chairs and modular seating systems are contemporary yet timeless. A focus on circularity also means working with quality materials that don’t break easily, she adds, and ensuring that parts can be easily disassembled and replaced, when they do eventually wear out.
The studio’s projects demonstrate their philosophy in action. One particularly interesting project came out of ReuseLab, a design research laboratory that Wendy and Gustavo spun out of the studio, which uses innovation in design and materials to reduce single-use plastics and establish circular systems. The project saw the designers create an everyday box to replace the single-use food containers used in food courts in Singapore and across Asia.
The final outcome was, however, only reached after extensive consultations with restaurants, delivery platforms and customers – a vital step which lots of well-intentioned designers and engineers often skip. “It’s actually way less about designing the object and more about understanding the ecosystem and the needs of all the stakeholders,” says Gustavo. “Having everyone on board is key.”
The second project worth noting is Wallflower, which was selected by DesignSingapore Council as part of its showcase of the city state’s creative talent at Milan Design Week earlier this year. It is an interactive wall poster composed of dozens of colour chips that are embedded with seeds, which can be torn off, planted at home, and grown into herbs and microgreens. The concept came from a challenge that Wendy and Gustavo experienced themselves. “We want to eat healthily and we want to grow whatever we can at home,” Wendy explains. “But it just never happened, because like everyone else, we’re so busy.”
The poster acts as a physical and visual reminder within the home to help the user build the habit of planting and eating healthy vegetables and herbs. Gustavo and Wendy took some design cues from the world of apps, which, as Wendy puts it, is always asking: “How many clicks are you away from buying?” They toyed with this idea, but flipped it on its head, having the poster instead pose the question: “How many steps away are you from looking at the poster, acknowledging that you want to plant the seeds, and then actually planting?” It’s characteristic of the husband- and-wife duo’s thoughtful approach to design.
Even though the design industry is currently focusing on sustainability more than ever before, it’s still not straightforward, according to Gustavo, working within this space. You need to have a significant amount of “motivation and drive,” he says, to stay positive, particularly when you have “to push for these projects, which sometimes take a long time, and sometimes you have to constantly convince your client or the company you’re working with that it’s meaningful, that it can make a difference”. Faced with the overwhelmingly negative news around the climate crisis, it’s easy to become despondent, he admits, but “you have to believe that your small contribution will make a change.”
The younger generations have this proactive mindset “embedded,” Gustavo says, and that is one of the main reasons why he is broadly optimistic about the future. Another reason is that he and Wendy have witnessed how businesses have transformed to become more sustainable. “We’ve seen companies spending more time and resourcing in developing products and services that are aligned with the planet’s goals,” he says. “For a long time, we saw a lot of greenwashing, with companies making statements but not actually doing anything. Now we’re seeing companies doing things and not necessarily even communicating about it.”
At the same time, Wendy and Gustavo are optimistic about Forest & Whale. They’re excited about the opportunities that growth might afford – though for them, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s less about growth for the sake of growth or for the corresponding boosted profits, and more about creating positive change at scale. “We want to grow the studio,” says Gustavo, “so that we can work on bigger projects that can have a bigger impact. We want to make sure that our time is spent on projects that can have a positive impact, not just for one person, but 1,000 or better 100,000, or even 1,000,000.”
The pair also feel that their studio’s ethos is more needed now than ever before. As its name demonstrates, Forest & Whale is a collaboration that spans continents and cultures, and crosses global borders and barriers. “Increasingly, countries are closing their borders and looking inwards,” says Wendy. “We can play an important role in bridging Asia and Europe, bridging cultures, and we feel this will be important on a customer level but also on a business level.” The couple want to take on more projects that lean into this “synergy between East and West, Asia and Europe”, a synergy captured in that cleverly intriguing name.