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What’s a micromundo?

Every artist, design studio or creative company has their history, their trajectory which turns them into what they are. Ana and I come from different backgrounds and our union in Micromundo was the fruit of a common way of seeing the world. Whenever someone asks us where our name came from, we invariably go back to the incredible beaches on the east coast of Scotland, my homeland. Like legions of others in our long history, we draw from the natural world constantly. The heritage of at least 3.5 billion years of evolutioni, and an estimated 4.54 billion of Earth’s geologyii has bestowed an incalculably rich inheritance on us.

So, what are we talking about when we say ‘micromundo’? That feeling when you clamber over rocks and discover a pocket which was hidden from view, a cluster of small plants huddled together to defend a rocky outcrop, or a pool formed in some volcanic cataclysm aeons distant, now the whole sea for a cluster of sea anemones clinging to its inner shores. The beauty of a micromundo is that it can take an infinite range of forms, but the root is always the same: an unusually high concentration of life in a small area, or what appears to be a good cross-section of the flora and fauna of a surrounding region condensed into a frame the viewer can appreciate.

In reality the phenomenon has many names, depending on the discipline of the person who wants to describe it: a hierarchy of volume, a degree of detail or a fractal. As we’re neither scientists nor mathematicians, we would opt for the first of these. As we move around it can be easy to overlook most of what surrounds us; we’re all just too busy to register most of our context, and we tend to focus on the essentials: the signs leading us to the metro line we need, the path we have to follow to the viewpoint ahead, or the screen in front of our eyes. The following series of photos is about how we approach the process of breaking down an entire landscape into something we can understand.

Hierarchies of volume

So how do we go about working with this concept? We call it creating micromundos: corners where you can house those objects with special value for you, be it aesthetic or more what they show about your life experience. Whatever it is, we specialise in providing a unique place for it, so that each piece has a home which suits it. We might be talking about a bunch of bananas or a priceless artefact; the key is to make sure that every piece has a place of its own and can be appreciated. Who is to say that a banana or an onion are more mundane than an inert piece of sculpture? Why would your collection of whiskies not be worthy of a dedicated piece of furniture?

This same principle applies in spatial design, where an indoor space has rooms or other divisions and outdoor space has sub-spaces. These break it into manageable chunks which can be explored in a given order or used for different functions. Sometimes the subdivisions in this case can be so subtle as to be barely perceptible. A garden, for example, could be designed on the basis of a multitude of different rationales: programmatic, ecological or aesthetic, or the fusion of diverse ones. To build a garden on the principle of a micromundo would be to consider all the many places where diverse plants, animals and artefacts could be accommodated, and to think about how they could be distributed to build the greatest variety of experiences, colours and textures.

Micromundo is all about looking closely at details, about taking the time to savour them. When we are out and about we often pause and crouch down to look closely at the marvels that surround us. Often, at first glance, something like these lichens populating a rock might not give you much cause to stop, but the effort seldom goes unrewarded. At a design level there is a danger of overt literality, something we try to avoid unless there is a good reason for it. How it translates into design for us is usually something like the following images. A piece must be legible as a whole, but when the viewer takes a closer look they see initially hidden details, as in the lichen images on the previous page. These details may be inherent to the piece we’ve designed, as in tiles or jointing incorporated in it, or they may be elements that the user places on the piece once it’s complete.

At Micromundo, we tend to imagine each piece as having a life of its own. So a table must function as a table, but it should also stand alone as a harmonious component of a design. The following piece is an example of this logic in application; Hong Kong covers an entire wall from floor to ceiling and it’s up to the user if the piece should function as shelving or sit empty and function as a wall cladding. Just as a building can be of interest without occupants, or with the lights on in some apartments or rooms at night and others off, so Hong Kong functions in its own right and also when populated by objects and plants.

This idea is clearly visible in the photos on the following page, where scale is the underlying factor in the perception of yellow lichens in the landscape. When we consider the degree of detail we want to get down to we usually imagine landscapes first, and how elements interact at scale.

Following on from this idea of landscapes as a source of inspiration, what follows is a worked example of the logic we employ when we design.

As I walked around my old neighbourhood past the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh I used to be amazed by the Campanulas which readily colonised any available cracks between stones in the garden walls opposite the east gate. Whether they were planted up, as in the case of this Echeveria, or they were nomads of the wind who established themselves, their habitat was a literal example of a niche. In all of evolutionary history organisms have jostled for space, elbowing one another firmly to one side to set down roots or access nutrients by other means. In the absence of any organism vying for a spot in a wall, there might appear to be little connection, but these artefacts enjoy greater protagonism as they are, and they are elevated from mundane to ornamental.

Bibliography

iDawkins, R. (2004). The Ancestor’s Tale, p13. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

iiNational Geographic. Age of the Earth. Accessed 29/05/2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/topics/resource-library-age-earth/?q=&page=1&per_page=25

iiiBritish Geological Survey. Geology of Britain Viewer. Accessed 29/05/2020:

https://mapapps.bgs.ac.uk/geologyofbritain/home.html