The three amigos

Renzo B Larriviere, Simone Chua and Chris Daniel

Renzo B Larriviere, Simone Chua and Chris Daniel. Photography: Studio Commerical

The Vivid Sydney festival is brilliant by design: after all, glowing art is hugely successful at attracting millions of people. Something the ‘three amigos’ who all graduated from UTS know well, is that it’s how you spark people’s imaginations when they encounter your art that really matters.

“If we’re creating a work, it’s an opportunity to talk to the public about things that are important to us,” explains Simone Chua, co–founder of interactive lighting and design studio amigo & amigo. “The storytelling aspect of our work engages people in a fun way. It’s really exciting to come up with an idea and see how it can bring joy while people interact with it.”

Chua and co–founding amigo, Renzo B Larriviere, have staged large– scale, thought–provoking artworks at Vivid every year since they set up their studio in Sydney’s Inner West in 2012, just after completing industrial design degrees at UTS.

A third amigo, Chris Daniel, found them through the UTS alumni network when looking for an internship in early 2016. He was then hired by the studio in March 2017 to manage the technological complexities of the group’s installations.

Often those stories are about environmental issues, such as the devastating detritus of single–use plastics in our oceans, which amigo & amigo personified in Crank Zappa for Vivid Sydney 2018 in collaboration with Plasticwise.

Crank is an electric jellyfish made up of thousands of pieces of plastic, including 800 bottles salvaged from Scotts Creek which runs through the North Shore suburb of Chatswood to the ocean. Get up close, and Crank becomes animated — but be careful, it might zap you.

“Storytelling is a fun way of learning about the environment and what you can do, rather than being preachy,” says Larriviere, noting that over 40 community volunteers took part in Crank’s creation, supplying single–use plastics and weaving around a kilometre of recycled plastic twine for the tentacles.

“Community workshops are another way to engage with the issue,” adds Chua. “When people are part of a project, they share ideas in a non–threatening space.”

Engineering Stories

At the same time Crank came to life in Chatswood, amigo & amigo debuted the studio’s most ambitious lighting sculpture for Vivid Sydney in The Rocks with Fugu (the Japanese name for a poisonous pufferfish).

Like Crank, Fugu is a sea creature designed to inspire conversations about how humans treat marine life. Its giant luminescent body expands, contracts and rotates (like a pufferfish reacts to predators) thanks to the motors beneath its spikes. Fugu is a masterwork of industrial design and engineering that drew massive crowds, though it caused a few spiky headaches behind the scenes.

“I think Fugu was our most challenging project, because it was the first thing we’d done with kinetics,” explains Daniel. “We had these gremlin issues that were difficult to diagnose because of environmental factors we hadn’t had a chance to test. Renzo and I were trying to work out why the mechanism for Fugu wasn’t working as well as when we first built it and then we figured out it was because the ground was slightly sloped and twisted.”

Coming up with a fix for Fugu’s equilibrium dilemma was a challenge, though as Larriviere explains, the team rises well to new complexities.

“We sit down as a team, we come up with an idea and then we ask, ‘All right Chris, how do we do this?’ from the technology side. Chris does the research and then together we implement the findings into the design. It’s a fun process, actually.”

Parabolic Love Cloud. Photo: Chris Pemberton
Parabolic Love Cloud. Photo: Chris Pemberton

Kindred Spirits

Larriviere and Chua have been collaborating on projects for over a decade since they recognised kindred spirits in each other at university.

“The storytelling aspect of our work engages people in a fun way. It’s really exciting to come up with an idea and see how it can bring joy while people interact with it.”
– Simone Chua

“We met in the office supplies shop of UTS in the Design, Architecture and Building faculty,” remembers Chua, turning to Larriviere to add: “And I think you were lost or something.”

He admits that he possibly was. The two became good friends, bonding over experimental design and their shared Chinese heritage.

“My great grandmother was from China,” says Larriviere. “So, it was interesting to see how Chinese traditions in Australia are different from Peru.”

As for the amigo name, it’s simple she says: “Renzo’s from Peru, so I’d call him amigo and he’d call me amigo back. Later it seemed a nice name for our business, because it was about our minds coming together to make creative projects.”

Learning through experiments

The collaboration implied in the name amigo & amigo is a common thread in many fond memories for everyone on the team. Daniel is all for exploring as many concepts as possible. “University is a good space to experiment,” he says. “It’s a good time to do it. We get a lot of creative freedom with our work, but when you go out into the real world you can be bound to your client’s brief.”

Larriviere wants to encourage more international students to seek out collaborations with others.

“Those combination projects, where you get to work with people from other disciplines, have been invaluable in my career,” he advises. “So make the most of them. Also, talk with teachers outside of project stuff because they’re willing to help you. They get excited by you coming up with a cool idea and getting involved. Probably the biggest thing they taught me was empathy.”

And Chua highly recommends building a community with fellow students, because collaborations can be magical when they unlock new experiences: “Don’t just focus on ticking all the boxes. Push the boundaries to see what works; and help each other really explore new ideas. The magic of industrial design, I think, is it lets you apply problem solving skills to anything. And if the work does the unexpected, well, that can bring a bit of joy.

Story by Stuart Ridley