In its eight years of existence, the design studio Dzek has put just two products on the market, a testament to the belief of its founder, Brent Dzekciorius, that there is merit in taking things slowly
The London-based architectural design studio Dzek produces materials and surfaces developed over long periods of research, experimentation, and collaboration. «I wanted to realize things more fully, and to see people’s ideas expanded. Having that microscopic understanding of a material will change people’s approach to the chair or the piece of furniture they design with it», says Brent Dzekciorius.
Dzekciorius functions primarily as a mediator between the ambitions of the designers and artists with whom he collaborates, and the more risk-averse artisan manufacturers he employs, whose traditions and methods need to be respected. «I want to be an advocate for them. I really enjoy that work, being a facilitator and a producer, somebody who just gets things made». To do this, he brings in the perspectives of materials scientists as well as architects, designers and craftsmen.
Through the process of refinement and perfection, he trusts that each of those contributions will be visible in the final product and communicated to the consumer, and that the process itself will result in something that people want to buy. «The business does not have any investment. It is completely sustained on the success of what we create. We don’t work with any kind of aesthetic outcomes or objectives in mind. We want to make something that is a true expression of the material we’re working with. We go where the work takes us.»
Marmoreal, Dzek’s first product, a terrazzo that comes in slabs and sheets, went on the market in 2014 having been in development since the studio’s founding in 2012. Terrazzo is a technique that has been in use in Verona since at least the 16th Century. Originally it was a substitute for the marble paving that adorns much of the city, using instead the chunks and chips of stone leftover from the quarries that for millennia have been the region’s main industry. Highly skilled artisans arrange these pieces like a jigsaw and pound them into clay.
What results is a harder-wearing and more easily repairable surface. Dzekciorius was attracted by the technique’s economy, using materials that would otherwise be regarded as waste, and its dependence on local craftsmanship. Although the technique is simple, there are thousands of varieties, and each family of terrazzo makers has its own recipes handed down through generations. Dzekciorius’s priority was to preserve these principles in Marmoreal, which is produced in a small factory run by a father and son in northern Italy and uses the discarded pieces of stone that come out of nearby quarries. To manufacture the material en masse, they stir the stones into a binding material and slice up the resulting precast blocks to order.
Part of the tradition of terrazzo is having your own distinct style. To make his version both unique and marketable, Dzekciorius wanted to reimagine the traditional technique. He teamed up with the designer Max Lamb, and they decided to experiment with much larger feature stones. pushing the process to its limit to see where it would break down. «What’s different is the scale. Max’s work with stone was all about revealing the inherent beauty, the quality, the perfection and imperfection of every piece, and also how much variation there is. The bigger the scale, the better, because the more the qualities of the stone are present».
They put boulders up to forty centimeters in diameter into the mixer, and as they did not fit down the chute, they had to load them by hand and with a conveyor belt. They overshot on the first attempt, and the block that came out was full of cracks and imperfections because of the instability caused by the larger stones. The factory owners were bemused and flattered by their efforts, but not offended. «They were all laughing at us. They thought it was hideous!»
After learning how far he could go with the materials and successfully producing the first batches of Marmoreal, Dzekciorius and his team showed the factory’s owner and chief chemist the first set they had assembled, an arrangement of different furnishings and surfaces to be exhibited at that year’s Milan Design Week. «Their jaws dropped: ‘Let’s do an entire palazzo next time! I know this great place where we could set everything up!’» Lamb designed the furnishings to minimize waste, fitting together plain slabs of the material into hard-edged, cubic compositions.
«He could easily have taken a block and cut and carved and CNC milled and applied all these treatments to it, but that wasn’t the direction it went in. It was satisfying to see that the material caused a shift, a different type of engagement and understanding».
ExCinere, Dzek’s second product, is a volcanic ash-glazed tile. It was finalized in 2019, the result of a long collaboration with the Dutch design studio Formafantasma. For years Formafantasma had been developing concepts around materials gathered from Mount Etna, like volcanic ash and basalt, but they hadn’t worked out how to realize them as a product. Dzekciorius wanted to invent a modular material that would complement Marmoreal and diversify his studio’s offering. Having agreed to work together, the first solution was to experiment with bricks inspired by the gardens of Pantelleria, an Italian island between Sicily and Tunisia where the winds and terrain restrict the cultivation of crops.
For thousands of years, farmers have had to protect their plants with circuits of walls built from the island’s volcanic stones. Dzekciorius took these ideas to Stoke-on-Trent, an industrial town in the UK’s Midlands with a tradition of brick-making. «These are very artisanal, very crafty processes. We don’t have a place to play in our studio at the moment, so we have to find people who can do that for us. We found a seven-generation family brickyard that agreed to do it.»
After several rounds of experimentation, they realized it wouldn’t work. «The outcomes were rough and raw, actually too dangerous as a surface, too sharp and glassy. It was fragile as well, you could press your thumb in and it would break apart.» They moved on to make tiles, for which they returned to Italy, to the region of Emilia-Romagna. «We had to take a step back and retool the glazes, but we still got there in a reasonable timeframe given how slowly things move here.» They had tried to keep the production in Stoke-on-Trent, but even after hundreds of trials of glazing using different raw materials, and eventually finding the right composition, nobody would take on the work because of the risk of contamination from the black sand.
Many of Stoke-on-Trent’s traditional brick-making and ceramics businesses are on the verge of collapse because of low demand, with much of the global industry’s manufacturing now taking place in developing countries for a fraction of the cost. Dzekciorius respects the Stoke brick-makers: «The people I met were full of knowledge and generous with that knowledge». However, he agrees they will have to take risks if they want their craft to survive. «We happened to be put in touch with a manufacturer in Italy, who came and visited me here in London. They know everyone in Stoke, and they just laughed when they heard – they couldn’t believe it: ‘These guys are begging for business, they’re desperate, and they’re turning this project away? I just don’t understand’».
Currently, Dzek’s focus is on sustainability. As with the stones used in Marmoreal, Dzekciorius and his team are looking for a way to recycle the leftovers from the process of glazing and re-firing the ExCinere tiles. Their hope is that a byproduct will emerge that they can use alongside the tiles to create furniture and other design objects, but they are still in the early stages of research.
They have also been in talks with Christien Meindertsma, a Dutch artist and designer whose ideas align closely with their own. «She’s forensic in nature, and when I say nature I mean both her own and the nature, the environment, around us.» Meindertsma’s 2015 project ‘Bottom Ash Observatory’ analyzed samples of the residue from the Netherlands’ waste incineration program. The incineration itself produces electricity, but the ashes that remain are sent for landfill.
Meindertsma’s project showed that they contain traces of silver, gold, platinum and other precious resources. «There’s still an inherent value within this bottom ash. It’s quite fascinating. We’re doing lab work with the waste materials – filtration and separation – and we’re conducting a whole range of experiments with the end goal of producing a material.»
Brent Dzekciorius doesn’t know how long this will take, but he is confident something will come out of it. What matters most to him is transparency – ensuring that his collaborators’ identities show through: «All of these projects need to have a distinct DNA, and the DNA of the people we work with needs to be present. I didn’t set out to be in the business of making terrazzo or making ceramic products. I wanted to give designers the widest lens possible to explore an idea through material research and investigation. We have to start from zero every single time».