“We kind of hacked these printers to do what they do, to use dyes as opposed to pigments. By doing that, it allows us to feel like we’re kind of peeking under the hood of something.”
To call Justin Suazo and Camila Mercado self-starters would hardly do them enough justice.The young founders of Software Studios, both recent grads from Cooper Union in Manhattan, bring their diverse artistic backgrounds in graphic design, sculpture, photography, architecture and coding, to render beautiful digital imagery into tangible, physical form. Printing on primarily cotton and silk, the two have taken on a unique body of projects that range from large-scale pieces for Glossier to limited edition silk prints for Merf, and more recently their own products.
Meet Justin Suazo and Camila Mercado, founders of SOFTWARE STUDIOS:
photography by Angela Chan.
What’s the story behind software STudios?
Justin: It all started with my interest in digital printing. Two or three years ago, I bought this small large-format printer off the street and just started tinkering with it — taking it apart, putting it back together, I was very interested in making it print on fabric. Camila and I both went to Cooper Union for art — but the year we got there, they stopped providing digital fabric printing. So I was like, okay, I think that I’m smart enough to do this myself. I’m going to pick up the phone and figure it out. Two years later I started Software Studios. The name is sort of a play on words, or a double entendre. It both references computer software and the importance it has in our design practice, as well as the simple translation of fabric as a “soft”ware.
When Camila and I first decided to start working together, I was working at an architecture firm doing fabrication, and Camila was doing a bunch of freelance web work. It was around January or February of 2015 when we started working on Software more regularly, we really wanted to make this happen. I quit my job, and Camila started coming in full time. Since March, we’ve been getting clients, doing jobs, and experimenting with different types of materials for designers, artists, as well as larger companies.
WHAT ARE SOME PROJECTS THAT YOU’RE CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
Justin: Besides working on prints for clients, we’ve also been busy creating our own products. We recently released a line of skinny scarves using film photographs Camila and I shot during our travels over the past few years. Each scarf is unique in color, texture, and geographic location. This work captures the materiality of a certain place and either distorts or compliments it as it is translated onto a sheer, delicate silk. I like to associate travel, film photography, and skinny scarves to the birth of commercial tourism in the 1950’s. By placing our photographs onto silk and turning them into skinny scarves, the image once captured to be saved or reviewed at a later date, is freed as an article of clothing to travel and be shared. We are also in the midst of a few artist collaborations challenging the boundaries and blurring the distinctions between art objects and products.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO PRINTING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Camila: I think ultimately, our practices as artists have been largely informed by the limits of technology. We’re also both interested in sculpture and making things with our hands. The problem of where technology and the physical world intersect is always super challenging, because it’s really easy to make something that’s a gimmick. And that’s not what we’re really interested in. Digital printing is a really nice way to transition from the virtual to the physical. When you finally get to see a super hi-res photograph printed on to a fine silk, it almost feels like it retains all the spooky qualities of the screen.
Justin: It’s a little bit of a DIY thing — I’ve always been about doing things myself. I like knowing how things work, I’m always tinkering, building stuff — I like to know how to access things and in today’s culture with so many resources at our finger tips, it’s relatively easy to get help to figure something out.
Camila: At Cooper Union, I got into writing code. And in doing so, became fascinated with finding ways to poke at the pristine facade of technology. With our practice, this means understanding the nuance of translating an image from the screen to the physical. A lot of the work that we do has some sort of manipulation involved. It’s pretty rare that we’ll just be printing someone’s photograph that they took; there’s always some sort of adjustments made. Much of this work deals with color theory, something Justin and I learned about in school. Often times we are given prints designed on a computer that use what we call “screen colors”, hues that can only exist with a back light. Finding effective ways to produce these colors takes a lot of trickery rather than a step by step process. There is a lot of hacking involved in the way Justin figured out how to modify our printers to print on fabric. It’s a word that’s been ruined twenty-three ways by Buzzfeed, but we kind of hacked these printers to do what they do, to use dyes as opposed to pigments. By doing that it allows us to feel like we’re peeking under the hood of something.
Justin: What sets us apart from most digital printers is that we use dyes, not pigments. Pigment inks sit on the surface of a fabric and tend to wash out and produce faded blacks. Our dyes penetrate deep into the cotton or silk and produce rich, vibrant colors as well as deep blacks. All of the fabric we print on is paper-backed and coated to ensure the highest quality print and the finest level of detail. After we print on the fabric we remove the paper backing and put it in our vertical steamer. The steam chemically bonds the dye to the fibers ensuring a machine washable, colorfast print.
One of the trickier parts about what we do here at Software Studios is color matching. For every material we print on we have to create a custom color profile for it. This means we print out a series of color charts, steam, wash, and dry them then we use a spectrophotometer to essentially “read” the colors. This device is a thousand times more sensitive to color then the human eye. The spectrophotometer is hooked up to a computer where it compares the results we printed with what it fed the printer, adjustments are made and then a custom profile is born.
This process is essential — every material has a different variation of white, and not every material absorbs the dye the same way. We work hard to achieve super accurate color.
Justin: The process of getting this printer to where it is now took three years. But if I wanted to make another one, I could do it in a week.
Justin: This is our pinking machine — it’s super old, from the 1920s. Once the printed fabric comes out of our printer we sometime use this to pink the edges to help control fraying. That’s what this thing does. (And it’s really fun.)
Camila: It’s nice to work with tools that are so beautifully-crafted. This is a type of little device that really speaks to an age of dealing with garment production and manufacturing in New York that really isn’t here anymore. These things are easy to fetishize, and be very interested in, we’ve had a couple of other industrial sewing machines, too that were built in the 1940s and still work. They’re really beautiful machines. We definitely enjoy working side by side with new digital printing technologies and older tools that have more history to them.
Together, Justin and Camila carefully separate the printed silk from its paper backing.
Justin: Then we do the steaming process.
After the steaming process, which allows the printed colors to bloom to their full potential, their final product looks something like this: a beautiful rendering of digital media into a tangible piece of artwork.
LEARN MORE ABOUT SOFTWARE STUDIOS.