The London-based designer and goldsmith Kia Utzon-Frank of KUFstudios partnered with the strategist and experienced chocolatier Rafaella Baruzzo to make a brand of luxury “terrazzo” chocolate bars that look more mineral than edible but taste extraordinary. They now hope to use their BRIK chocolate as an educational tool and as an aid to rethinking business, responsibility and luxury.
How did a designer and a strategist end up working together with chocolate?
Kia: We were put in contact through a friend in common back in 2016 when I started doing cakes as KUFstudios. Raffaella was at this point advising me in the capacity of someone who had started, run and closed a chocolate business. I wasn’t even working with chocolate at this point and didn’t know I was going to be, so our initial meeting was more a friendly exchange of thoughts and possible contacts that could help me with what I was doing at that moment. I didn’t even know she was a strategist at that point. It took three years before we partnered up and created BRIK.
Raffaella: I saw Kia’s work and instinctively recognised its uniqueness. When we met, I had just taken a break from a 20-year career in chocolate and wanted to do something else. Needless to say, I was brought back to what I love in a big way with the opportunity to open the confectionery market to a different level of artistry.
How did your previous work and experience shape the way you work with the material?
K: I am a trained goldsmith and have always been attracted to the tactile world. I touch everything (which has proven to be a real problem during the pandemic). Whilst I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I decided to develop ideas by making a model a day and see what would come out of putting my brain in my hands in this way. This approach to making has shaped my way of working ever since and is the core of where all my ideas come from, it also creates seamless transitions between fields of interests and different materials. For me, chocolate is just another material – one that offers the additional dimension of flavour to my design process.
R: I am the more cerebral side of the business but love searching for ingredients and I buy all sorts of raw materials and markets, whilst Kia looks at chocolate as a vehicle. Together we have found a point where design meets flavour, texture and market expectations.
Both of you work for well-known brands such as Fortnum & Mason, Tom Dixon and Goop, what is the difference between the process of producing for yourself and for a brand?
K: I have never really thought about there being a difference, since they approach me to design something for them and their products/events because they have seen how my work can be linked to their brand. Working with a brand always offers me an opportunity to develop something new because they add a new element that I will need to accommodate. This is extremely enriching. Figuring out how to do Tom Dixon’s green marble in chocolate has led to a whole new marbling technique, which I am using in my BRIK products. Producing for myself (or for BRIK) obviously has a lot of freedom because I don’t have a brief and a client, but it can also be quite a task to get out as I don’t have an immediate taker or a deadline.
R: I do not think there is a big difference working for ourselves as such; well-known brands have a clear target market and distribution channels with all the pros and cons. We still deliver on a bicycle to our private customers and work on customisation to a degree not possible for some other companies.
Do you think conventional ideas about what is “appetizing” are changing? Do customers find chocolate that looks like terrazzo appetizing, for example, or is that not what it’s about?
K: I don’t think it is changing, I think it is evolving. BRIK not about appetising-looking chocolate. On the contrary even. It’s about sparking curiosity and surprise and breaking down the boundaries between food, design and art. People get more curious when the surprise is bigger, so the less it looks like chocolate, the bigger impact it has. It’s of utmost importance that the flavours are amazing though and everything is made as sustainably as possible. Otherwise, it easily turns into a gimmick.
R: I think consumer taste is evolving and there are different degrees of expectation about what is new, or extravagant, and what is familiar. Consumer taste is transversal and can shift from traditional flavours, shapes and sizes to more complex demands depending on the occasion (self-consumption vs gifting and sharing). I think that the recent shocks and disruptions are great opportunities to work more closely with the consumer to tailor the products to moments rather than customer segments.
On your website, it says your packaging is 100 percent compostable and you donate towards planting trees. Are your ingredients also ethically sourced? In what way? Is it much harder to make luxury commercial food products in a regenerative manner do you think? And do your customers care?
K: I like to think our customers care about sustainability and regeneration, but it is not our reason for doing so. For us sustainability is not a question of “if” and “for who?”, it’s a given and we believe every company has a responsibility to work this way. We are doing everything we can with the limited means we have to use the best and most sustainable natural ingredients possible – the problem is that this comes at a much higher cost and with endless hours of constant research, so it is not always possible. Using chocolate is also a problem in itself because it comes from the other side of the world and is impossible to source locally. But as it is our material of choice we are currently working on sourcing our cocoa from regenerative cocoa farms growing many of our other ingredients as well, so we have as much knowledge about where our ingredients are coming from as possible, as well as contributing to a negative CO2 footprint and a stronger local economy. We are not a luxury product for the sake of being in a luxury category. We naturally ended up in this bracket because we work the way we do – making handmade, bespoke chocolates, using sustainable and natural ingredients, materials and methods. We want to use the luxury platform we have available to educate and change the way luxury works through the channels we reach.
R: As Kia stated, our “luxury” seal comes from having adopted a clean, transparent supply chain where we can track our suppliers at any stage, support their projects and discuss with them best transport practice – we are not in the luxury market because of induced scarcity but simply because we have decided to produce less, more sustainably. We have also started to offset our carbon footprint using Treedom.net where we adopt and plant a cocoa tree in Cameroon for every slot of chocolate tiles bundles we sell. We are aiming to raise awareness of how an industry like the confectionery industry (£1.1 billion per year in the UK) can be the starting point for children’s educational programmes on sugar, fat and packaging.
What are your plans for the future? More flavours? Different products? Or different experiments?
K: There will always be more flavours and products and experiments. BRIK is in constant development, I simply can’t stop coming up with new ideas. We launched a new website in late 2020, which gives a much fuller image of what BRIK is about. We are also working on an extensive youth education programme for schools, using chocolate as a medium to understand business, creative thinking, idea development, making, sustainability, regeneration, community and resilience in times of uncertainty. If eating chocolate is not a great incentive to learn, I don’t know what is.
R: We all love chocolate but I believe we should be responsibly eating it cautiously as “food of the gods” and a treasure. The French geopolitical scientist Virginie Raisson has stated that we are running the risk of being short of cocoa by 2038; I think she has a valid point in her analysis of consumption increase rate versus the global cocoa production and the actual threats this poses to the local ecosystems; I think consumer education, supply chain transparency and direct responsibility on regenerative farming and sustainability are the real concrete plans we should all be working for the future.
Interview by Orlando Lovell, first published at the Dutch Institute of Food and Design, October 2020.
Title image: BRIK chocolate © KUFstudios