There’s no question that when it comes to expressing myself, I find it so much easier to do through a physical object than through words. But that is far from the only reason why this is my first blog in almost two years. I have naively believed that my work should do all the talking and in a push to expand my portfolio over the last few years, communicating with the public has been neglected. But avoidance rather than neglect is probably a more honest view of things. Talking about myself in front of an audience (on a page / screen or in person) is something that fills me with dread. When teaching languages or woodwork, talking in front of a group of people is straightforward. However I prefer to share aspects of myself only with a close circle. Much to my shame, I was reminded of the paucity of my blogs by the editor of Living Edge magazine who recently interviewed me and it led to some more introspection. This isn’t the first time I have been forced to ask questions of myself.
At a spring exhibition last year a back-handed compliment also made me stop and think; “With work like that, no wonder you are so smug!” I have always preferred to treat people who come onto my stand in the same way I would like to be treated when I enter a shop. I generally know what I like and don’t want someone else to try to persuade me to buy something that I may not want. As soon as I feel the sales assistant hovering, I’m out of the door quicker than Usain Bolt. Therefore I was surprised that someone could view my wish to allow them thinking space as self-satisfaction. I am by nature a self-critical person so her assessment felt very far from the truth. It is so easy to incorrectly read a book by its cover, but perhaps that was mostly what people were getting to see – the cover but not the content so much?
Society has changed over the last 15 years. Reality TV has introduced the idea that anyone can be a celebrity and being famous is now more of an aspiration than ever. This is particularly relevant when a lot of today’s youth feel that their prospects aren’t great and that fame is the only way to get ahead. Despite not being a fan of these shows, nor of the idea of fame, I have to confess that I almost succumbed to the pull myself. The desire to be a bit more open and more visible led me to throw caution to the wind and apply to take part in the recent BBC series, The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts. After the initial phone interview followed by a recorded Skype call there was a four week wait before hearing back from the casting department. Plenty of time to ask myself, do I really want to expose my weaknesses, limitations and be potentially be revealed as ”an imposter”? Objectively, I can stand back and assess that after twenty years of doing what I do I have accrued a lot of skills and knowledge and also developed my own style. However I am acutely aware of the fact there will always be people out there who are better than me in all these aspects and this is what has inhibited my sharing process. By the time the email arrived to say that I was still in the running, I had convinced myself that it was bad idea and politely made my excuses and withdrew.
A client recently wrote a lovely email thanking me for her Genie shelf. She also commented that she’d love to know more about what goes on behind the scenes both from a making perspective but also my thought process behind the work . This felt like another reminder that people are interested not just in the product but also the creative process and it was time to remedy this.
A benefit of this introspection
Self-reflection is a positive thing providing it doesn’t stray too far into the realms of navel gazing. It gives us an opportunity to see how our personality and patterns of behaviour can be an obstacle to moving forward. A combination of avoidance, introversion and possibly imposter syndrome had caused me to reveal little content and show primarily the cover of my book. So by starting to write about my approach (I have a few themes I have started and then put on hold when the introvert took control again) I have had a chance to put into words my own internal process which I had so far taken for granted. Opening this dialogue with myself has helped me recognise more easily how ideas are born and what ties my work together, things that have been happening on a very subconscious level previously. This knowledge is helpful in informing future decisions about my work and therefore something so crucial in my development as an artist.
So, with all this in mind I am looking to do things a little differently. I am about to publish an e-newsletter which will go to subscribers, most of whom I have met in person. This contains more information about the making and thought process behind my work. Some of the content will be exclusive or will be published well in advance of social media / my blog. If you’d like to be added to my subscriber list please email me with the subject “Subscribe to newsletter”. Please be assured that I won’t be sharing your email address with anyone or over filling your inbox with news about what I had for breakfast (a bowl of bran and a cup of tea if you must know).
I still won’t be pouncing on people at exhibitions, but intend to deny my naturally introverted self from running the show. However, please feel free to approach me if you’d like to know more about my work. Despite valuing the time I spend working on my own I always come away from shows reflecting on how much I enjoyed the interaction with the public!
The Spring and summer months are the busiest when it comes to exhibiting my work and the season kicked off with RHS Wisley in April where the three new floating shelves were really well received by the public.This was followed by Simply Cheshire at Arley Hall in May where a panel of four judges were unanimous in their choice of my work as the Best in Show. I’m pictured below with one of the judges, Noddy Holder, in our matching caps. (Photography credit – Christina Quine.)
If you would like to know where you can see my work around the UK, I’m currently booked in for five events;
27 April – 1 May Craft and Design Fair, RHS Wisley
20 – 21 May Simply Cheshire, Arley Hall
20-21 June Royal Cheshire Show, Clay House Farm
19 – 28 August Celebration of Craftsmanship & Design, Cheltenham
13 -15 October Wilmslow Art Trail, St Bartholemew’s Chirch
After returning from a two-day seminar near Cork at Joseph Walsh’s Studio, entitled ‘Decoding Craftsmanship’ I am feeling refreshed and inspired. Although seeing Joseph’s exceptional work up close was a real treat, exploring the topic of the relationship between the maker and the digital technologies that are driving 21st century production was what made it an easy decision to travel over to the South of Ireland.
Bit by bit I have started to embrace computer-aided design and manufacture and it has become a regular part of my process. However as my designs become more complex, the last thing I want to do is lose the connection with the material and let the technologies run the operation. The seminar welcomed renowned contributors, providing me with a range of opinions on the emerging technologies, all of which were enlightening and diverse towards the future of maker culture.
Maintaining a design’s spirit in digital
Joseph talked initially about how important it was to maintain the spirit of his sketches as the design process started to engage with digital technologies. Working the practicalities of both the materials’ characteristics and the software’s capabilities into the design without losing the essence of the idea was where the crux of the issue lay. With various scale models of his latest seven metre tall commission, he stressed the importance of the maquette and its evolution whilst still keeping one eye on the original concept. Misoslav Hlava, one of Joseph’s computational design team, explained some of the initial stages of taking some of the early sketch models into software such as Rhino and Grasshopper so that stresses and strains of such large pieces could be analysed. Modelling and analysing such free form curves accurately is no easy feat despite Miroslav making it look a simple task.
The director of Arup Dublin, Peter Flynn, introduced the theme of tolerance and how “design is about planning for what could go wrong”. This was highlighted beautifully with examples of Joseph’s work being tested for the effects of torsion as well as how two colossal towers were joined to make one building (CCTV Headquarters in Beijing) by waiting for the right climatic conditions, clearly preceded by an enormous amount of planning! The technology treats the materials with defined dimensions and orientations but the craftsman, engineer and architect must allow for movement or come face to face with failure. Peter finished by pointing out that just because we have these powerful technologies to hand doesn’t mean that we should overuse them, with the “over elaborate” design of the Nissan Duke being used to illustrate his point.
Creating an immersive digital experience
Thomas Bryans, director of IF_DO introduced the theme of Virtual Reality and how with the use of digital he is now able to allow his clients to enter into the virtual world of his computer models so that they can look around his architecture as if they are actually there. The ability to use this tool for the “immersion effect” is proving to be an increasingly powerful sales tool in the world of design but also being able to bring home other causes such as the plight of refugees and the living conditions that they have to endure, by allowing us to empathise more easily.
I engaged in a workshop about the powerful modelling tool, Rhino with Phil Cook from Simply Rhino. There is an art to accurately representing beautiful flowing curves and Phil explained how the tools of Rhino can help the designer “weight” the rate of change of arcs and freeform curves. The difference between control and edit points became crystal clear and why having as few control points as possible is vital to having a smooth flowing object. He demonstrated various commands that allow the user to create complex surfaces and then edit them in a more fluid way. Parametric programmes such as Solidworks allow for fluid editing but don’t really mimic the hands on designing and making process in the same way that Rhino does. The History command now enables various stages of construction to be manipulated at the same time thus being a way of bridging this parametric gap. Although not as powerful as Grasshopper, which we discovered on day two, when illustrating the Blend Surface command with History enabled it showed the real power of this incredible programme. The point that Thomas had previously made that technology is a tool for design but should not be used as a driver of design, became much more relevant as Phil demonstrated Rhino’s capabilities.
This point became even more apparent with the workshop on Grasshopper presented by Arthur Mamou-Mani of Simply Rhino. He demonstrated its abilities to match virtual geometry with coded parameters to create very complex forms. As we modelled both curved lines and surfaces with multiple divisions and control points, with the movement of a “number slider” the model would rotate, multiply arms and form complex lofts effortlessly. By the end of the session I had started to develop an understanding of how it works but felt that its danger was that by being able to manipulate a whole host of parameters, the final design could be a long way from the initial concept.
The importance of physical prototyping
Cathal Loughnane of Design Partners came armed with a collection of components that showed the process of designing Logitech’s state of the art computer mice. His initial training was as a sculptor before moving into product design and it was refreshing to see that the early part of the process was moving from sketch to sculpting, before 3D scanning his model and moving onto the digital iterations. A piece that is going to be in a user’s hand all day has to look great but also feel just right and his will to get his hands on the material right at the beginning of the process tied in with the theme of the whole seminar.
Similarly Peter Sheehan of Peter Sheehan Studio, although having adopted some of digital technologies came across as very wary of the extent that digital technology should be a part of the process. His collaboration with Joseph Walsh and Cathal Loughnane for the History Chair demonstrated the importance he places on the initial sketch, the maquette and the 1: 1 scale prototyping phases and how these need working and reworking before the digital side takes over.
Gergely Kovacs, head of computational design at Heatherwick Studios introduced some of their recent projects demonstrating that even though the scale of their work has increased from small pieces of furniture to giant mixed use architectural developments, the same issues of how the material will lead a project more than the digital design, surfaced again. This was illustrated perfectly with the Extrusions Chair, using a new manufacturing process, which squeezes aluminium through a die like toothpaste coming out of a tube. The initial section came out warped and rather than discarding this section, they chose to use this part, with each piece having its own original identity.
After two days of talks, workshops and discussions I was reminded of the process that has become apparent during the recent development of my soon to be released Genie shelf. However much work was done in the software, nothing compared to experimenting with the corner of an offcut, prototyping and creating a first version when moving a design forward. The hands on manipulation of the material, slows the maker down to having a closer more intuitive connection with the material, which cannot be replicated from behind a computer screen. Despite the technology being there to aid in the process it is inevitable that it will play a part in the final outcome of a piece. The software allows us to see things that we may not have seen before and being able to “unsee” them isn’t possible. Being influenced by technology is inevitable but what became apparent to me was that over immersion leads to a lack of authenticity of direction in the design process. The use of digital technology is in an important part of the design (and production) process but for me is best consigned to the rational left side of the brain. The feeling that a design creates is usually born in an nonjudgmental expressive state of mind whether this is at the sketch phase or during 3D scale maquettes, which emanates from the right side of the brain. The challenge of maintaining the “feeling” is always going to be there, when the brain constantly flits from right to left side activities but as Joseph pointed out early on, the objective should be to stay true to the spirit of the initial idea.
David’s bench, 1999
In 1999, when I was just starting out in Barcelona, I acquired one of my first large commissions. The commission was for a matching dining table and bench. The top surface was a two-inch thick layer of Maple, which was held on four-inch legs of ebonised Iroko. The design featured my first large mortise and tenon joints. When my client, David moved house the table remained, but the bench travelled with him.
“Your first bench has now become my longstanding bedside table. It’s a simple work of art that remains consistent, durable and faultless.” – David
Fireland Flow cabinet, 2003
The cabinet was made in 2003 to be an exhibition piece. It comes out on the road with me less often these days as I have new pieces that I want to exhibit. It’s always painful when one of my babies are mistreated, but apart from a small scratch (much to my annoyance) inflicted by a member of the public’s rucksack, it remains in perfect condition.
Michael’s table, 2005
Michael commissioned a small, high table in solid Cherry and Ebony. We worked on the design together and it was a fusion of a traditional style with a contemporary twist.
“The hall table I commissioned was a collaboration between the two of us that to this day I still admire. It is made of handpicked woods, which have aged beautifully as the colours have deepened over the years. It still remains in the same place it did twelve years ago as a hall table enduring the use that we have put it to with bits and pieces like keys being put on it which might well have scratched it but doesn’t seem to have done so.
It truly is a timeless piece with a design that is still in keeping with our new décor even when we renovated our house. You put a lot of effort into making the table to the highest quality and the finish is quite excellent.” – Michael
Martino’s lamps, 2006
Martino commissioned two lamps which were a combination of thin, solid wood strips, which made up the lampshade struts and veneered pieces which formed the structural parts of the project. Solid wood plugs were glued into the struts to hold the structure in place and then the lamps were finished with a few coats of oil.
“I still absolutely love those lamps and finding a place that does them justice is always a challenge. They are still in brilliant condition, with very little change in them since they were new. Since we are in the process of redecorating, I am excited to re-think where and how we will use the lamps.” – Martino