Artists design

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When The Sculpture House first approached me to write about their work, I didn’t hesitate in my decision to  meet them. Their beautiful website, launched just three weeks ago, shows an immaculately curated ‘collection’ of twelve pieces of furniture which have been “designed” by “artists”.

When I first sit down with Alex Chinneck, one of the four company directors, he begins by telling me about the piece he is currently working on with with his own sculptural practice. He describes a full-sized house from which he will remove the front facade and re-construct it to appear as though it is sliding down onto the pavement.  This piece, which he is designing in collaboration with Smith and Wallwork, structural engineers, and brick producers Ibstock, will be open at the top to reveal the inside of the house.
Like his last piece, a derelict factory in Hackney where he has replaced each of the 112 windows with an identically “smashed” pane of glass, it will stand until the building is demolished or the artists find the funds to buy the building. “And if you do manage to buy the building,” I ask, “What will you put behind the facade?” Chinneck looks at me completely perplexed – “What do you mean?” He asks, “I won’t put anything behind it – it’s a sculpture.”
And thus, very quickly, the difference between the taxonomies of “artist” and “designer” is immediately evident when I, a design writer, question the functionality – the “usefulness” – of an artist’s piece of art. It is these subtle differences, which The Sculpture House hope to explore, bridge and exploit.
Glass: So tell me about The Sculpture House.
Alex Chinneck: I think that innovation doesn’t come when you’re looking for an answer, it comes when you’re exploring and playing with something.
I studied painting at Chelsea College of Art and, since leaving art school, have been working as a sculptor. While developing my sculptural practice, I started exploring relationships with industry, with fabricators, with material makers etc and I began to develop an interest in these cross-disciplinary collaborations – where you partner artistic interest with a scientist, for example, who can realise this creativity, someone who reinforces the artist’s imagination and allows it to evolve into something physical. I liked the idea of an artist not being limited to one discipline, to one concept,  exploring new areas, new territories.
There is such a wonderful history of artists exploring furniture and, in doing so, extending the material interests within their practice, the formal interests or even the conceptual interests – certainally the aesthetic interests. We felt that there was nothing in place that harnessed this exploration. Lots of sculptors are interested in designing furniture, but didn’t have the resource, the finance, the impetus, the reason or the pressure to do it.  What we did was set about creating a platform – The Sculpture House –  to encourage this exploration.
What do you consider to be the difference between an artist and a designer? Are designers limited in some way?
Both are very creative – both seek invention and innovation and try to push their imagination. The Sculpture House is by no means an attack on design – we’re not suggesting we can do it better.  We’re perhaps suggesting that artists bring a different approach to function, durability, sustainability. Principally, in fact, they don’t bring an approach – they approach a piece of furniture, a piece of design, without those considerations. And I think, because they’re free from those considerations, it allows their creativity and their imagination and makes room for innovation – they have a slightly  different or slightly greater freedom.
This is where The Sculpture House comes in. We don’t place the pressure or the concerns of efficiency or cost or durability or performance on the artist’s shoulders.  Our team deals with that for them.  It’s very much a conversation. The artist has the idea or the essence of the idea which we collectively evolve to be a better piece of design. And that’s where it leaves the arena of artwork and enters into design.
It isn’t about artists being able to do it better, it is just the idea of them potentially being able to come and do it with a little more creative freedom, because they haven’t built up a perimeter around their imagination. I think with training and experience and expertise you build up walls of potential constraint and you kill an idea before it has begun because you rule it out if it doesn’t fit the brief or the model which equates it to being good design.
What we try to do is to reinforce each artist’s ideas with technical experience and ability. Our shareholder group contains lots of different fabricators – one is a scientific engineering company, for example, one produces carpentry for furniture companies, one is a metalwork company that produces aeroplane parts – so we bring to the artists this huge spectrum of expertise and experience and considerations that they don’t worry about or haven’t had to worry about.
I would suggest that design is a solution to a problem, whereas art asks questions, creates the problem. Without a problem to solve, how do you go about choosing which ideas to explore, which artists to work with?
There is a long process.  We approach lots of artists – artists that we have watched for a long time or artists who we’ve seen something within their practice where there is a material interest or an aesthetic which we think would transform well into furniture. We really approach all kinds of artists and we don’t care about where they’ve exhibited before.
So talent spotting?
Well yes – there’s something really invigorating about discovery and there’s something equally invigorating about giving someone an opportunity when they haven’t had lots of them before. We don’t pick on reputation at all – there are too many bad artists out there with good reputations but we approach lots of different artists and have lots of conversations with them – studio visits, lots of Skypes, lots of meetings and the conversation evolves.  And typically they would present us with a collection of ideas and then myself and another Creative Director of the company, Davd Murphy – who is also a young sculptor – we choose an idea which we feel has the potential to evolve into an interesting piece of design. Then we start prototyping for the artist in our workshop in Norfolk and then every so often we take the prototype back to the artist and it will go back and it will be refined and evolve. The Sculpture House plays a huge part, not only in realising the object, but we also have a huge creative input. It’s very curated.
How did The Sculpture House come about?
The relationship with the workshops came before the company. I was fabricating moving sculptures with these three different companies in Norfolk, all owned by the same businessman – who is also a physicist. When we had finished that project, he told me that he had all of these resources and that he wanted to support or create his own furniture company.  Just before this myself and David Murphy had curated an exhibition of artist-designed furniture and were looking for the backing and the experience to turn that concept into a business – it was a perfectly timed thing.  So we had the pool of resources before the artists.
What I love about this concept is the spectrum. It is curated and it is broad, but it’s curatorially broad. There is such a huge spectrum of artists practising out there who we would like to work with and the spectrum in terms of the aesthetics that can come from collaboration is unlimited.
So, to use a design term, who is the end user? The client? Presumably the Sculpture House’s designs have to be commercially successful? Surely another difference between artists and designers is that designers are limited by the necessity for their work to be commercially and functionally successful?
All of the pieces work.  The Sculpture House has to work commercially or it can’t evolve and it can’t survive.  We aim to be the bridge between creative practice and the world of commerce. Creative types get scared of the idea of commerce and of business. Where there is commercial concern involved, often there is creative compromise – I think because of the way that we’ve selected artists and the way that we’ve managed conversations, however, the compromises have never felt so great – we’ve never killed or suffocated the essence of an idea.
Some of the pieces in the collection are more “couture” than others there’s not a single piece that we’ve made because we thought it would be a commercial hit. Creativity and visual interest comes first and commercial second. But The Sculpture House do bring a lot of things to an idea that perhaps the artist wouldn’t – efficient production, intelligent costing, intelligent pricing, branding and PR.
We didn’t want The Sculpture House to follow an art model or an artists-designed-furniture model, in that it’s not limited in number and it’s not limited in availability. We’re working very hard to bring prices down so that the spectrum of aesthetics can be acquired by a broader spectrum of people.
So what next?
We’d like to explore fashion. I’m not sure what that means yet – but there is something about the fashion brand and the fashion model that really appeals and suits our brand and I think our brand would be desired in that world. We’d like to collaborate with fashion houses – somewhere like Dover Street Market would be absolutely fantastic. I think our brand would sit really neatly with theirs and the products would sit nicely in the stores.
Will you work with some of the same artists again? Do they become designers then?
Some of them – we’re interested in particular artists building brands within the brand and now that they’ve gone through the process, it should become easier. Some of the ideas couldn’t be limited to one piece. We’re starting to discuss wallpaper with the cabinet maker Hyesoo You, for example, because we’re keen to bring her aesthetic and her interests into a more accessible realm and price. But we want to continue working with new artists and building the collection.
Would you work with established artists?
We love the idea of early career artists. We also love the idea of bringing opportunity – it’s appreciated more by them. The Sculpture House is a long conversation – we don’t throw money at artists – we rely on them to cherish the opportunity and cherish the challenge. Also, and I say this tentatively, early career artists bring an element of flexibility to their practice that later career artists don’t. I think commercial success can really suffocate creative expression and freedom – an artist feels the responsibility to repeat ideas that have worked commercially. So I don’t think the concept would really work with established artists.  That said, some big artists I couldn’t refuse.  If Richard Wilson came along, I’d love to have a conversation with him.
by Emilie Lemons

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Glass Online architecture and design writer

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