Dutch artist Sarah van Gameren delights in the theatrical potential of design, and uses the idea of melting and burning to dramatic effect. Hannah Booth talks to her about the theory behind her signature piece

The trouble with mechanical objects is that they can break down. Sarah van Gameren’s Big Dipper, a machine that produces candle wax chandeliers, isn’t, well… dipping. The reason is in van Gameren’s hand – a thin piece of picture wire that became twisted and then snapped. When I visited, the machine had ground to a halt and, installed in the entrance hall to the Design Museum as one of its Designers in Residence installations, cut rather a sad figure.

Big Dipper, when it works, creates 24 chandeliers over a period of 12 hours, by dipping basic wire frames with bare wicks into hot wax and allowing them to drip elegantly. The machine itself is designed to look like a giant mechanical chandelier – and the idea is to show the process behind the object and turn it into entertainment. ‘I first thought of dipping real chandeliers into wax, but that seemed a bit illogical,’ says van Gameren.

She isn’t an engineer, so she drew a ‘big, naive drawing of a machine’ and presented it to retired model maker and special effects designer Tony Dunsterville to turn into reality. ‘He’s one of a band of “nutty professors” at a company called Complete Fabrication, and he did a truly miraculous job,’ she says.

Big Dipper was one of van Gameren’s three graduation projects – she left the Royal College of Art this summer with an MA, after studying at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Part of the Design Museum’s brief was to develop it from student project to installation with an end product/ to that end, the candlesticks are on sale in the Design Museum for £85, complete with bespoke cardboard packaging. At college, Big Dipper was exhibited alongside Burn, Burn, Burn – again, more of a performance piece than a product. Burn, Burn, Burn grew out of a project last year called Chain Reaction, in which she burned 100 000 matches continuously, one by one – lined up like dominoes – for 12 hours.

‘After Chain Reaction, I wanted to create something else from the material on the top of a matchstick – something more interesting than a static product,’ she says. She teamed up with Lucy Bean, a chemist from Imperial College London, just across the road from the RCA, and the pair created a flammable ‘super paint’. Van Gameren applied it decoratively on to pieces of wooden furniture and set fire to it in her back garden. It burned for nearly four hours, leaving an elegant black trail.

Is everything she designs so kinetic – burning, melting, dipping? ‘I love injecting a theatrical element into design. It’s an area that is so undiscovered,’ she says. This is why the measuring of time is such an important part of her work. ‘Chain Reaction was the first time I introduced the time aspect to my work – it lasted exactly 12 hours. It encourages people to form a relationship with my work, like watching a play,’ van Gameren says. She claims that her work is neither design nor performance. ‘I’m hard to categorise, but it’s good to be where you don’t belong,’ she adds.

Working in this conceptual, drawn-out way is one thing, but how does it pay the bills? Fortunately, van Gameren is supported by a series of generous Dutch grants – and receives help in kind from sponsors. In the case of Big Dipper, chemicals company Sasol paid for the wax and Tallow Chandlers for the fuel. ‘The safety net of college has disappeared now I’ve left,’ she says. ‘The grants I receive from bodies at home [in the Netherlands] are strict but pay my living expenses. I’m used to, for now, being dependent on funding – and spending time sending off proposals.’

Van Gameren supplements her own work with freelance jobs: she is currently undertaking research for Ilse Crawford, an acquaintance from the Design Academy. And she has high hopes for Big Dipper in the run-up to Christmas.

Nina Hertig, owner of upmarket Scandinavian design store Sigmar in London’s Chelsea, is clearing her shop for one week in November to house Big Dipper – no doubt hoping the spectacle will draw crowds and the well-off shoppers on Kings Road will buy the chandeliers. But it’s an odd pairing. ‘I met Sarah at her graduation show this summer,’ says Hertig. ‘I loved the fact that Big Dipper was a utilitarian product, and that [van Gameren] thinks about the design process as part of the product – not many designers do.’

Van Gameren is also publishing a book with her boyfriend, the designer Tim Simpson, in November. ‘I do think ahead all the time,’ she says, ‘so I never have a void where I’m not working. I’d love a commission for Burn, Burn, Burn – an animated moment at weddings or dinners, perhaps.’

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