Making good

Distinctions between designer, maker, craftsperson and artist are often futile, but whatever labels are used, exhibitions of their work abound. Ahead of the final Jerwood Contemporary Makers show, Design Week talks to three contributors about their approaches to design, materials and making

Taslim Martin
Ceramicist Taslim Martin worked as a carpenter and joiner for 13 years before attending art school and the Royal College of Art, and craft skills remain central to his practice.

’My work is about experimenting, playing and pushing ideas. Craft skills are important to me but I like to develop ideas,’ says Martin. Ever since his first solo show at South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell, Martin has been keen to nurture links with industry – ’I’m really excited by industrial processes and imagining what to do with their facilities or materials,’ he says. He has collaborated with the likes of Armitage Shanks and industrial-scale fired-brick makers. Links with industry are a way of realising work on an ambitious scale – and he thinks they’re mutually beneficial.

His public art commissions include sculpture and public seating for Bracknell’s Jubilee Garden and Icosahedra, a large-scale sculpture at Cambourne Business Park near Cambridge.

Martin has always been interested in portraiture and the figurative – in stark contrast to his more time-consuming, design-led work – and at Jerwood Contemporary Makers, he is showing a series of cast-iron heads. The works are inspired by cool, smooth, classical sculptures modelled in brass and terracotta.

Martin uses the same lost-wax process to create these works, but his choice of material is cast iron, and the surface finish – a rust patina – creates an effect that is suggestive of an archaeological find. ’The process is exactly the same as if you were doing a bronze, but it’s all about the material,’ he says. ’[Cast iron] is industrial and I like the surface it creates.’

Laura Ellen Bacon
The concept of space and 3D forms are key aspects of Laura Ellen Bacon’s work. Her site-specific piece for the Jerwood Contemporary Makers exhibition is a structure of inter-laced willow, enveloping a plinth at the gallery. ’The form hugs the plinth itself, so it should feel as if it’s almost grown out of it – or maybe just outgrown itself a bit,’ says Bacon. ’I like to make visitors feel that if they turned their back on the sculpture, it would keep on growing. I like the sense that the forms are powerfully organic.’ The piece should be understood as having been made by hand, not by animals or plants, she adds.

Bacon’s fascination with forms began towards the end of her applied arts degree at the University of Derby, when she started trying to create den-like structures she could get inside. ’I was trying to return to that method of making which was very instinctive and low-tech, without having expensive equipment or other needs,’ she explains.

Since then, she has focused on placing those hand-made structures into different settings. Bacon’s basket-like sculptures tend to be entwined with nature or architecture, and even though basket-maker Lois Walpole greatly inspired her, Bacon knew more formal weaving wasn’t her path.

The hands-on process is the best part of her work, says Bacon, ’I have to create a series of designs. Sometimes I can create a form immediately, but I’ve learned the more you question the design, the more it improves,’ she says. ’I usually reach various conclusions and considerations of a site. But once I can get stuck in and use my hands, I find that connection to the site invaluable.’_

David Gates
Thinking about ’people and things, how we use stuff’ is what drives David Gates, a stalwart designer-maker. Since studying product and furniture design at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design in the 1980s, Gates has exhibited in numerous exhibitions and created several public commissions. He has also set up cross-disciplinary university research group Practice & Voice to find appropriate ways of articulating and disseminating craft practice.

For Gates, the different stages of designing and making are difficult to compartmentalise. ’Making, drawing, talking and looking all seem to be co-dependent and entwined at almost every stage of a project,’ he explains. ’There is a lot of moving backwards and forwards, and I think it’s easier to understand something through the doing of it. So even though I arrive at an artefact as the visible output, and this is what is seen, it is never really an end.’

The process is not about being hands-on, but ’acknowledging a processual nature in creative practice’, Gates says.

This is mirrored in his attitude to materials. ’It isn’t that one or more materials are important in themselves or that any of them are fetishised, rather it’s the ability and recognition of thinking through materials,’ he says.

With both a formal design approach and an affinity with making, Gates reckons ’there are good and bad parts to this falling between the cracks’. ’Designers sometimes see me as a bit crafty, and some parts of the crafts scene might see me as a bit analytical and not enough technique-oriented,’ he adds. ’The good thing is being able to see from both sides – being able to draw on both sides’ toolkits. To make objects that aren’t thought through or interrogated with the questioning of a designer or to design without a knowledge of materials and construction are equally problematic propositions.’

His contribution to Jerwood Contemporary Makers is representative of an ongoing body of work which uses offcuts from larger projects and materials such as paper and string that ’allow the suggestion of planar division that we can do so readily with drawing’. The pieces are deliberately ambiguous, says Gates, and have no pre-designated use or function, ’In their ambiguity these pieces prompt recognition,’ he says. ’They allow the viewer to find their own way, seeing something of their own making.’

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