Wendy Ramshaw’s large-scale projects

Designer Wendy Ramshaw is best known for her jewellery, but large-scale projects take up increasing amounts of her time. Anna Richardson asks her about materials, imagination and the internal scale of her work

Wendy Ramshaw is something of a doyenne of the design world – the world of jewellery, to be precise. Spanning more than 40 years, her work ranges from beginnings in illustration and fabric design, via innovative, throwaway paper jewellery in the 1960s to the influential stacked ‘ring sets’ and the Millennium Medal for Queen Elizabeth II. Her oeuvre has entered the permanent museum collections and the glossy pages of art books, and her name has acquired a string of honours, including Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Royal Designer for Industry.

Far from resting on her laurels, Ramshaw is as busy as ever. One of her latest projects is a new travelling exhibition, Drawings in Gold. As with much of her work, the concept for the exhibition had been gestating for some time. ‘I have ideas many years prior to carrying them out,’ says Ramshaw. The collection was partly driven by the accompanying catalogue, she adds. ‘The idea that you could make a record of a drawing and the actual piece to scale, almost like a sketchbook.’

The resulting exhibition of more than 30 pieces reflects Ramshaw’s leaning towards the linear and abstract, and her inspiration from the created, man-made world. But whereas appreciation of abstract forms is central to Ramshaw’s work, she recently realised that ‘it’s always related to the period of time’, as she puts it. Thus, early pieces referenced the romance and beauty of machines and space-age technology in the 1970s, while collections conceived during a residency in Australia, featuring porcelain and feathers, drew from the country’s climate and Ramshaw’s concept of aboriginal art.

Ramshaw still creates jewellery, including private commissions, but most of her time is now committed to large-scale, site-specific work. For more than 15 years she has been involved in architectural projects, with commissions ranging from steel, glass and gold-leaf gates for the Fellows Garden at St John’s College, Oxford, to the 15m Columbus Screen at Canary Wharf. When considering the delicate intricacy of the Drawings in Gold jewellery, the move to heavyweight metal is not an obvious one, but ‘it is a shift that I like’, says Ramshaw. ‘It hasn’t been strange, because things always have an internal scale. It also helps expand my ideas. The large-scale work is commissioned for a particular place and function, presenting limitations that will often open the door to something unexpected. Bearing in mind both the considerable weight and the specific function of a project can create a great stimulant.’ Ramshaw also enjoys the teamwork with structural engineers and architects, and the fact that pieces can be seen by a whole range of people.

As with her jewellery, Ramshaw’s larger projects display her fascination with materials. ‘They’re exciting. Each suggests a way in which it might be used,’ she says. ‘Paper cuts and folds, metal joins and is strong – I try to exploit a material to its best advantage and effect.’ The concept for a project – whether jewellery or architectural – usually comes hand in hand with a clear idea of material. Drawings in Gold, for example, wouldn’t have worked in silver, says Ramshaw. ‘These pieces are so fine, they depend on the strength of the gold.’ But for all her love of materials, it is the imagination and the process of making that have driven Ramshaw throughout her career. ‘All I ever wanted to do was to make things,’ she says. ‘It’s about imagining them and working towards their existence in the world.’

On her seeming inability to stop or even slow down in her work, she adds, ‘I’ve had wonderful opportunities, things you can’t say no to, because you’ve waited your whole life for them. Having gone to the 1951 Festival of Britain on the South Bank as a child and being inspired by that forever, to get to make the medal to be given to the Queen to celebrate the millennium is unbelievable.’

Drawings in Gold is at Lesley Craze Gallery, 33-35 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1, 11-29 November

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