I have just finished work on a particularly interesting, rewarding .. and of course demanding! .. piece commissioned by the London gallery The New Craftsmen for a showing of their artists’ work in conjunction with pieces from the Johannesburg based Southern Guild and items from Christie’s contemporary collection. The ‘exhibition’ .. along with my miniature, interactive version of it .. will be briefly open to the public at Christie’s South Kensington under the title ‘Contemporary Living’ from April 1-4 before the auction process starts. So yes, it opened already yesterday .. but it’s public tomorrow from 9.00 – 17.00 and on Tuesday 9.00 – 17.00, continuing 18.00 – 20.30 .. admission free!
The idea was to include a playful, dollshouse-related, interactive model within a showing of applied craftsmanship and artist/designer furniture .. so that visitors can actually rearrange the exhibits according to their own preferences. ‘The Patron’s House’, as it’s titled in the show, is really a more simplified, ‘toyed with’ version of the exhibition space, but opened out to allow more access.
The work had to be done relatively quickly .. there were more than forty individual objects and, within the realm of the model, each piece had to have its own plinth. This was mainly for practical reasons, so that the pieces can be moved around without harming the delicate models. From the beginning we felt that the plinths should be somehow decorated .. stark white plinths may often be the safest option in real-space, but the model needed something more playful. In the end I opted for a mixture of patterned, plain white and veneer-clad plinths. Another thing that was clear to us from the beginning was that there needed to be some juggling with the scale of the objects themselves .. so that the smaller objects could retain enough presence in competition with the larger. This is a feature of traditional dollshouses .. whether intentional or not. I chanced upon the idea of making ‘positional rakes’ similar to those used by a croupier, because participants needed to be given more ‘reach’ .. we couldn’t do away with the three main walls because the ‘paintings’ would need them, so the model could only be comfortably accessed from one end.
I had the chance to take photos of the individual model pieces while they were still in my studio, so I’m presenting them here followed by the photos of the real-life pieces I’d been using as reference. I often only had one publicity photo to work from plus outline dimensions, though The New Craftsmen provided a thorough series including details and good ‘white balance’, which helped a lot when trying to assess true colours or identifying materials. Nevertheless with many of the objects I had to settle for a reasonable ‘overall suggestion’ or sometimes even a ‘playful variation’ on the essential look. This was just as well because it was perhaps inevitable that the galleries had to make some mid-term changes to the exhibits, meaning that what arrived was a different version of what I’d been working on. For each object I’ve also included some notes on the materials and the processes I used, some of which I developed specially for this work.
South African Conrad Hicks works principally with forged metals, in these cases copper and iron. I had to use real copper sheet to achieve the look but the verdigris is just an acrylic paint job. After experimenting with a few different scaled thicknesses of copper before it would behave, I finally spraymounted two of the thinnest together to combine the right strength with easy bending. I didn’t have to beat it! .. the texture was easily done with an embossing tool. Deciding what to use for the iron frameworks was difficult at first, but in the end cutting out shapes in 3mm black Palight ( foamed Pvc ) proved the best solution. Below are the photos I was referencing for Conrad Hicks Copper Chaise and Implement Table, both forged copper and iron, courtesy of Southern Guild.
I wanted the plinth decoration throughout the range of objects to be as noticeable but also as subtle as possible .. and I wanted it to last, and not get dirty from handling. I wanted colour and pattern to ’emerge’ from the surface .. so neither direct painting nor pasting paper prints would do! I also wanted the pattern to fade out smoothly at the top, otherwise it would clash too much with the objects. In the end I found that inkjet printing 100micron clear transparency film with found pattern images and gluing inked side down to the plinth Pvc with strong spraymount ( Photomount or Craftmount ) did a perfect job! To be safe I let the printed sheets dry for a day before using (the ink takes much longer to dry on acetate). I also needed to prepare special strip portions of the pattern images first, using the Graduated Filter in Paint Shop Pro to fade each strip at the top. Once applied and trimmed, I ‘silked’ the surface of the film to take away the gloss with fine abrasive cloth.
The British furniture maker Sebastian Cox, represented by The New Craftsman, uses traditional woods .. specialising in coppiced timber and self-managed woodland .. but often subjects them to a very controlled surface scorching resulting in a deep black. For both his sideboard and large table I found again that black Palight worked best of all because I could vary the surface effects from a slight-sheen sanding for the sideboard to a deeper matte graining on the table. For the front doors of the sideboard, which in reality are composed of cleft ‘shakes’ .. a form of shingle traditional to Japan .. I had to texturise thin strips of 1mm white Palight, apply them, then paint them with matte black Humbrol enamel. I dry-brushed with a slightly lighter acrylic to further emphasize the texture. I felt that the table needed a simpler, veneered plinth .. in this case oak sealed with water-based ‘satin’ varnish. Below is the real-life Scorched Shake Sideboard, but since the table was a new work there is no proper photo as yet ( courtesy The New Craftsmen and Gareth Hacker Photography ).
Dokter and Misses
Dokter and Misses are not a married couple in spite of what the name might imply, but a multi-disciplinary Johannesburg design company of more than two. One of their special ‘Editions’ .. as different from their ‘Products’ .. is their ‘Kassena’ collection, a unique looking range of robust wooden cabinets which are all hand-painted, inspired by the painted adobe structures of the Kassena people from the border region of Ghana. These cabinets contain drawers which are almost hidden apart from tell-tale hand slots .. because my time was limited I had to sacrifice this feature. For the same reason and also because of the minuteness of the scale I had to simplify the geometric patterning (which does actually represent texts in an indigenous writing system) and resort to Letraset to create an effect. Below is the original, hand-painted solid beech wood Kassena Isibheqe, courtesy of Southern Guild.
Bristol Weaving Mill
Also represented here by The New Craftsmen, BWM had two rag rugs in the show made by Juliet Bailey, one of the directors. In the model I mounted these either side of a freestanding plinthed wall piece. For the first time I felt I was using my usual recommendation to use painted sandpaper for carpets to good effect! I painted a very coarse sandpaper white first then detailed the colours in matte acrylic. Below is one of the two originals, the Yellow & grey courtesy of The New Craftsmen.
Pieter Henning’s design label Mock Mock produces, amongst other things, simple combinations of copper and stone of which these ‘tables’ are an example. Henning comes from the Klein Karoo valley in South Africa. I didn’t stand a hope of bending and soldering flat metal strips at this scale so I cut the slender shapes from thin styrene sheet, combining with discs of thicker Pvc.
To suggest the coloured stone or marble patterns I started with a generalised base colour, then stippled spots of lighter acrylic using a piece of reticulated foam. Tissuing this before the paint was properly dry created a more natural and varied effect. The copper is simulated with Humbrol metallic enamel. Below are the items Southern Guild originally intended to send .. the ones which arrived were significantly different, not as colourful though of the same type. In a sense this didn’t matter .. it became part of the model’s separate and playful existence.
Gareth Neal and Kevin Gauld
The ‘Brodgar Bench’ featured on the left above was designed by London-based designer Gareth Neal and made by Orkney chair maker Kevin Gauld. The model needed to be mainly wood, nothing else would have been right .. in the end I used a combination of obeche, limewood and bamboo for strength. For the woven straw back I resisted trying any woven fabric, fearing a fibrous mess .. so ended up engraving the weave pattern in 1mm Palight (to the right is a day-bed from Louisa Loakes & William Waterhouse which will feature separately in Part 2). Below, the original Brodgar Bench, oak with woven straw back. Courtesy of The New Craftsmen
Lastly for this part, another very different form of bench from the South African Jesse Ede. Most of the original was cast in recycled aluminium, making use of the rough, pitted texture .. so Humbrol ‘silver’ enamel with a little sand mixed in simulated this perfectly. The distinctive slate shard was easiest to model in polymer clay then paint using my ‘open foam print’ technique. The photo of the Lunar Bench in recycled aluminium and Malmesbury slate is courtesy of Southern Guild. The photos illustrate how one needs to be wary of foreshortening when judging photos .. my proportions are fairly accurate!