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James Shaw playing with his Pewter Squirter
23rd October 2017

Crafts Council: Q&A with James Shaw

– words by Laura

Experimenter extraordinaire James Shaw has had a pretty hectic September. The South London-based designer, whose work ranges from extruded plastic furniture whipped up from a hand-made gun (yes, really!) to designing hot tubs for the Swedish wilds, exhibited in three ground-breaking shows. His latest range of furniture, Modular Mechanics, was shown at The New Materiality, a Crafts Council showcase of seven experimental makers at the first ever TRESOR Contemporary Craft Fair in Basel. James also had work in two LDF shows, Modern Design Review’s Ready Made Go at the Ace Hotel and Ineke Hans’ The Last London Salon in Brompton.

Conceived during a residency in Cumbria, Modular Mechanics is not just a furniture collection but more a building system. In this nifty way of making, the joint is spread alongside the entire length of an arm, foot or support, making for an unusual cubic aesthetic, kind of like the furniture version of Habitat 67. It could be used to custom-build a bespoke furniture and riffs on the time when parts (like nuts, screws, nails, etc) were standardised, allowing people in different parts of the country to collaborate.

For LDF show Ready Made Go 3, James made a “badass version” of his plastic extruder gun, allowing him to make giant versions of his Mr Whippy-like sculptures, which sat on the Ace Hotel steps. And at The Last London Salon, he exhibited his experiments into growing plywood with bacteria. Is there anything this man can’t do? Given James’ hugely busy month, we wanted to delve deeper into these thought-provoking projects and his inventive approach…

Why do you think showcases like the Craft Council’s A New Materiality at TRESOR are important right now?

The Crafts Council’s TRESOR show featured some of the most interesting young designers around such as Studio Ilio, who are doing all sorts of crazy amazing things like carbonising hair to create new surface materials. I think these sort of shows allow space for work that is beyond the current trends away from the pressure that production companies operate under. It’s so important that we have bodies such as the Crafts Council that support work which is outside of or at least tangential to the totally commercial shows.

Modular Mechanics Armchair, James Shaw

Tell us about Modular Mechanics and how the principles of John Ruskin feed into it?

The Modular Mechanics project started with an investigation in John Ruskin who I was introduced to by Grizedale Arts. The institution has taken on Ruskin’s mantel and become proponents for some of his more radical ways of thinking, particularly his work in the Lake District village of Coniston, which was used as a sort of testing ground for many of his ideas around work, industry and production. Ruskin’s time was also such a ferment of production methods, when all sorts of things that we take for granted such as standardisation and the idea that a nut and a bolt made in different places might fit together were pretty new and innovative. The Modular Mechanics project riffs on these ideas to create a sort of structural language which can now be used to create many different things. I suppose it is the literal and metaphorical idea of the ‘framework’.

We're sure everyone asks you this, but what is your current favourite material to work with?

At the moment I am still totally fascinated by recycled plastics, an ongoing investigation of mine which I revisited for this year’s LDF with Plastic Baroque. I have a self-built tool which allows me to re-extrude these plastics and then use the results in a very hands on and intuitive way, which somehow ends up looking nothing like the plastic we have come to know. What I find interesting is that it is such a commonplace material which we literally surrounded by but by taking it from an industrial process to a more hand-based process it unpacks a huge amount of potential. As a material to work with it has a fantastic capability for spontaneity and form which is not possible in many other materials.

Humanity has a love-hate relationship with plastic, how are you trying to change its bad rep with Plastic Baroque?

We have such an unhealthy relationship with plastic, especially when we try and use it as a disposable material. I think a lot of the negative results are because of the sort of cultural invisibility we have given it. Whereas more luxurious materials have a visible presence, we don’t really recognise most plastic as actually being a thing in itself rather using it to wrap other things up or simply ignoring it in a way we would never treat a lovely piece of wood or stone. I think that this invisibility has a lot to do with the way we seem to feel ok with simply tossing things out so that they end up in the ocean or inside the stomachs of animals. In the Plastic Baroque I would just like to explore this material and reveal another side of its character, hopefully doing something to take away from this invisibility.

Plastic Extruding Blog Table, James Shaw
Well Proven Chaise, James Shaw

What challenges did upscaling Plastic Baroque for the Ready Made Go 3 installation present?

Well, that was great fun to work on! The biggest part of the challenge was that we totally re-engineered the Plastic Extruding gun, along with engineer Alex Dupreez, who produced a much more efficient and generally badass version than the first one that I had bodged together in the workshops of the Royal College. Rebuilding the gun took much, much longer than we scheduled for (of course) but the gratifying thing was once we had done this, it made producing the installation for Ace Hotel much more efficient and so we were able to get the installation done in a surprisingly short space of time.

Like plastic, plywood too is a similarly undervalued material. Tell us about your investigations into lacing it with bacteria, as exhibited at The Last London Salon with Ineke Hans?

Ineke invited me to join a project with Opendesk to investigate the future of workspaces and design a new piece of furniture that reacts to these changes using CNC-routed plywood. My interest in this project took a bit of a leap from this first brief and I ended up spending my time researching new ways that we could produce plywood-like materials without using trees and without using global shipping. This investigation led me to a certain type of bacteria which very quickly grows sheets of material as a sort of byproduct. So in a few months, it could grow to the size of a sheet of plywood that would take a tree at least 25 years to achieve. This opens up all sort of possibilities for re-introducing biodiversity into forests as well as changing the way we ship materials. Why ship an who container where we could just send a few spores?

What thread do you think runs through your incredibly varied projects?

It’s true that my projects may appear varied, spanning from wooden furniture to hot tubs on Swedish islands to research projects into bacteria but for me, this is all one investigation. All my projects are based on the materials of the world around us and trying to understand if there is a better way to use them, so whether that's making foamy wooden chairs from sawdust and bio-resin, to making a hot-tub that feeds its dirty water to plants and animals or trying to grow a new sheet material from bacteria. For me, this is all one thread. I also am aware that my approach is that of a maker which means that I always want to get involved and try things out by hand, which I know is based on my training in product and furniture design. Even if I am carrying out a research project or working on something at an architectural scale then I want to apply this same process of hands-on experimentation and trying things out.

Plastic extruding from gun. Photography by James Shaw.

How do you think new makers can evolve the conversation around design?

I think that the conversation around design has already shifted hugely in the last 10 years or so. We have got the expanded notion of what design can be but ultimately the main skill of designers is to make things desirable and so I think we should be using these skills to create positive change.

To keep an eye on what else James is up to, check out www.jamesmichaelshaw.co.uk. To follow the Crafts Council see www.craftscouncil.org.uk.

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