Pipe dreamers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 June, 2010, 12:00am

Can the influence of industry be felt in the world of design? While most modern designers see themselves as purveyors of the bespoke with aesthetics usually guided by the esoteric, there is an opposing trend that takes inspiration from the chaos of the building site, the noise of the factory floor and even patterns and shapes found in hoardings and scaffolding.

Jimmy MacDonald, co-director of design festival Tent London, thinks that the appetite for industry-inspired design is fed by the continuing desire among proprietors of clubs, bars and restaurants for, among other things, concrete flooring, rough brickwork and exposed features that would normally be hidden, such as pipes.

He adds: 'Designers are very interested in techniques that provide an opportunity to explore existing materials in new ways. Heavy industry often leads the way in trying new techniques as it requires heavy investment.'

A leading explorer of new techniques is Hong Kong-based Michael Young, who designed Chair-4a as part of his extended 'Works in China' collection. Presented recently at Milan's Salone Internazionale del Mobile, it was created for the stylish Causeway Bay restaurant SML, designed by Alexi Robinson. While making it, Young explored new technologies and typologies associated with engineering facilities in Shenzhen.

Much of the industrial trend is inspired by older and heavier industry but Young, who has also designed for Magis and Cappellini, found his inspiration among the contemporary world of the Mac Book industries.

'I realised that if I could capture the engineering skills employed by local industry and put that depth of knowledge in aluminium research using a similar mass-produced nature, I could design a state-of-the-art and relevant chair,' he says.

British designer Tom Dixon attributes his fascination for industrial processes and materials to his experiences welding metal to fix his motorbike. Indeed, his pressed-glass pendant lights have been made in manufacturing plants where car headlights are made. Dixon, too, launched a collection, called 'Industry', at Salone Milan, a highlight of which was his Void lamp made of copper, brass and steel.

It is not just the manufacturing techniques and materials formed that are guiding the trend. Many designers are also displaying their interest in the organic life cycle of the process of industry. Hoardings, building sites and the mayhem of something that isn't finished often turn most of us away, but for British-based Freshwest, this is all part of the interest.

Their Scaffold Vase is one example that recalls the intricate geometrical patterns of temporary structures. Miniature gold-plated components were developed for the production of this vase, which is made up of more than 3,500 parts. 'We had to use tiny spanners to tighten up the miniature nuts and bolts, which was very time-consuming,' Marcus Beck of Freshwest says.

Symmetry and repetition are vital for this design, which drew inspiration from scaffolding and, less obviously, from a 19th-century Chinese vase. The delicate nature of this vase makes it appear as though the design element has overshadowed all practicality. But look closer and you will see that water can be poured into a small glass container that sits at the foot of the vase.

Also taking inspiration from the building site is Milan-based design team Luca Nichetto. Explicit about the inspiration behind the Plinto stool, they say: 'Its form was inspired by the parallel piped-shaped blocks of concrete frequently used on construction sites, but also recalls the plinth that serves as a column's base in Greco-Roman architecture.' The object, which also functions as a small table, may well be a touch too brash for some but there's no denying the individuality of the design.

Less obvious perhaps but still owing a nod to the garage is Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa's Drilling Table. The designer, who has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, drilled its weighty concrete legs directly into the floor at Galerie Kreo in Paris (where the table can be bought). The wooden top softens the piece and saves it from looking too functional, but this is a product that has been influenced by industry's inherent need for practicality.

Concrete and wood are both steeped in the world of industry but there are other, less obvious, materials that court this trend. Kirsty Whyte, who works under the collective name of Purewhyte, has dredged up something usually regarded as shop-floor waste. Sawdust has been used to create the Tuffet stool.

Painted in non-industrial shades of bright green and rich purple, the stool may not conjure p sweatshops, but its strength and durability owe much to the practicality of the industrial world and her own interest in recycling. 'I am making a sustainable product a customer will want to keep and [one that] will last for years to come,' she says.

Dixon too, realises the advantage of using industrial-style materials such as cast iron, enamel and polycarbonate is their inherent durability. 'My creative response is to make long-lasting pieces that will not be thrown away or replaced quickly,' he says.

Innovation is a legacy of industrial revolution, which has transformed so much of the Western world in the past century. Poland's Oskar Zieta, who works with new methods and materials, has experimented recently with inflating steel. He does this by cutting metal sheets with a laser, then welding them together and inflating them at high pressure to form a 3-D object.

Zieta's commitment to new technologies is evident in his Plopp chairs. Although fashioned out of metal, his products look anything but ordinary or workmanlike because of their bright colours and witty shapes. Although designers such as Kirsty Whyte and Zieta are not afraid of getting their hands dirty, it seems strange that the grittiness of physical work is being so heavily referenced when the contemporary working world seems in awe of the sterile and the mobile (think laptops and phones).

Although innovation is nearly always a good thing, MacDonald says it's important that designers use these techniques in context. 'New prototyping can be very expensive. Good design should be accessible to all.'