words Anna Bates
Rubber gloves, plastic combs, bottle tops, sunglasses, doll hands and feet… These are some of the items lining the drawers and cabinets in the east London studio of British designer Stuart Haygarth.
“I get fed up with storing junk,” says Haygarth, but ti\’s an occupational hazard for a designer who uses rubbish as his raw material. All of Haygarth’s work is made using found objects, sourced from flea markets, streets, junkyards and beaches. He first came to attention in 2005 during London’s design week with his Millennium chandelier, made from exploded party poppers picked up off London’s streets on the first day of the year 2000, and Tide chandelier, comprising rubbish collected from Dungeness on the Kent coastline. The pieces were widely published and fast made up for the late start in Haygarth’s design career (now 41, he worked for many years as an illustrator and commercial photographer).
For London’s design week 2006, Haygarth produced Aladdin, a series of four lightbox vitrines filled with coloured glassware, shown at Designersblock. His most recent work is Sharps Project, a photographic archive of all the items confiscated during a two-week period at Gatwick airport (icon 046).
Haygarth has recently returned from a two-year stint living in Berlin with his
German-born partner and ten-year-old daughter. He only moved back into this studio a month ago, and today we are sitting with glasses of water, nursing hangovers from the opening night of Haygarth’s exhibition at Alexia Goethe’s London art gallery. Soothing classical music is playing in the background. Friendly and easygoing, Haygarth shows no outward sign of the obsessive compulsive behaviour that underpins his work.
“I love collecting,” he says. “It reminds me of when I was little with my dad collecting conkers and finding these amazing big ones that were really shiny. Walking on Dungeness beach, it sounds stupid, but it’s really exciting finding things that are washed up. Initially I don’t know what to do with them, I just think they’re really interesting. I find quite a few messages in bottles. An artist from a small island in Finland put a painting in a bottle with a message that said: ‘If you like my painting, please donate some money for a church organ in my village.’ I sent money, and the bottle is in one of my Tide chandeliers.”
It looks like a tidal wave has crashed through Haygarth’s Dalston studio, leaving a collection of objects that he has categorised and placed in order. Barbers’ chairs, paint sprays, trestles, baked bean tins, tables and bottles of WD40 are meticulously arranged in matching pairs. Every item in Haygath’s reach is organised with painstaking precision. Consequently his studio looks like a very large work in progress. In the far corner, wire-mesh animal cages house more curiosities – wire, ropes, wheels and lampshades all sit, grouped according to type, awaiting their fate.
As a commercial photographer, Haygarth tired of being a technician under someone else’s orders, and started producing illustrations using collages of photographed objects from his collections. He created work for a number of book publishers and corporate clients such as Sony, NatWest and Porsche. “Then illustration went very digital and my work felt dated,” he says. All along, Haygarth had been filling a sketchbook with ideas for future designs, so he decided to ditch the photography and work directly with the raw material. But he still sources objects through a photographer’s eyes. “The chandeliers came about from my interest in photography and light,” says Haygarth, “and how interesting objects become when light passes through them – plastic especially.”
Although the particular visual qualities of the objects Haygarth finds – and the materials he uses to encase or display them (such as illuminated plastic) – excite him aesthetically, it is also the objects’ histories that create the interest for him. “I pick up things that tell a story, and that I know will look nice in a piece of work,” he says. Haygarth’s output sits in the established tradition of the readymade, originated by Marcel Duchamp with Fountain in 1917 and more recently evident in the work of artists such as Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion. For one of the pieces in Haygarth’s ongoing Dungeness project, he has been combing the coast for “today’s haul” of bottle tops, which he categorises by colour and then places into white fish crates. The piece is similar in sentiment to Dion’s Tate Thames Dig of 1999, for which the artist scoured riverbanks and catalogued the findings, placing them into the drawers of a huge chest.
Haygarth’s accumulations lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Some have branded him an eco warrior for his penchant for recycling rubbish, and references to terrorism in the Sharps Project, which features items confiscated as a result of increased security since 9/11, have resulted in plans to exhibit the piece in a 40-metre display case as part of an exhibition on Paranoia at next year’s Design Miami fair. “Really, I just find it fascinating what people carry in their handbags,” says Haygarth. “The interest is more one of nosiness. I don’t think my work is morbid, but one man said it reminded him of genocide.”
The 1,020 pairs of glasses that make up his Spectacle chandelier recall images of stacked belongings in concentration camps. “When I’m sorting through the spectacles, you see all the marks, how people have repaired them – sometimes where the arms have fallen off they’ve been put back together with sticky tape. They tell a story.”
It is precisely this human interest that gives Haygarth’s work its richness. Looking at his work is like coming across a single shoe – it leaves you guessing where the person is and how the object came to be as it is. Such pieces have the ability to freeze a moment – the Millennium chandelier embodies all the hopes and fears of the people who pulled the strings of the party poppers used on the eve of the year 2000. Although made using junk, his works have a historical interest that gives them a rare, precious quality.
Haygarth’s work documents the habits of our age. “My work is an interesting archive of what we are producing and throwing away. I find it interesting what we don’t want anymore – all these stories get washed up. You can see interesting patterns start to emerge, which tells us about consumerism.”
But although Haygarth’s work relies heavily on consumerism’s excrement, throwaway society is something he decries. Pointing a finger at Ikea, he says that craftwork is lacking in the design industry today, citing poor workmanship and the short lifespan of products as a catalyst to our growing landfill sites. “I’m more like the Quakers,” he says. “I like pieces that have longevity – that are very well made. The Quakers put as much effort into the back of a cupboard as the front.”
The son of a craftsman, Haygarth has inherited an acute attention to detail. Once sourced, the objects he collects are fastidiously cleaned and polished. “I listen to music and think about the object and what I’m doing with it,” says Haygarth. “I experiment with it and wonder what it will be. I can’t talk when I’m working – I’m totally focused. I start with a cardboard box full of things and from that mess I will make an orderly pattern. It’s therapeutic.”
To make the chandeliers, holes are drilled into each of the found objects in a position that allows them to hang without getting tangled.. The objects are suspended from a piece of fishing line that is hooked onto an MDF platform. Every time the pieces are taken somewhere, to an exhibition or to a client, they must be unhooked and then reassembled at their destination.
“There is a lot of laborious work in what I do,” says Haygarth. “But I like that, this laboured process.” One of his favourite artworks is an installation by American sculptor Tom Friedman, which consists of 1,500 pieces of gum, chewed,
spat out and then stuck together to form a huge blob. Haygarth says that the time spent creating such pieces give them their significance. “I want every object to be special in its own way. It’s a labour of love.”
Haygarth works like an artist, but although there is something quietly idealistic about his work, he is also a fierce pragmatist. In fact he confesses he entered the design world only because he was nearly 40, and being easier than the art world to break into there would be more chance of him making his name quickly. But he thinks the difference in price that pieces fetch in the art and design worlds is unjustified. “The design world is completely under-priced if you are making editions and one-off pieces – young artists who are quite unknown are selling pieces for £20,000.”
Haygarth is currently working on a series of furniture incorporating readymade elements for a French design company, as well as commissions from Habitat and ABC Carpet & Home to produce customised chandeliers. He doesn’t have plans to expand too much, which is just as well given the necessarily slow pace of his elaborate beachcomber practice. There is already a backlog of Tide chandeliers that he needs to source objects for. “I thought of hiring people to go to the beach and pick up stuff for me,” says Haygarth. “But that’s the nice bit. Maybe they wouldn’t pick up the right junk.”