Josh Bitelli has spent days alongside road painters, roofers and industrial bakers, even getting up at 3am to join the production line. His furniture and objects are inspired by the oddities and artisanship still to be found in these mechanised processes
Josh Bitelli meets me at his mum's house. We're in Harlesden, north London, an odd urban fringe where turning one way out of the tube station takes you into cosy semi suburbia, and the other lands you on an industrial estate, home to the McVitie's biscuit factory.
The young designer and Brighton University graduate has a stopgap studio here, a first-floor bedroom converted to accommodate a huge central workbench and mezzanine shelf stacked with projects past and present.
Factories, it figures, is the subject I've come to talk to Bitelli about. In stark contrast to his immediate domestic set-up, much of the designer's work is concerned with the systems and scale of industry, the gritty world of manufacture and its coded processes. The most curious of these works are Bitelli's ceramic trophies, made for the 75th anniversary of Forfars Bakers in Sussex two years ago. Forfars is a mass producer of bread, and making the trophies required Bitelli to don hairnet and shoe covers and join the production line.
"It stemmed from watching lorries leaving industrial units and having absolutely no idea what kind of labour went into filling them and no idea where they were going," he says. "This was a chance to uncover the workers within, and articulate the perpetual rhythm of factory life that grounds them in place."
Bitelli made the trophies by carving shapes into bucket-size loaves, using them as moulds for traditional slip casting. Their crude shape shows the irregularity of the carving. Once fired, the objects take on an even stranger appearance, with an irregular, bumpy surface texture. "Weird growths," says Bitelli, handing me a fragment of material almost like a tiny fossil or a seashell. "That's what's left once the bread is gone from the kiln shelf. It comes from the additives that make the bread rise really fast or slow down decay. It's funny. Baking has these connotations of being natural and wholesome, but here the process is completely uniform and mechanised."
Laid out on Bitelli's workbench, the array of trophies makes for a bizarre sight. Appropriately for their method of creation, they look like factory mishaps or unwanted slops of production. Some are coloured brightly in patches or along a gradient while other objects look disconcertingly mouldy; a nod to the state of the bread after the six weeks it took for the semi-porcelain slip to dry. Bitelli says: "They pose the question: 'How the fuck is this thing made?' I don't think I would be able to figure it out. As much as I'm revealing processes from within the factory, I'm also leaving things open to speculation."
While the romance of factory production might appeal to outsiders – there's a mesmerising five-minute film of the machinery at Forfars on Bitelli's website – what did the bakers think of a designer intruding on their daily lives? "Well, they're not used to someone turning up every day at 3am and eager to ask questions," says Bitelli. "But they're incredibly sound people. They sing and dance to Johnny Cash over the tannoy. I didn't intend for the project to be so centred on one place, but representative of production in general – these kinds of bakery exist everywhere. But after getting to know them, having tea and pasties with them, I grew quite attached."
The trophies may have been sold at limited-edition shop Mint and shown at the British Ceramics Biennial last year, but their odd looks didn't make such an impact on Forfars. "I gave them a little one, but I'm sure they threw it away!"
The Forfars trophies are part of a twin project that also saw Bitelli observe road workers in order to study and subvert another type of production system. In exchange for beer and snacks, the road painters of Brighton revealed nuggets of their working knowledge to him. "They said they could tell who among them had drawn a white parking line by the wobble and quantity of paint," he says, glinting at the recollection.
The idea that the marks of an individual might still be found within such a standardised activity is key to both arms of the project. Using asphalt and line paint, Bitelli created a collection of furniture and objects – including vessels shown at Gallery Fumi last year – with the techniques learned from the road workers. In both cases, the aim was to derive something artisanal and original from an infrastructure designed to do the opposite – to keep everything as regular as possible.
Bitelli's attempts to infiltrate industrial systems come at a topical time for manufacture. Guilt-ridden by our own consumerism, we're becoming seduced by the idea that digital processes can provide some salvation. 3D printing is one element in the promise of a third industrial revolution: where manufacture is decentralised, the established model of producer, distributor and consumer is dissolved and we recapture the power to create for ourselves – anything, anywhere.
"It's interesting you should mention 3D printing," he says, pointing out a lumpy metal teapot, half covered in bubble-wrap, high on the mezzanine shelf. It's one of the designer's Weld Drawings, created for Depot Basel's Craft and Drawing show last June. The tableware is made with the layered logic of a 3D printer, only Bitelli's pieces are created by hand. Sitting at a potter's wheel for six hours at a time, he used a MIG welder to squeeze out molten steel and build up each shape, layer by layer. "I'm not adverse to 3D printing, but prefer to make decisions ad hoc," he says. "I have a dissatisfaction with the idea that [3D printing] disassociates hand and tool and does away with the practice of thinking while you make."
The objects are dirty and heavy, and succeed in standing for everything that 3D-printed objects aren't. The influence of works like Richard Sennett's The Craftsman is clear in Bitelli's haptic philosophy, but the ruggedness and physicality of his objects speaks clearly of time spent in the studios of Max Lamb and Peter Marigold after graduation.
Recently, the young designer has been exploring his industrial-born ethos in new ways. His latest project involves a collaboration with roofer Tom Finley, on a batch of 50 or so asphalt pieces for furniture company Do.n.e. The prototype was shown at the 89plus Marathon last October; a gathering of designers and artists born in or after 1989 brought together by Serpentine Gallery curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. The table is a steel frame base with metal mesh. Gloopy black asphalt is taken from a barrel on the roofer's mobile workshop – the back of his flatbed truck – and applied with a trowel, left rough around the base. The base is topped with two smooth pothole-shaped pieces of overlapping steel.
Looking at his projects, it's hard to describe Bitelli as a designer at all. He's not concerned with prescribed aesthetics or sophisticated methods of manufacture. He's more like a friendly interloper. Where some get inspired by travel or history, Bitelli's curiosity leads him to investigate the parts of life that go on while we're all busy doing other things. As my train departs Harlesden, the aluminium-clad sheds of the biscuit factory slip into view. Gleaming in the low winter sun, they keep the mystery of manufacture hidden in plain sight.
Roofer Tom Finley with one of the steel and asphalt tables for Do.n.e