Dominic Wilcox 30.09.11

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Dominic Wilcox's drawings are well-known to readers of Icon: they appeared in the magazine every month for two years. But the designer, artist and solver of niche problems is also a careful craftsman who doesn't feel the need to tell us what to make of his work

Dominic Wilcox's drawings are well-known to readers of Icon: they appeared in the magazine every month for two years. But the designer, artist and solver of niche problems is also a careful craftsman who doesn't feel the need to tell us what to make of his work.

For two years between October 2008 and November 2010, a drawing by the designer, artist and self-styled "thinkerupper" Dominic Wilcox, appeared in Icon every month. The Lost Sketchbooks presented a series of ideas for droll, sometimes dark, inventions which involved a play on words or on a conceit. They included the Get Away From It All, a gadget consisting of a portable airhole which could be corkscrewed into the ground and fitted with an air pipe "for those who wish to go somewhere and just stick their head in the ground". There was also the Coffin Desk, "ideal for those who work hard all their lives and then die". The series invites easy comparisons with the cartoonist and illustrator Heath Robinson, but Robinson's complex contraptions produce simple results (his multimovement tabby silencer, for example, throws water at yowling cats). Wilcox might be characterised as a Robinson in reverse; 
his ideas are deceptively simple and resonate the more you think about them. The biggest difference, of course, is that unlike Robinson, an inventor of only imaginary gadgets, Wilcox is definitely a maker of things.

This to be expected of someone who studied Product Design at the RCA after first studying Visual Communication at Edinburgh College of Art. In person Wilcox speaks softly but with an underlying seriousness punctuated by laughter when he says something funny. He says of himself: "There's a sort of dryness to me and it comes out in my work. I don't have to speak, I'm purely a visual communicator and I'd rather not speak."

A sense of wry playfulness can be seen in a project such as 2002's War Bowl. Wilcox made a bowl which from a distance looks as if might be covered with an intricate pattern of stalagmites, but actually consists of 250 melted-down toy plastic soldiers. The idea, Wilcox says, "was to find particular battles and find out how many particular casualties were in that particular battle, and make an object with the exact number of figures". Research into the actual numbers involved (tens of thousands too many) made this impossible but the three final versions of the War Bowl keep to the original plan of representing different conflicts: white for the English Civil War, blue for Battle of Waterloo, and red for the Anglo-Zulu War. Wilcox was then working with fellow RCA graduate Steve Mosley (he went solo in 2005) who had made a vacuum-forming machine with a secondhand oven and a car jack. Wilcox used the oven on its own, and a heat gun to make the soldiers melt evenly: "You can't walk away; you're continually checking it."

This combination of high concept and patient craftsmanship can be found in the rest of his work. By a Thread (2009) is a wooden walking cane which is covered with coloured cotton thread. The cotton is wound so tightly round the cane that it looks like a single layer of printed fabric but each colour is in fact the contents of an entire cotton reel which has been wound round the cane by hand. Wilcox made the first few himself before getting some help – each one takes 15 hours to make.

Wilcox seems to enjoy engaging in regular processes which have slightly unpredictable outcomes. Of the bowls, he says, "Each one comes out different so it's not like I'm a control freak in that respect. I control the process. That's what I find interesting. That's where the creativity comes in."

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Earlier this year Wilcox found himself celebrated for a different kind of creativity when his Finger-Nose Stylus for Touch Screens spread all over the internet after he'd put it on his own blog, Variations on Normal. (It was also mentioned on television, on Have I Got News for You.) The device is modelled out of air-drying plaster around his own nose, and fitted with a stylus at the tip, which lets you scroll on the screen with your nose and, crucially, be able to see what you're doing. This is what Wilcox calls "a niche problem – a sort of problem that people maybe hadn't noticed". Not every reaction, however, was positive. As with a lot of his pieces, people tried to figure out whether he was serious or not, a response Wilcox is more than used to by now: "Some people get angry when they're confronted with something that they're not sure about:is this guy serious, what's this? This is ridiculous, this is stupid." If there's an unifying element to Wilcox's work, it's this hard-to-pin-down tone which makes it difficult for the buyer or viewer to guess his intentions. Wilcox doesn't seem to feel the need to be bossy about the meaning of his work; he's happy for us to make up our own minds.

Wilcox's installation Field (2009-10), a project consisting of a number of trainers threaded through by lurid green laces, rising wavily into the air, is a good illustration of how the designer treats the question of whether an idea needs to become material. "I made that because it was something I couldn't visualise. You can draw it; I even 
put it into a computer to try and see it but I still couldn't visualise it because it's a 3D experience, so I made it to see it."

For Wilcox, the boundary – he calls it "a fine line" – between his work being art, or design (the solution to a problem, "niche" or otherwise) can shift depending on the context. The Pre-Handshake Handshake Device, which was shown in New York at the ICFF in 2010, in an exhibition called Uncomfortable Conversations, was originally intended as a product. Two elbow-length leather gloves are placed in a clear, plastic cylinder elevated on a trolley, and arranged so that two people can put their hands into the gloves and shake hands without actually touching each other. Wilcox says that "the object's not so important. It's about what it means, what it symbolises, and how people use it, so I suppose that's a reason for bringing things into the real world."

Narrative also plays an important part in Wilcox's work. When asked what his favourite project is, he says, somewhat surprisingly, the Luxury Skimming Stones (2009) which he made in a limited edition of 20. Each gold-leafed stone comes in its own leather pouch, ready for a perfect time to throw it, and the perfect stretch of water on which to throw it. The apparent whimsicality of the stones again attracts confused responses. "[They] say, 'Why would you buy that?' If you throw it, then it's gone?" The project is part of an elegaic scenario he has in mind – he wrote a very short story about it – about a man who keeps a stone for years, waiting for that moment.

If Wilcox seems hard to classify as an artist, designer, illustrator or product maker, then his own term, "thinkerupper", may be the best description. As to where the ideas come from, here he turns to his hero Leonard Cohen. "I always quote Leonard (and my friends roll my eyes) ... 'Well if I knew that, I'd go there more often.' Which is a classic answer to that question because that's a question I always get asked and there's no real answer to it."

 

Words

Fatema Ahmed

 

Image

Joe McGorty

quotes story

Some people get angry when they're confronted with something they're not sure about

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