The London-based designer combines a painstaking approach
Adam Guy Blencowe’s new studio at a former brick factory, just a five-minute stroll from his home in Bow, has come as something of a relief. His MA projects were avant-garde and laborious – three-legged stools cast from ice, fabrics decorated with precision-felting techniques – requiring an hour-long bike ride to the RCA’s facilities in Kensington. But these weren’t naïve experiments – Blencowe had studied at Central Saint Martins back in 2000–03, and spent the intervening years in design consultancy, much of it for Nick Crosbie of Inflate, an experience that revealed how the close interrogation of process could yield results.
Three years spent in India persuaded Blencowe to take up design once more: ‘You’re confronted by people making and repairing and producing everywhere. The handicraft was exciting; it made me want to re-engage with that space, with manipulating the actual materials you want to design or work with.’ And his RCA tutors, Sarah Van Gameren and Philippe Malouin, were supportive of this tendency to test hypotheses through lengthy examination of materials and processes.
Tapestries from Blencowe’s 2015 Fuzzy Logic project at the RCA
Blencowe admits that this resulted in ‘a lot of basic errors’ but it also brought benefits: ‘When you self-teach you make observations you might pass by with more traditional teaching, when you’re led down a specific route.’ Perhaps the most eye-catching result was Fuzzy Logic. Blencowe had seen his wife’s Woolfiller jumper repair kit, in which fibres are meshed to fill holes. When RCA students were approached by Scottish firm Bute to experiment with its wool materials, he began a long development process exploring the felting technique’s potential. Manual work was replaced by sewing machines to push brightly coloured fibres through fabric offcuts on barbed needles.
‘It was kind of daunting, because you have the textile department above you, the fashion department below you at the RCA. But when they saw you were treating materials in a new way to combine fabrics, they began to say, “Ah, that is kind of interesting.” Finally, I had this thought that I could use a jigsaw, which has a reciprocating, up-and-down motion, to scale up the process, and made a very crude head to attach needles to it.’ Controlled by CNC and strapped in place on a digital frame with a ratchet strap, this eventually produced precise yet three-dimensional results, which Blencowe compares to silk-screen printing, allowing him to create bold graphics with gradated and blended colours.
Blencowe and Yu-Lin Chen remove the excess plaster from a Thaw stool
Last year he went further, working alongside the graphic designer Marine Duroselle, a fellow RCA graduate with an interest in colour and textiles, for the Motley Rug collection. ‘I wanted to reach a wider audience, and felt it was useful to work with someone who wasn’t necessarily a textiles expert, so we both didn’t have pre-judgements about what might and what might not work, and we could both make discoveries.’ This process occasionally had its frictions but Blencowe finds collaborations entertaining and fruitful, helping to provide ‘the intensity necessary to push a process or project forward’. Three rugs resulted, two with tight, patterned explorations of coloured fibre, the other with what might politely be called a painterly, playful mess. The reverse of each is a mirror of its front, with intensely coloured fibres dominating – the results are eye-catching and intense.
His other MA project similarly revolved around material, improvisation and collaboration. Thaw is a slightly mind-blowing collaboration with Yu-Lin Chen, in which various mixtures of powdered plaster, sometimes combined with cement, are wrapped round chunks of ice. And not just any ice: it has been formed in the shape of three-legged stools or, more recently, within old Coke bottles or milk containers. When it melts, the water percolates into the plaster, hydrating it to form a hard shell around the resulting void (thus, in the case of the Thaw vase, a perfect record of an industrial liquid container lies concealed within). It also creates a physical record of the process: when pieces are excavated, they have a bubbled, bladdered appearance that Blencowe compares to an ancient fertility goddess or body organ: ‘You’re not really sure exactly how it’s going to turn out – that unpredictable element is really interesting.’
Dado shelves (2016) can be adapted to use decorative rails from local suppliers
Last year, Blencowe was one of four designers invited by Ineke Hans to produce proposals for Opendesk, a platform for workspace furniture that can be downloaded as digital files and made by local suppliers. His offering, Dado, has just been on display at the Aram Gallery’s Joints + Bones show, and embraces flexibility, swiftly changing from display stand to shelf or bench to match the changing needs of today’s multifaceted user. But it also subverts, or perhaps evolves, the company’s USP in the process: ‘For me, it’s a downside of globalisation that everywhere you get the same thing. It’s important that furniture can have its own character depending on where it is manufactured, retaining some personality, so Dado uses local timber mouldings as the supporting component.’ As with Thaw and Fuzzy Logic, some control of the final outcome is relinquished – architraves, picture frames, skirting boards or dado rails chosen by the end user are slotted into the appropriate CNC-milled apertures on the end panels, on which the dog bones are exaggerated for ornamental effect.
Blencowe is not overly drawn to craft, with its connotations of exclusivity and nostalgia, but is aware of the risk of his practice being subsumed by one process. Despite interest from the media and fellow designers in the potential of digital felting, he doesn’t want to stop exploring other fields in order to finesse the jigsaw’s mechanism: ‘It goes back to India – the improvisation that you see is often the space that’s led to making a step-change: “OK, this is not efficient enough, this needs to be improved. How do we change that? We’ve got this to hand, so we can use it to improve our system.” I find problem-solving around something in order to find new spaces very rewarding.’
Other projects are in the offing. He’s just created a craggy yet geometric chess set for the Barbican using the intriguing-sounding haptic arm carving. One set lies half-complete on the desk – the first of 25 that need completing by Christmas – so I leave him amid a clutter of prototypes and polystyrene, and he gets back to work.
Above: Blencowe in his studio with a Motley Rug in place on the Fuzzy Logic machine