We’re always celebrating collaboration here at Design-Nation: we’ve seen so many fruitful projects that have stemmed from talking, dreaming and working together, within and beyond our network. Our successful Buddy Scheme has already inspired one beautiful joint project, between Myra Hutton and Nick Rawcliffe. And here’s another impressive collaboration: furniture designer-maker Jonathan Rose paired up with ceramicist Jennie McCall last year and look what they did. Jonathan writes:
Designer-makers often work alone in full control of all activity, no need for language or communication. Their intimate knowledge of materials and process provide boundaries of certainty, quality and reputation. Sometimes a new direction, steps beyond boundaries, or an opportunity to do something different presents itself in a compelling way. I remember a fellow woodworker saying when I started that he held to the principle ‘if you can draw it, you can make it’ (thank you Tom Cooper).
Lockdown came to me unexpectedly. The group I have been part of for the last three years [Design-Nation], which has given me the chance to show my work to a wider audience, offered a buddy scheme to meet like minded people working in different materials. Jennie McCall in Rutland became my buddy. Jennie is a ceramic artist working in porcelain and parian, creating beautiful objects of a figurative nature. She has an artistic background in graphics, ceramics and textiles and also lecturing and teaching.
From a product design point of view, it may seem fanciful for a woodworker to collaborate with a ceramicist. However it is the kind of challenge that can bring new work and learning into the world. We both committed to trying things out with the possibility of no finished product to show for our work.
Ceramics are the very opposite of wood. Fired clay has no flexibility. If bent it breaks. It is impervious to water, can be heated beyond the vaporisation temperature of wood. It cannot be cut but before firing it can be formed into whatever shape you like. Parian is translucent in strong light and its final size is constrained by the size of the kiln.
I have recently been working in ash and oak constructional veneer. I love the flexibility and clean grain. It behaves like thick card but the folds need to be aligned correctly in relation to the grain, where it is weak in tension across and strong in tension along. It will bend, but not far, in two directions. It has to be extremely thin to let through light.
Jennie and I worked with the theme of light. We both have strong connections to Scotland, Jennie being born here, me having been resident for 40 years. We connected over the internet and mailed each other samples to show how our materials behaved. Jennie gave clear explanations of what to expect. We shared images and sketches of imagined and real northern light. I supplied samples of bonded veneers showing the curves and colours achievable. I researched how to attach ceramic to wood. We understood the project to be about learning as much as the possibility of producing a finished item.
Jennie loves the translucency of parian and wanted to work out how to incorporate backlit colour. She knew that a thin material gave a more translucent effect, a thick material felt warm and safe.
From my experiments I found how to bend the veneer in two directions. It produced a beautiful flowing frame using steam, patience and some inventiveness with clamps. It also required accuracy in scribing the laminate with a router so it was no thicker than 0.25mm at the point of the bend. The exact width and angle of scoreline was critical to produce an edge with no breakout.
To work remotely with a ceramicist meant I had to step away from precision and predictability. I made templates for Jennie’s work which had a suitable tolerance to fit the frame I was making. Ceramics were too hard to sand using any of the usual abrasives but the flat sides of a waterstone could make a good edge for gluing. WEST epoxy with colloidal silica worked to glue and fillet the ceramic sides together; 5mm inserts and 3mm screws fitted nicely into the wood once 3mm holes were drilled in the ceramic sides using a diamond bit.
Experimentation is expensive in time and emotion. When it doesn’t turn out quite as hoped, finding a reflective and thoughtful place to recharge to start again is essential. Looking for solutions can be an end in itself.
I asked Jennie recently what she found most difficult and most enjoyable about our project. This is what she said:
‘I love a challenge, and when Jonty and I decided to collaborate I could only imagine the problems we may have to overcome with the limitations and strengths of our contrasting materials. However, such challenges excite me to push the boundaries of the the parian I love. This material is a form of porcelain, much loved by the Victorians to create dolls and puppets with the soft look of skin. When fired to a high temperature it has a waxy marble like texture and is highly translucent.
‘My first step was to stain a batch of parian in the colours of the Aurora Borealis. Using a blend of black, white and coloured strips I created slabs, using the templates provided by Jonty, carefully cutting my shapes to fit
‘Exact shrinkage in parian is uncertain and my experience helped me to assess the amount for this project, probably the hardest of all the tasks and where our combined crafts were likely to conflict.
‘The next problem was ensuring that the slabs would dry slowly enough to prevent cracking or splitting. The clay is fired twice in the kiln – once to a stage that it can withstand final sanding and second to the point of vitrification where it becomes translucent. It can fail at each of these stages.
‘Artists love to experiment, especially to develop techniques to enhance self expression and this part of our collaboration was a joy. I found it takes a deep understanding of the materials involved and an ability to communicate to get to an outcome acceptable for both our standards. This gives me pride in my work, especially when I make something with someone else and it all fits together snugly. In this project, the light has yet to be switched on. A moment to look forward to.’
In conclusion, I think it pays in the long run to experiment, especially if you don’t feel you are an expert in the field you are experimenting in. The thing which remains critical is to accept only the best and reject what doesn’t meet your usual standard, whatever the cost.