For autumn/winter 2021/22 Design-Nation is exploring the theme of ‘Thinking Big’, looking at projects and design practices that work at significant scale. Here we interviewed furniture designerJonathan Rose, specifically about his new Louvre project and thinking big in general.
Design-Nation asked: Please briefly describe your practice and what it is that you design and/or make.
Jonathan Rose answered: All my life I have identified myself as a furniture maker; starting at school and learning the fundamentals from a teacher who had difficulty tolerating ambition. Fortunately, he brought me to heel by giving me conventional and challenging projects.
Over the last decade my imagination has taken over and rather than making entirely functional items, I want to make unique ‘can’t buy anywhere’ work.I now think of myself as an artistic fabricator of mixed media objects, where wood plays a large part but is not the only material.
D-N: Where do you work and what are your most essential/valued tools?
J.R: My workshop in Aberdeenshire is simply an extended garage, but I have developed manufacturing connections which range far and wide, to help me with my creative desires. The individual components for each fabrication in my workshop are constrained by space to about two metres; however imagination and an understanding of structure help me make much larger pieces. I love to start with wood from a known source, or boards I can split myself. It gives me the best opportunity to select the right balance of material for the project. My head claims the most essential tool to be a large bandsaw, which allows me to split planks. However, my heart says I get the greatest pleasure from an exquisitely sharpened plane which lifts the finest of shavings from an edge.
D-N: Tell us about your most recent large project: how did it come about? What did you create and where/for who?
J.R: My most recent piece is called ‘Louvre’. It is a kaleidoscope of mirrors and pictures. It started as a hall mirror with a conventional orthogonal reflection. However, when you enter our hall, you see the mirror from the edge. Thinking about this prompted me to explore structure and images. Assessing colour and depth of pixelation, I chose images of a sunset and of Edinburgh Castle, both of which had strong colours and fine profile shapes defined by colour contrast. Once I had proven this aspect, I extended the design to incorporate two additional mirrors, increasing the complexity and surprise of the piece. The three mirrors are each one metre wide and 60 centimetres high. Each contains 1600 finished “pixels” but I made more. Looking back, my main efforts went into thinking about the structure and testing the components. For me a satisfying design creates more threads to explore to make something new and recognisably part of a collection.
D-N: Is this typical of your practice? Have you created other projects at this scale?
J.R: A desire to make something with an element of surprise is strong in me. Much of my early work explores the possibilities of modular furniture. For example, Fractal Triangles is a design developed over a number of years, with each version developing the detail. These tables are a modern twist on the traditional nesting table. Segment One dining table and Knights’ Move storage units are examples of these modular experiments with lots of development potential.
In working with the Design-Nation Scotland &Northern Ireland cluster hub, I am enjoying the possibilities that different materials can offer a fabricated approach to creative work. Ceramicist Jennie McCall and I have collaborated, making a table light together using parian and ash. This project involved both of us testing the extent to which we can work remotely, but on a single item – experimenting and trusting each other to say and do what we hoped.
D-N: Do you prefer to ‘think big’ or work on smaller scale projects? Would you worj like this again?
J.R: I love one-off work. It gives me the opportunity to do something innovative an to a brief. To me, scale is related to complexity. I test myself each time as to how complex am I willing to be, with the number of components I use and the number of people involved in a project. In the case of Louvre it was simply myself and the mirror manufacturer, so by this definition, despite its size it is a small scale project. A recent commission for a reception table involves sheet metal work, powder coating, laser marquetry, CAD design, woodwork and electrics. The piece is well within the two metre limit of my workshop, but in my mind it is a large project as it is more complex.
D-N: What are the challenges and what gives you satisfaction about working at large scale?
J.R: Where large is complex, I love working with others who have command of their own materials but want to make something which excites them. In this setting the challenges are largely in communication, speaking the right language, using terms understood by other makers.
How do I know what is possible for a ceramicist? Well, I have to listen and create a vision of the idea and adjust my expectations when we encounter boundaries. Then I have to listen again and understand the barriers and challenges, and then share my understanding using the right words to find a way forward. Key phrases like ‘if…..then’ are important to recognise.
D-N: Does ‘thinking big’ require a different mindset in the development phase? Is it more or less demanding than other work?
J.R: Motivation is everything when thinking big. The recognition of an opportunity and a ‘not opportunity’ is critical. An idea that is tempting at first for one reason, can become a nightmare and in hindsight a “not opportunity”. If the project is physically big or particularly visible, then the scale of the financial or reputational risk is big, I need to focus to deliver and meet deadlines. I become less flexible in the other parts of my life and live in a tunnel for a period. All meaningful projects have a tunnel and in the big ones it is more noticeable.
D-N: Do you have a dream project, place, process, or material that you’re long to try?
J.R: The projects I naturally move towards involve widening my perspective, sharing my skills and my design ideas, where no-one is afraid of losing and only think of the benefits of being open and enquiring. In these cases, the outcome is like a diamond; valuable, enriching, and enduring.