Stunning designs with fabulous fluid forms

A new fascination with elemental processes is generating functional forms in bronze, iron, wood, glass and resin that sweep, swirl and ripple. Emma Crichton-Miller rejoices in their life force

Walsh working on another shelf in the Enignum series
Walsh working on another shelf in the Enignum series | Image: Andrew Bradley, 2013

In an industrial site in north London, behind an anonymous brick façade, lies an awe-inspiring emporium, with bronze foundry and workshop attached. This is the headquarters of Cox London, a husband-and-wife-led team of designer-makers that specialises in one-off and bespoke production of highly wrought sculptural furniture and lighting. There are objects that could have come from the palace of a 17th-century Italian count, with their antique references and ornate ironwork or patinated bronze; others that are singularly contemporary, with their nod to molecular science and the drawings of Giacometti. What unites them is a fascination with materials and process – especially the way in which highly plastic wax is transformed into rigid bronze through the lost-wax casting process; or fiery molten glass becomes exquisite translucent crystal; or wrought iron warms and becomes malleable in flame and then hardens into a fixed form. Some of their works retain as a fundamental aspect of their appearance the visual memory of their former state – of flow, preserved in stillness.

Joseph Walsh olive ash Enignum Shelf XXIII, €36,000
Joseph Walsh olive ash Enignum Shelf XXIII, €36,000 | Image: Andrew Bradley, 2016

Nicola and Christopher Cox met at Wimbledon School of Art in the mid-1990s. Nicola is a sculptor, originally from New Zealand; Christopher, the third generation of an antique-dealing family schooled in the technical minutiae of historical decorative objects, is a highly skilled metalworker and draughtsman. They began working together after college, at first producing sculptural objects that drew on Christopher’s technical skills and Nicola’s instinctive feel for material. In 2005 they founded Cox London, and have expanded their repertoire to include a range of functional objects such as chandeliers, tables, chairs and mirrors. There are certain recurring themes in their work, oak leaves, for example, or the gnarled roots of ancient vines, as seen in the monumental Magma chandelier (£39,600), first produced in 2014.

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Nicola uses the lost-wax casting technique, where the design is made in wax, a material into which intricate details can be carved. Then a mould is made around it and the wax melted out, before the molten bronze is poured in. She uses this pouring process as a metaphor for the life force that twists the roots of vines into eloquent shapes or for the geothermal energy deep inside the earth that sends lava from the mouth of a volcano.

Based Upon bronze Seasons of Tranquillity wall piece, price on request
Based Upon bronze Seasons of Tranquillity wall piece, price on request

For the Magma chandelier Nicola sculpted the wax into thick, tactile, branching forms that were then merged into a writhing whole by the molten bronze and a central trunk. For its lightshades, the Coxes made a plaster mould, but let the final forms be partly dictated by the glass artists. Each shade is different, as if a drop of water from a fountain has been preserved at the moment of impact, an effect created by dripping glass, “like honey”, Christopher says, into the moulds in the kiln where it slumps freely. Rather than determining the whole piece from the start, “each material influenced the next stage of the design as it evolved”, he says. The piece is a simulation of living forms, and has an elemental energy, the quintessence of the baroque.

Cox London bronze and kiln formed glass Magma chandelier, £39,600
Cox London bronze and kiln formed glass Magma chandelier, £39,600

Other pieces capture the sense of flow in different ways. The Ferro Vitro hanging light (£25,200), which can be tailored to clients’ specifications, is a sculptural rendering in wrought steel of a modernist linear drawing, capturing space as a geometric cage, with its bars framing blown glass that is trapped as it cools in randomly fluid forms. Most recently, the Coxes have created the limited-edition bronze Moifaa dining table (£91,200), each unique iteration featuring animated, sculpted legs and a spectacular top of pure Thassos white marble with a river of rare Swedish Ringborg green-stone running through it. The inspiration for the table was the apocryphal story of Moifaa, the celebrated racehorse. In 1904, it was said, Moifaa was travelling by ship from New Zealand to Liverpool, when the ship was wrecked off the coast of Ireland. Astonishingly Moifaa not only survived but went on to win the Grand National that year. After the race the gelding was bought by King Edward VII and became his favourite horse. On Edward’s death in 1910, Moifaa was chosen to lead the funeral cortège. In fact, the shipwreck part of the story probably refers to another horse that competed in the 1904 Grand National, but the Coxes liked the original tale so much that they created their table in Moifaa’s honour. The legs of the table were inspired by the idea of the horse’s legs moving through the water as it swam to safety, with the view of the legs distorted by light refracted through water. The effect is similar to the distortions of futurist sculptors and painters, trying to capture the impact of speed or wind or water on physical bodies. The river of green marble evokes the waters of the Irish Sea.

Studio Drift glass, wire, aluminium and halogen light Flylight, from £120,000
Studio Drift glass, wire, aluminium and halogen light Flylight, from £120,000 | Image: Carpenters Workshop Gallery

The Coxes are not the only London design firm with a passion for process. Based Upon, the company set up by twins Ian and Richard Abell and now employing more than 50 artists and designers in its enormous workshop in southeast London, creates bespoke sculptures and pieces of furniture that embody stories and memories, of both people and places. The brothers were inspired by a unique process they discovered in Australia, of applying thin layers of liquid metal to a lightweight surface to give the appearance of solid metal. The composite material can then be used for a range of design purposes.

Christopher Cox working on a bronze casting in the Cox London workshop
Christopher Cox working on a bronze casting in the Cox London workshop

While the fluidity of liquid metal remains at the core of their production process, today they also work with other materials, such as tramazite, jesmonite and resin, using a range of artisanal techniques. Their first commission in cast bronze, a huge wall piece (price on request) for a private house in the Hamptons in 2012, represents a landmark for Ian. The clients had wanted a work that referenced the place where the house stands, right at the rugged tip of Long Island among the dunes, but they also wanted a work that, to a visitor, might appear both to be newly made or to have been excavated from some ancient civilisation. “So we asked ourselves, how does nature go about sculpting that particular landscape?” Ian says. “It is the wind and waves – every day that landscape is different.” The Abells set about recreating that natural process in the studio, filling a series of shallow boxes with wet clay slip that they then subjected to blasts from blowtorches and other interventions that mimicked nature, the slip flowing in the boxes like lava or silt. They left the slip to crack and harden, like the surface of the earth. “We love to see this interplay between nature and man, the blurring of the lines,” Ian says. “It suggests we are part of a larger momentum that is unfolding regardless of our decisions.” He adds, “It was really nice then to revert the piece back to the ancient material of bronze.” For Ian, the process was also a metaphor for creativity, where the flow of inspiration is channelled through a kind of creative surrender, the sculptor working with, rather than against, the materials at their disposal. Similar commissions cost from £400,000.

Fredrikson Stallard stainless steel Hudson console, £84,000 for a pair
Fredrikson Stallard stainless steel Hudson console, £84,000 for a pair

The urge to break with the rigidities of classicism, whether of the ancient or the modernist kind, is a recurring impulse among artists and designers. Think of William Hogarth’s passionate argument in favour of his serpentine line of beauty in the 18th century. Hogarth quotes the 17th-century French critic Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy, from his Art of Painting: “Large flowing, gliding outlines that are in waves give not only a grace to the part but to the whole body… naturally those sort of lines have I know not what of life and seeming motion in them…” One designer who understands this well is Joseph Walsh. His remarkable fluid and romantic pieces of furniture are achieved not through liquid materials but through an almost miraculous process of stripping wood into extremely thin layers that are rebuilt into the glorious, serpentine creations that have made his name. With the Enignum shelf series (€36,000, available exclusively from Sarah Myerscough Gallery) he transforms a set of shelves, the most rectilinear of interior furnishings, into a swirling ballet of repeated curved forms.

Zaha Hadid acrylic and Plexiglas Liquid Glacial dining table, price on request
Zaha Hadid acrylic and Plexiglas Liquid Glacial dining table, price on request

Studio Drift, an Amsterdam-based studio, specialises in poetic and interactive sculptures and designed objects. For its remarkable Fragile Future series of lights, LEDs festooned with the seeds of dandelions were trapped in ever-more-ambitious three-dimensional bronze electrical circuits. Essential to the work was the play of the soft and organic dandelion heads, a memory of childhood, against the rigid, metallic geometric grid in which they found themselves. In 2013 the company came up with a new concept, the Flylight (from £120,000, available through Carpenters Workshop Gallery), which it has been developing in increasingly daring versions since. Here halogen lights are placed inside little glass tubes that are then hung on wires in groups, like the flowing shapes created by giant flocks of birds. “To me birds represent the ultimate form of freedom,” says Lonneke Gordijn, one of the studio’s two founders. Its ambition was to free the lights from the grid, but in the same way that there is both conformity and freedom in the swelling murmurations of starlings, so these lights, hung on wires, are programmed to light up and dim partly in response to a predetermined rhythm and partly in response to random movement in their environment. The combination of rule and chance generates a mesmerising, constantly evolving flow of light. Studio Drift works with clients on a bespoke basis on site, using the same concept and materials but creating a work that is unique to the setting in which it is installed.

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Another duo, Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard, of Fredrikson Stallard, have a similar fascination with the tension between the controlled and the chaotic, the serene and the dynamic. One of their latest designs, the Hudson console (£84,000 for a pair, available through David Gill Gallery), has a front that is a flowing, rippling, shining sheet of steel, dented and folded so that by turns it is smooth and jagged. “Stainless steel is a tricky material that doesn’t fold easily and has a memory, so it bounces back,” says Stallard. “Often when you beat it, it wants to flow like fabric, but we wanted to combine soft curves with sharp angles.” The pair made the first few individually, by hand, working until they had a shape with the drama and movement they were after. Now this process is undertaken with long-term collaborators, but each console is a one‑off because the exact hammering cannot be replicated – the flow of energy that created it is unique.

Perhaps the most significant pioneer of our contemporary love affair with flow was Zaha Hadid, who died last March. Known for her undulating, calligraphic architectural designs, and rule-defying buildings, she is perhaps best known in Britain for the London Aquatics Centre, with its swooping spaceship roof, built for the 2012 Olympic Games. But her first building in the United Kingdom was the angular Maggie’s Centre in Kirkcaldy, Fife, completed in 2006. At the time she said, “I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form a new kind of landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of their peoples.” It was one further step to translate this vision into furniture design. In 2007 she created the installation Dune Formations with the David Gill Gallery for the Venice Biennale, an integrated interior landscape of flowing forms that resembled tables, shelves, seats, even an artificial tree, made with materials including a luxuriously lacquered polyurethane resin. As its title suggests, her inspiration had been the natural formation of sand dunes, sculpted by the wind. What was important to her was the fluidity of movement not just within each gleaming piece but also between the elements of the ensemble. “When I told her I wanted to take something to Venice,” says Gill, “she presented me with this as a whole. I think it had been long in her mind.”

Gill and Hadid collaborated again in 2012 on Liquid Glacial, a project driven by Hadid’s fascination with water. Here, she created a coffee table and a dining table (price on request) in acrylic and Plexiglas that featured ripples within its translucence, as if it were water. “The material had reached a point where it could achieve what she wanted – the quality of crystal in acrylic,” says Gill. Hadid’s final collection of furniture for Gill, UltraStellar (prices on request), was shown in October. It combined fluid, sinuous linked chairs and tables in the unusually traditional, sensual materials of walnut and leather with further elaborations of the Liquid Glacial theme – including a glorious rippling silver bowl and a pretty, pert console table. Just as her architecture rejected the conventionally rectilinear, so her furniture flows, echoing the rhythms of nature and the human body, embracing rather than resisting the forces of the world.

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