Bea Addis: For those buying design objects, often the most exciting thing about the product is learning about how it was made. What was your design process and method when making Test Cups?
Isabel Farchy: Test Cups are objects made from Jesmonite, mixed with metal powders including copper, brass and iron, and cast at an angle in paper cups. The surface of each piece is patterned using a variety of traditional patination techniques.
Once the metal and Jesmonite mixture has set, I tear off the paper cup mould and begin the process of patination. Some are soaked in copper sulphate, some in Tabasco sauce, others are dipped in malt vinegar and still others are covered in silver nitrate. The cast objects are fully submerged, dipped in varying levels of the liquids to create a layered effect or soaked and wrapped in plastic to dry, creating a more mottled pattern.
These compounds react with the metal in the mixture, changing the colour of the object to blues, green and pinks, and forming patterns over the surface. The process means that no two objects are the same; the patterns that form are organic and haphazard. And because of the metal added to the mixture, the objects will be buffed and be polished over time and the more they are used.
BA: The objects are incredibly tactile. But the materiality is quite ambiguous: they look as though they’ve been made from concrete but also have a metallic sheen. What materials have you used used?
IF: The Test Cup range is made from Jesmonite AC100 which is a two part mixture made from gypsum mixed with a PVA resin. It’s a really nice material to work with because particles are much finer than something like concrete, so it picks up all of the sketchy detail of the mould.
The surface finishes on the objects are achieved using traditional patination techniques that have been used by sculptors for thousands of years. Patination is the process of applying a reactive compound to the surface of a metal causing it to corrode and form a new layer. This layer often has a colour. It also protects the surface of the metal. That’s exactly what’s going on when you see a green, copper roof.
BA: Where did the idea come from, and are Test Cups typical of the way you work?
IF: As a designer I like to experiment with the way materials behave when treated in different ways. As I’m working with the materials, I look for interesting results: colours and patterns that I want to explore further. And I work very much with the materials that are around me at the time: mixing, heating and treating them in certain ways to see what happens. It’s quite a haphazard way of working.
I developed the project while I was at The Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, and my studio overlooked the Whitechapel Gallery. I was constantly staring at Rodney Graham’s Erasmus Weathervane which sits on top of the gallery’s roof and I became obsessed with its copper green colour, the result of oxidisation.
Originally, I started mixing metal powders in with the Jesmonite to form a surface that would imitate metal, at the same time as retaining all the warm tactility of Jesmonite. But when I realised I could exploit the metal to develop colour and texture it was a revelation, and I spent months in the studio working as a kind of alchemist, experimenting with different solutions and drying processes.
BA: They are clearly visually interesting objects. What about their functionality. What problem do they solve?
IF: Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has written that handles are “the handshake of a building”. Using handles is one of the main opportunities we have to interact physically with the building. It’s a really important part of any interior space and one that’s often overlooked because it’s a small detail, fitted at the end of a project.
Door and cupboard handles through to coat hooks are parts of the house that are in continual use. I wanted to create something that was embellished through use, rather than something that would need to be replaced. Something that develops, not deteriorates, through our interaction with it.
BA: Was the design inspired by any other design movement, designer or aesthetic?
IF: I love the work Ariane Prin has done with her Rust Collection. She mixes Jesmonite with the metal shavings she picks up from key cutters to colour the objects. I’m interested in the way she uses waste materials as a starting point for experimentation.
My tutor, Peter Marigold was also an influence. He has a real interest in using the natural geometry of things. Casting the cups at an angle is a really simple way of making the hooks functional – because the coats don’t slip off – by taking advantage of the angle at which the mixture sets.
Aesthetically, the Test Cup range compliments a soft industrial interior.
BA: Did you design the Test Cup range with an audience in mind? Who?
IF: Test Cups are designed for people who are careful about every aspect of the space they are creating. The idea is that the products can be mixed and matched, with each finish speaking to the room in a different way.
The world of hardware is quite often full of harsh, geometric shapes. Test Cups bear all of the marks of their making. From the detail of the paper cups they are cast in, to the uniqueness of each finish. The objects are tactile and make the everyday rituals of using space more pleasurable and meaningful through a greater sense of touch.
BA: Last year, Peter Marigold used Kickstarter to successfully fund his mouldable bio-plastic product, FORMcard. He supported you, along with three other design graduates to launch Cass Starters, an initiative that encourages students to launch products using crowdfunding. What do you hope to achieve with the kickstarter project?
IF: The Cass Starters project is about establishing a new pathway for young designers to take after graduation. It’s a model the university has plans to adopt from next year for more students.
Design is well known for being an industry in which it’s incredibly difficult to launch a career. After our tutor Peter Marigold’s success with FORMCard, we started discussing crowdfunding amongst our year group as an interesting and progressive business model that suits graduates.
As young graduate designers, the four of us doing the project all have limited brand power. But we do have time, ambition and strong social networks. And importantly, we also have a handful of interesting projects that we have had the time to experiment with and develop while studying.
The Cass Starters project allows us to launch our campaigns, a process that can be intimidating, combining our resources with those of the university. We’ve had access to the university’s video department who made our Kickstarter films, a photographer and their enterprise faculty for support with social media and press strategy.
Kickstarter is such a useful lesson in learning how to communicate the idea behind a project, how to cost it correctly, and how to bring it to market – which makes it the ideal model for recent graduates. It’s also a great way to test your product before you start the process of manufacturing it in batch.
More than anything, the Kickstarter community is overwhelmingly made up of design-minded, early-adopters, so it seemed like the obvious place to launch Test Cups.
BA: Obviously it’s been a great way to launch your first product. And a great lesson in how to market your ideas. What are you hoping to do now the Kickstarter project has been successful?
Off the back of the project, I plan to set up my own design studio. I have a couple of interesting projects in the pipeline, designing a toilet with Assemble’s Louis Shultz, and Henry Stringer which I can’t say too much about yet. And another collaborating with set designer Hatty Ellis-Coward to make some tables for a restaurant which just won a Michelin star. Kickstarter has been a great way to launch a first product and I’m very interested in using it for future projects. One idea I’m think it would be particularly relevant for is a sustainable cabin I’m planning for next year. We have a small piece of woodland down in Sussex and the idea would be to fund the build by selling weekends visits through crowdfunding.
Bea Addis & Isabel Farchy
Bea Addis is part of the founding team of E-porta, the worlds largest trade only marketplace for furniture and home furnishings. They visit trade shows all around the world looking for interesting, designers to invite to the platform, from top design brands to the best emerging talent.
All images of Test Cups are courtesy of Isabel Farchy