Every Sunday for the past month we at The Holborn have been heading to Brick Lane for The London Artisan Market and have been meeting a plethora of talented makers and designers. We were lucky enough to meet Matthew Gilbert and his collection of innovative furniture. After a brief chat we discovered that Matthew was also an architect (our creative director is also an architect), we were fascinated and decided to sit down for a drink and find out more.
You design furniture and buildings: which came first?
Buildings came first. I started with my BSc in Architecture at Cardiff when I was 18 and was quite convinced at that stage I wanted to be an architect, I certainly wasn’t interested in furniture! I began working with furniture during my masters at the architecture school in Copenhagen where I took a course that mixed architecture and furniture design. I particularly a project called ‘one chair a week’ which involved us having to make a full scale chair prototype every week according to different material rules set by the tutors. I had no time to draw or design, which is what I spend all my time doing in architecture, I just had to make and resolve things as fast as I could! I enjoyed this very immediate way of working so much that I have been designing furniture since I graduated.
How does your architecture influence your furniture design?
In some ways my architecture influences my furniture very directly! My final masters project in Copenhagen was a moving theatre that would occupy different empty sites in the city. I was so fascinated by the structural system of the theatre that after my masters, I decided to turn it into a series of lamps, one of which is the ‘prism lamp’. So I literally scaled down something that was intended to be 30m high to something that is 1m high!
My architecture also influences my furniture a little more indirectly. I am interested in architecture that is explicit and playful in the way it is put together. This idea has translated into my furniture design albeit on a more detailed scale- I am interested in joints and the interplay between materials and forces.
Your puzzle chair is fascinating. Can you tell us more how you came up with the idea?
I came up with the idea during the ‘one chair a week’ project of my masters. One particular week we were limited to using only plywood and were encouraged to avoid screws and glue. I decided I wanted to create something that did not look flat-pack, and noticed that flat-pack furniture always goes together at right angles for efficiency. Instead, I turned all the pieces slightly to give the chair more character, and worked on developing a set of junctions that would hold the pieces firm together at different angles. I also worked with the principle that plywood is slightly flexible, so I rely on the tension in the plywood to hold the chair stiff. The process of developing all the unique pieces which fit perfectly together was very painful, and currently I have about 12 prototypes under my bed in pieces, none of which stand up!
The Prism Lamp has an elegance to it – what were your design influences?
When designing I draw inspiration from a multitude of places. I am often inspired by engineers, inventors and artists as opposed to by other architects and designers . I don’t think design should be self-reflective so I think it is always a good thing when ideas come from somewhere totally new- it encourages originality. With the prism lamp I was inspired a lot by the expanding toys designed by the American inventor Chuck Doberman. I was also inspired by minimalist tower structures such as the Shukhov tower built in Moscow in 1922.
What principles do you follow when designing something new?
I think when designing something new, the idea should stay as pure and ‘lightweight’ as possible. There should be no unnecessary elements or details which distract from the intention. This does not necessarily mean using expensive materials, it may be that a very cheap and everyday material can express an idea much more poetically than something refined and costly.
I am not particularly interested in form and shape as an isolated idea, although I know this is hugely important for something to be beautiful. I am more interested in developing an idea that creates a form by virtue of its material properties and construction principles. For example the changing shape of the prism lamp is a virtue of the design of its joints.
Who are your design heroes? And if you could meet them what would you ask them?
One design hero of mine is a Spanish architect and engineer called Emilio Pérez Piñero. He created visionary deployable structures which could be carried around on the back of a lorry to instantly create covered spaces. He also worked for NASA and died very young at the age of 30. I think if I could meet him I would ask him a lot of technical questions about how his structures work!
What is next?
I will be exhibiting my furniture at Salone Satellite, the young designers section of the Milan furniture fair in April 2016. I have designed two pieces of furniture and would like to design two more in time for the show. I have a chair and a floor-standing lamp, but would like to design a table lamp and a clock. The clock I am particularly excited about, it will be an expanding circular scissor mechanism which will expand and contract as the sun gets higher in the sky- the idea being that one could tell the time at a quick glance just by seeing the size of the clock.