Design is a consequence of the process, which in turn is a consequence of the material – an interview with Max Lamb

I had the good fortune to meet Max Lamb at Design Miami/ Basel in June, where he was designated one of the event’s “Designers of the Future”. Amidst his Solids of Revolution installation, we arranged a subsequent interview. Here is the result …

Solids of Revolution at Design Miami Basel

Solids of Revolution at Design Miami/ Basel

How did you approach working with concrete and wool for Design Miami/ Basel’s “Designers of the Future” project? What have you learned about these materials and was any of it a surprise?

I have explored both wool and concrete before but never successfully, and it was a long time ago, so for Design Miami/ Basel I started from scratch. The first month was spent researching, contacting building and construction companies, British suppliers and processors of wool, visiting builders’ merchants and cycling around photographing concrete architecture, construction sites and other structures. Parallel to this, I began sketching ideas and simple designs. Just quick, rough sketches that mean nothing to anyone but myself. After learning about the potential of the two materials and the various commercially available forms they exist in, I focused on two in particular – high density wool felt and low density Autoclaved Cellular Concrete. I purchased some samples and began to experiment with the materials in a physical way, seeing what the material could do and trying out different ways of manipulating and processing them. I was fascinated by how dense sheep’s wool, and how lightweight concrete can be. The two completely opposing materials became very similar in weight and property, a great surprise for me and a fantastic way of creating two different but related projects and a coherent exhibition.

Casting a pewter stool © Max Lamb

Casting a pewter stool © Max Lamb

From the videos I’ve seen of your work, I get the feeling that the production process you go through is as important as the final object. How does the process of making fit into your overall design philosophy?

Often the process or technique adopted to form, mold or manipulate the material directly informs the final design of the object itself. Sometimes the object is “made” rather than “designed”, meaning the design is a consequence of the process which in turn is a consequence of the material.

What relevance do you lay on exploring handcraft and the other very basic, yet powerful, artisanal techniques (such as bronze and pewter casting and lathing) that you use?

I try to be true to a material, generally using the material alone and in its elemental form. I want to celebrate and exploit each material for its inherent visual and functional characteristics, properties and qualities. Using a material alone helps to show it for what it is. I consider my approach to be logical and considered. I never try to force a material, but rather steer it into a form that is functional yet appears to have happened spontaneously, as if by nature.

Hexagonal Pewter Stool © Max Lamb

Hexagonal Pewter Stool © Max Lamb

Where does the design inspiration for your projects come from?

From materials and processes, and experimentation, exploration and engagement with both. From industry, manufacturers, material producers and relationships/collaborations with the companies involved. And from the environment and how geography, the physical landscape and geology can be interacted with and celebrated.

Visually, your pieces almost seem non-designed – they just “are”. What’s your design aesthetic?

Aesthetic is a consequence of the material and process I adopt. I’d say I make an aesthetic rather than design one. I don’t really like to fake things. If I use a material I want to be able to see and recognize that material. Every material has a unique identity – for me, that is decoration enough.

Ladycross Sandstone Chair and Starch Chair © Max Lamb

Ladycross Sandstone Chair and Starch Chair © Max Lamb

You use raw stone, polystyrene, bronze, pewter, sheet metal, starch … Does the project choose the material, or is the medium / material the starting point?

The material is always the starting point. I don’t have a catalogue of designs in my head waiting for an appropriate material to come along. When I begin working with a new material I don’t have a preconceived idea of what I am going to make. Usually, I decide upon a function first, but the visual and aesthetic aspect comes later – well, it just happens. Concise knowledge of materials as well as processes is so important in order to design clever, logical and appropriate objects. Without this knowledge, designers are just stylists, applying their personal aesthetic to a functional object. This isn’t the way to solve problems and produce exciting, unique products. That is my theory anyway.

As one website (dezeen) says, you use “honest – and often crude – production methods” – how did this come about?

This is really just a consequence of how I approach my work – focusing on a single material, followed by a process of manipulating it (or vice-versa), usually with my hands. I accept that the outcome is often “crude” but I guess this describes my methods of making. My work is like a signature at the end of a typed letter – the only part which is scribed by hand – the part with character and imperfection. The deft hand is capable of producing and reproducing seemingly perfect forms, details and decorations, but in the machine age perfection has become so easy and banal. The hardest thing to ask of a machine is to create what the hand does effortlessly.

Poly Chairs © Max Lamb

Poly Chairs © Max Lamb

How do you choose the surfaces (or the finish of the surfaces) you use?

Choice of surface finishes occurs in the same way as the rest of my work. I hunt for functional solutions and during this hunt I discover a plethora of different materials and coatings, and experiment in exactly the same way I explore raw materials for constructing the object. But I only use finishes when necessary. The Poly Furniture is the best example of my work whose function relies upon the addition of a coating. The synthetic rubber finish acts as an “upholstery”, encapsulating the fragile polystyrene surface, making the furniture highly durable and weather-proof. I looked into using natural alternatives such as natural latex rubber, but quickly discovered that these were highly unstable without the addition of synthetic stabilizers and, even then, they did not match the structural stability and longevity of polyurethane rubber. I wanted to give polystyrene, a typically disposed-of material, added value and functional longevity, so the coating was of prime importance. I think this is something we will continue to see more of, as it is often the case that synthetic materials like plastics often display far superior functional properties to natural ones and sustaining the life expectancy of a product can be more ecological and resource efficient than making a product in a natural material that deteriorates quickly. Just a thought.

One-offs or mass-production – where do both concepts fit into your scheme of things?

I love to make objects myself, sometimes using just my hands, sometimes using simple hand-tools like hammer and chisel, and sometimes by machine. I engage with industrial production techniques in the same way that I approach molten pewter and the beach as my sand-casting workshop. Whatever my medium and tool, I endeavor to exploit their inherent properties and capabilities. I like the material to “shine” and the signature of the process to be identifiable. It just so happens that my opportunities have so far been limited to the confines of production by hand and subsequently volume has been naturally limited by my physical output. Saying that, I have recently designed two tables for Habitat that are due to be launched in Autumn this year, so I do also work within the realms of mass-production.

Bronze Poly Chair © Max Lamb

Bronze Poly Chair © Max Lamb

What trends do you see?

I’m not very good at understanding trends. I tend to get stuck into my own thing and don’t often pop my head up for air. I would say that trends are becoming more extreme, more diverse and less identifiable as a specific trend of an era or period. Trends are definitely becoming more globalized, for obvious reasons, but as a reaction there is a growing demand and re-appreciation for the “local”, the hand-made, craft and the unique. My society, mostly in and around London and predominantly design related, certainly has a greater desire for local produce and products, for farmer’s markets, free-range and organic food, car-boot-sales and charity shops, salvaged materials and second-hand clothes and furniture etc. But, on the other hand, I have noticed that nearly all are involved in a greater level of global travel, something I imagine also applies to the rest of society. Are we all hypocrites or trying to offset and counterbalance the inevitable?

What are you working on right now?


What’s your dream future project?

Retirement, though I probably never will.

Rusty Sheet Steel Chair © Max Lamb

Rusty Sheet Steel Chair © Max Lamb

How did you get started?

I can’t really give an answer to this. It is a very organic process and one that is controllable to an extent but mostly things just happen, and when they do you have to jump on them with embrace. Pure motivation, dedication, passion and a bit of luck are all that’s needed!

For the aspiring designers out there: What role did your design school education, your winning various awards and your involvement with Ou Baholyodhin and with Tom Dixon play in developing your career?

Naturally all of the above are what made me who I am. Without one or all of those opportunities, myself and my work would be different in some way. We are what we know. Out of thirty students in my year at Northumbria Uni. I can name five that are now involved in the design industry and the rest I really don’t know what they are doing. I am sure they are all doing well, but my advice to students who really wish to excel in the physically global, but emotionally local, design world is: you have to take what you do (even when it is fun – and it ought to be) seriously. Be confident in your work, but make sure it is original. Don’t be inspired by design that you like, be inspired by design that you don’t like, that doesn’t work, or that doesn’t satisfy a need. Make it what it should be. Blah blah blah. Just have fun and be good and soak up everything you can, be a sponge, but interpret it in your own way, apply the information in your own signature.

That’s enough!

Copper Stool © Max Lamb

Copper Stool © Max Lamb


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