Dreams of a melting house - manufacturing processes move to the art world

Materials World magazine
28 May 2013

Who would have thought there were so many factors to consider when building an upside down thatched roof? An artist conceives the idea. An engineer calculates the base. Steel is laser cut. The timber framework is CNC modelled and a thatcher uses water reed to make sure birds don’t eat the finished work. None of these are processes we would readily associate with art, but then few of us know how to flip a thatched roof.

Alex Chinneck is an artist by trade, but his unusual array of work relies heavily on novel manufacturing processes. So, when he wanted to build a sliding brick wall for the front of a house, he used a Norbord OSB substructure and Ibstock Brick’s fast cladding system to create the slumped effect. And when he wanted to create ornate patterns on his concrete Persian rugs and make hundreds of identical cracks in a warehouse’s windows, he worked with water-jet cutters in Kent, UK.

Companies mainly view the cross-disciplinary collaboration as a marketing tool, though Chinneck feels industry can learn a thing or two from the artistic approach. ‘Technically, there is a lot of creativity but, from what I’m told, there’s not a lot of visual creativity with these processes and materials.’

So, while the sliding brick wall prototype slumps in an exhibition space in Milan, Italy, Chinneck will unfurl concrete Persian rugs for his customers and try not to pass the east London warehouse he fitted with the identically smashed windows. ‘It was a mid-20th Century shoe factory,’ he says. ‘We replaced every pane of glass in the building. There were 312 panes and we scanned a smash from one of the panes that was already there. We digitised the pattern and replicated it by water-jet cutting 4mm glass into five pieces. We removed the central fifth piece. We then installed it in every window – that’s 1,248 pieces of glass.’

Chinneck’s warehouse project quickly became an internet sensation, as passers-by wondered how hundreds of windows could be smashed in the same way. But that project is old to him now. There are bigger fish to fry, industrial candles to melt. He sees a new project flickering on the horizon – the dream of building a full-size melting house.

‘It will be a full-sized house, with real windows, doors, drainpipes and about 8,000 wax bricks. So it should melt over the course of a summer and warp and reduce. It will be reduced to a pile of wax and rubble. It’s lovely that it will disappear, unravel and reverse the process of sculpture.’

While a huge amount of engineering will be required to create a collapsible framework inside the melting house, predictability is one aspect of his work that Chinneck would like to shrug – at least for the moment. He explains, ‘Sculpture of this scale is incredibly engineered now, and it’s so well made and precise. They’re beautiful structures, but they lack an element of charm because you know what it’s going to look like before it’s built. As an artist, it takes the fun out of it a little bit.’

In an odd sort of way, he looks forward to his work not being there. ‘My main problem with public sculpture is overfamiliarity. It’s like when you get a bus past the Houses of Parliament every day. After two weeks you stop looking at them, even though they are the most spectacular buildings. And I think the same thing about sculpture. I don’t want my work to be ignorable, so for two months there will be a constant changing state. The house will look different every day and keep people engaged in that way.’

The melting house is not just Chinneck’s most audacious project in scale, it will also be the most expensive to realise. The estimated cost of the project is £150,000, which will take a fair bit of fundraising, but getting art made is what he does.

Chinneck earns his daily corn at The Sculpture House in London, UK – a company he launched to blend the creative freedom of art with the pragmatism of commercial manufacturing. He says, ‘We invite emerging international sculptors to design a piece of furniture, and then take that design and develop it with them with different manufacturers and workshops. We develop it into a fully functioning piece of furniture that’s available for sale in unlimited numbers. We take this concept and refine it towards function and efficiency. It’s a way of getting art into the home without it being just posters and prints.’

He believes artists offer a fresh perspective that lends itself nicely to furniture design. ‘Most designers consider efficiency, durability in production, quantities and affordability for good reason, but I think there is a risk – the more I know and the more perimeters and problems I’m aware of, the less freedom my creative thought brings to that subject. We want to task artists with the creative end of the idea and develop a model that allows us to take care of the rest.’

Nevertheless, Sculpture House prices are high, and Chinneck is working on ways to drive them down. So, in the case of the Persian concrete rugs, he will make a cheaper version from plywood veneer, and he has also pared £150 off the manufacturing costs of his swirling table by edge banding it in a different way.

So Chinneck will chip away at The Sculpture House. He will build the sliding wall into a derelict house in Kent and bring fresh talent through by medium of furniture.

‘I want The Sculpture House to grow and expand in products,’ he says. ‘We want to be the home of exciting furniture. A great way of doing this is creating this vast umbrella’ – a vast umbrella that also contains concrete rugs, an upside down thatched roof and dreams of a melting house.