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In conversation with Andrew Simpson

For the Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital exhibition, MAAS commissioned Sydney studio Vert Design to materialise artist and designer Lucien Henry’s 2D works for the first time. Principal Curator Matthew Connell talks to Vert principal designer Andrew Simpson about the processes involved.

Design drawing of Protea cup and Waratah decanter by Lucien Henry
Protea cup and Waratah decanter by Lucien Henry

MAAS holds in its collection many design concepts that French-Australian artist, designer and teacher Lucien Henry created for 3D objects in the late 1800s that were never produced. We asked you to model a protea cup, and a waratah decanter and punchbowl as part of Out of Hand. Can you tell us how the modelling was done?
As industrial designers, we traditionally use solid modelling CAD software, which provides geometrically accurate modelling in 3D. Because these design concepts were hand drawings of very organic forms — representations of waratahs, wattle, different leaf structures — we used surface modelling to get that detail and texture, and also mathematical modelling so it’s much more free flowing. These surfaces have very 3D forms to them; we’ve then taken those models, thickened them and brought them into a solid modelling program. This process means taking the models through four or five different programs. By doing that, we’re reducing the amount of surfaces and pixels and making sure it all meshes to form a solid.

During that modelling stage did you have to interpret and improvise?
Definitely. The finished pieces are very close to the original drawings but to get that you need to make some artistic interpretations — guess how thick parts are because they’re shown in profile; in some projections you can only see the front; work out if there are three or four legs, or how edges join. We picked ones that patterned particularly well, so we’ve made one or two of the forms and patterned them around the shape, and haven’t had to model each one. The punchbowl’s ladle was obscured and it was by far the most organic shape; effectively, we had to make a leaf.

What part of the job was the most labour-intensive or time consuming?
Modelling the complex forms takes the most amount of time, and solidifying it was almost trial and error, because of the number of polygons that make up the surface. There’s different forms of downsizing, and one breaks the surfaces up into millions of polygons that we then had to reduce.

Have you done this before?
We sort of developed the process doing work for artist María Fernanda Cardoso, for her Museum of Copulatory Organs series — we’ve got little 3D-printed models of pollen on display in Out of Hand — and more recently her large pollen works milled from sandstone that will be on display at Darling Harbour. That was good because she’d been to a number of people and everyone had said, ‘No, it can’t be done,’ and we said, ‘Oh well, we’ll have a go’ and worked out a nice way to do it.

So you’re experimenting with this idea of turning 2D designs into 3D artefacts and have developed a process for this; what needs to happen in order to smooth out the process?
I find this absolutely fascinating. I’m currently working with a group of architects to produce some street furniture and they’re of the modernist, minimalist school of architecture where ornate decoration is a dirty idea. The modernism that’s driven industrial design has been based on lack of decoration as well, and that process of how decoration comes into being doesn’t really fit into classic industrial design. So we’re designers who control the whole form, but we’re not graphic artists; I often want to apply a visual decoration that has some social meaning, but we don’t have the skill set to do it. The old form of decoration involved an artist generating a 2D sketch; a craftsperson interpreted it into a decorative form and then it would perhaps go into mass manufacture. Now the designer takes it from idea conception into mass manufacture and misses this opportunity for decoration and tremendous art value. So it’s really exciting that we’ve reinterpreted that process. It’s almost like there’s a resurrection of an old craft, even though it’ll be a digital rather than a hand skill.

Modernism was conceived from a social and functional perspective, a non-elitist form; but its aesthetic legacy seems to be about cheap building and design. What do you think of the prospect of a new aesthetic developing, simply because of potential to include decoration without necessarily adding to the building cost?
The process needs to be developed, but often it’s inappropriate to take risks on a client’s behalf. To do this work independently, commissioned by the Museum, means that we have a documented process and an outcome that says how we can apply this process, and it removes some of the barriers and risks.

Were you happy with the results?
Yes, they’re fantastic. It was such a nice experience to go through the Museum’s Visions of a Republic: The Work of Lucien Henry catalogue and get an understanding of his designs. You can look at something a thousand times but until you have to draw it and really engage with it, you don’t understand a work’s visual language — and it’s a beautiful language. The forms we’ve created read as waratahs but are really impressionist versions of waratahs. There are lovely forms in there, such as the way the leaves come to an apex and fall away. Some of his other designs could be softened, made a little less overt for today’s taste.

We agree, they are beautiful. What materials do you suppose Lucien Henry was thinking of when creating his designs? What other materials might you consider producing them in?
Looking at their uniform nature, I suspect he’d been thinking of porcelain; in a softly glazed porcelain it does read the same. Some of the forms aren’t mouldable and would need to be made independently and brought together. During the period Henry drew these designs a common method of ceramic making was to make small moulds, bring the parts together, assemble and glaze them. That’s how the leaves coming off the decanter might have been created, for example. The CAD file gives us the luxury of being able to render it in different materials, so we’ve rendered some in porcelain, some in silvers and glasses. I’d like to try them in glass, because of the immediacy and value it brings to it. Also I’ve got expertise in that process, so I can see a number of ways to do it.

You had to make a big decision about perfections. You’re working with a computer, which provides perfect patterning, but Lucien Henry was hand drawing. Was he just doing the best version he could?
That’s right; if he could have had more accuracy, would he have achieved it? I suspect so, because I drew them by hand 80 times, maybe more, and tried them as watercolours, oil paintings, marker renderings and line drawings. They’re actually quite hard to portray accurately because of the way in which it intersects and the way in which it patterns; when you’re drawing a 2D version you have to carry on the foreshortening, and then you’ve got a cylindrical form and the foreshortening’s quite hard. It’s also difficult because they are abstractions of the plants, they’re not realistic representations.

What might happen in the future with this type of decorative art? You’ve mentioned you sense there’s an interest in surface decoration.
I personally have an interest in it but broadly when I talk to architects, designers about it I see no interest whatsoever. Yet when I look at the what the general public loves, I think there’s a desire for it, there’s something very human about it; people just need to understand how that language works and how it’s applied, and have the tools to use it.

What would a move away from the simple to more textured and detailed surfaces mean for designers?
There’d be a push against it because it adds a complexity to things that otherwise wasn’t there. But it also makes a statement that design is more about human engagement and value to the user and making objects of desire than it is about creating things that are easy to make. It’s something that’s changed recently. The industrial design profession will change in the next couple of years as it becomes more about user experience, and the bounds between the physical and the digital change. I grew up watching the TV show Beyond 2000 and all the future predictions came true — drones, flying cars and virtual reality. What wasn’t predicted was that none of the old stuff went away, and that’s the world in which we live — people still ride horses and at the same time there’s a Tesla electric car. There’s more stuff and more to engage with, so finding a balance between that complexity and amount of choice becomes difficult. Maybe decoration offers a segue between the two: that you can say here’s how you blend the old with the new.

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