Max Lamb’s chair designs suggest an aggressiveness that is characteristic of the atavistic spirit in design today. In stark contrast to recent ethereal and romanticised design, or designs that transfer directly from computer to machine manufacture without human intervention, Lamb laboriously chisels, buries, grows and smelts materials into rugged and bold forms.
A recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, Lamb (1980-) cites both the topography and industrial heritage of his native Cornwall as inspiration for his design methodology. Combining industrial production with handcraftsmanship while fusing high and low technologies, the effect is both raw and intense.
Fascinated by the inherent qualities of polystyrene, Lamb first developed a prototype polystyrene stool for his BA degree in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Like many exercises in design reduction, the prototype – literally carved from a single block of polystyrene – was sufficiently resolved that Lamb developed the Polystyrene series during his MA degree in London. The material’s fragility forced Lamb to investigate ways of preserving the shape without sacrificing the piece’s tactility and eventually the Polystyrene series was completed with a polyurethane rubber coating.
Whether carving polystyrene, casting luxurious pewter into crude sand formations on a South Cornish beach for his Pewter Stool, combining lost-wax and sophisticated electro-deposition methods for his Copper stools, or extruding biodegradable materials for his Starch stools, Lamb creates visually arresting pieces that have materials and process at their core. It represents a traditional modernist approach to design – technically rigorous with an appreciation of innovative and appropriate materials and production processes – that suggests a need for realism and honesty in the products around us.
Q. When did you first become aware of - and interested in - design?
A. I’ve had an appreciation of creating and making things since my early childhood. I spent much of it on the beaches of Cornwall building castles and tunnels in the sand, and on my Grandpa's Yorkshire farm building dry brick walls, hay bale dens, and searching for buried horseshoes, glass bottles and broken china. In a tree house named Tremonk I fitted shelves to display my found treasures. I also made a wind-vane in copper that my Grandpa fitted to a barn and still uses today. When forced indoors I occupied myself with Lego, modelling clay homemade using flour, water, vegetable oil and salt, and baking with my Mum.
My first visit to the Design Museum was when I was about 15 and the line of classic chairs in the centre of the gallery is still vivid in my memory. I sat on each of them and compared their comfort. In particular I remember Bertoia's Diamond chair, Rietveld's Red, Blue chair and Gio Ponti's super-lightweight Superleggerra chair. This was perhaps my first experience of looking at chairs with a design perspective. I bought the book '1000 Chairs' and only a couple of weeks later my Grandpa bought a chair from a car-boot sale for ￡2, that he thought I may like. It turned out to be an Eames Aluminium Group Lounge chair from 1967. My love for design, and chairs especially, began then.
Q. Why did you decide to study design?
A. Designing and making things is what I most enjoyed at school and I always believed that if I studied a subject I loved that I would ultimately end up doing a job I loved. The concept seemed to work.
Q. What was the influence of your design education on your work?
A. Trevor Duncan, Andy Tennant and Rickard Whittingham whilst in Newcastle upon Tyne, and Martino Gamper and Tom Dixon since being in London. People and friends are always of huge importance.
Q. What were your design objectives as a student and how have they evolved since leaving the Royal College of Art?
A. I'm not sure that I had any, other than to exploit the freedom as much as possible. Since graduating, I have realised that I love to make things myself, or at least be involved in the making process, and knowledge of materials and processes is invaluable. Most of my work begins with research into both traditional and unconventional materials, and both high and low-tech manufacturing processes.
Q. Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to work?
A. I designed a transforming plywood cube that I named 'Box'. I was focusing on storage boxes for the home environment. I took the cube and began to dissect it in various ways. By hinging the various sections very dynamic forms were achieved, and the cube became unrecognisable.
I am not sure if it is the most important piece but I still like it today and use it as a bedside table. I only ever made one but the concept of dissecting existing products, forms and processes appears to maintain through most of my work.
Q. How did the design of the Polystyrene chair project develop?
A. I’ve had a fascination with polystyrene since my Degree in Newcastle, when I designed a family of nine stools, each using a different material. I realised how important materials were to the personality of a piece of furniture. I visited a polystyrene factory in Gateshead and learnt about the process and material properties, and designed the polystyrene stool, called Mr Poly, accordingly. I thought polystyrene had huge potential for use as a primary material (not just as a disposable packaging material) and it was whilst using a block of polystyrene to model another chair that I decided the rough model was both beautiful and entirely functional in its own right. I then began experimenting with ways of modeling, carving and manipulating expanded polystyrene to form furniture. The softness, light-weight and warmth of polystyrene suggested a chair would be a perfect application for it. The range of Poly chairs and sofas began. I opted to use a claw hammer to produce each chair. It is an extremely quick way of carving unique pieces of furniture with a fantastic, rough, rock-like texture (a texture unachievable with moulded polystyrene). It is also fun and good exercise!
Q. How have you developed this in more recent variations?
A. My first Polychairs were untreated, and made a ridiculous amount of mess like a burst bean-bag. I decided I wanted to preserve the shape of the chair with some form of coating or upholstery, without losing the soft, tactile texture. The chairs are now coated in a water-based acrylic rubber that is completely water-proof, UV stable, and salt and chemical resistant. The Poly chairs are now as durable as traditional upholstered furniture and are also 100% weather proof.
During my research into rubbers I discovered a very fast drying (3 seconds) polyurethane rubber that coats polystyrene perfectly and is extremely durable. It is far more rigid than the acrylic rubber and so I developed a new range of polystyrene chairs that rely upon the rubber coating for strength and stability. The chairs are more traditional in form and function and are fabricated using small blocks and lengths of polystyrene, with joints similar to those on a traditional wood dining chair, rather than being carved from a large block. Before they are rubber-coated, however, they are far from strong enough to be sat upon, but once encapsulated in the rigid rubber they become ‘bomb-proof’, quite literally.
Q. If you could have designed any iconic chair in history which one would it be and why?
A. Though maybe a typical choice, Poul Kjaerholm’s PK22 chair has to be one of my favourite classics. The combination of a machine made stainless steel frame with beautiful construction detailing and the hand-woven wicker seat and back provides refined decoration. It is a perfect combination of natural and man-made materials, industrial processes and craftsmanship, the high and low-tech. Who would believe it was designed in 1956.
Visit Max Lamb’s website at maxlamb.org