Richard Sweeney’s Folding Light series blurs the boundaries of design, art and craft. Combining artisan techniques with complex problem solving skills, Sweeney creates lighting designs based on unique sculptural forms.
Sweeney’s designs are investigations into materials, structure and pattern. Inspired by complex geometries and patterns of growth in nature, Sweeney uses simple materials to explore both the handmade and machine manufactured multiple. Sweeney is interested in the intrinsic properties of the medium he is using — “the objects I create have an underlying simplicity of construction that betrays their complex appearance, which is further emphasised by the use of everyday materials, such as paper.”
Sweeney produces highly detailed drawings and scale models to explore new forms. He also experiments with computer aided design. The five new lighting designs bring together curved folding with regular geometric solids, such as the dodecahedron, the forms evolving through a process of hands-on modelling and refinement.
Constantly challenging his approach to design, Sweeney’s Folding Lights are essentially sculptural, with each piece starting as an exploration into form and ending with a resolved functionality.
Now based in Manchester, Richard Sweeney was born and raised in Huddersfield, England. From 2002-03, he studied at Batley School of Art and Design, discovering a natural talent for realising three dimensional form. He went on to study Three-Dimensional Design at Manchester Metropolitan University and graduated in 2007. Past projects include an installation at the DKNY flagship store on Old Bond Street in 2006. Sweeney has received two awards as part of the annual New Designers exhibition.
Q. When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
A. I have always been interested in the way things work and how they are put together. When I was young, the time to get rid of the old TV was a great opportunity; it was time to dismantle it and see all the bits inside before it was thrown away. I was just fascinated by all the little components, and how they all combined so perfectly to create this object. I think it was the start of my obsession with how things are made, which is the basis of design essentially.
Q. Where did you study? And why did you decide to study design?
A. After college, I studied foundation art at Batley School of Art and Design. It’s here where I really discovered my talent and passion for making, and was able to exercise my obsession for detail. It seemed natural to take this further and I chose to study Three-Dimensional Design at the Manchester Metropolitan University. I saw design as a challenge, something that would combine problem solving and the hands-on making I enjoy so much.
Q. What were your design objectives as a student?
A. I work best with that which is tangible – physical materials, things I can manipulate and feel with my hands. I always let the material dictate the form it takes, so the shapes I created were sympathetic to the medium at hand. I also took a great interest in new technologies and manufacturing methods, and I strove to find a way to combine the hands-on experimentation with industrial process.
Q. How has your design education influenced your subsequent work as a designer?
A. At Manchester I was given great freedom. This has led me to take an experimental approach, so I’m not so much concerned with what I’m going to make as how I’m going to make it. For me, the act of making comes first, I like to know how a material is going to behave, and the processes that can be applied to it, then use this to shape the form of the object.
Q. What other factors have influenced your approach to your work?
A. When I was quite young, I wanted to be an architect, but I didn’t choose to pursue this as I had the feeling it would be too rigid. I chose to continue my studies of art, which I felt offered more freedom. It was my perception of the way I thought architecture would be taught that led me to this decision – when I was told I’d need a great deal of mathematical knowledge, that scared me a bit, as I don’t really have a head for numbers! My interest in architecture, however is still strong, as I have a great admiration for structure, and how this can be shaped not only to solve the physical problem of making a building or bridge stand, but also to create sculptural forms. I’m a great fan of scaffolding and pylons; these are in a sense pure structure, with nothing superfluous about their design – simplicity is something I strive for.
Q. Which of your earlier projects was most important in defining your work?
A. I think one of the most important projects I undertook was one at Art School, whereby I explored the use of tension as a means to create form. I experimented with string, ropes, elastic bands and all sorts, creating a very large body of experimental works which culminated in the formation of two, large-scale sculptures in laminated wood, about two metres in length. They were held together entirely with string, a chord between each end constraining the pieces into an arch like a taught bow (cutting this chord would result in something of an explosion!). This project really defines my experimental process – letting the material and process define the outcome.
Q. How have your objectives evolved since graduating?
A. My objectives haven’t really changed, I just want to keep trying new things and see what’s possible. I like to learn new skills, and I consider this an important part of the creative process.
Q. Who or what inspires your work?
A. As I have mentioned, architecture is a great inspiration to me, but aside from the man-made, I am also inspired by natural forms. It is not so much the organic shapes, but the means by which they are generated that interests me. It makes great sense to borrow from elements from biological structures, as these forms demonstrate the pinnacle of material, structural and functional efficiency.
Q. How important is the story behind the work?
A. Do objects exist that have no story behind their conception? I cannot see how work can exist without a story, thus I would consider it very important indeed.
Q. Where do you see your work going in the future?
A. I honestly couldn’t say. If I truly knew where it was going, I think it would defeat the point.
Q. How did your design for the Designers in Residence develop?
A. The pieces developed from my work in paper, which combine curved folding with regular geometric solids such as the dodecahedron. These are not planned as such, but rather evolve through hands-on modelling and refinement. I use a computer to draw two dimensional layouts, which are folded by hand to create the 3D forms. I also draft these layouts out by hand, but the computer is a powerful tool in that it allows me to perfect these to a high degree of accuracy, while giving greater freedom for quick experimentation.