From the MIKRO series of fold-up sculptures to his electroluminesent tables and clocks, the work of the British product designer SAM BUXTON is dominated by his experiments with advanced materials and technologies.
When Sam Buxton needed a business card rather than make “a boring printed card”, he decided to devise one which would reflect his work as a product designer. By deploying a chemical milling process he had discovered in the electronics industry, Buxton created a flat fine stainless steel card the various parts of which unfolded into a 3-D replica of himself working at his computer. When a manufacturer spotted it in the Design Museum’s 2001 exhibition Design Now – London, the business card was put into mass-production as the first in the series of MIKRO-Man fold-up sculptures.
Buxton has ploughed the royalties from MIKRO-Man, his first mass-manufactured product, into producing prototypes of the complex product design projects – such as his electroluminescent clock and table – which he has been developing since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1999.
Born in London in 1972, Buxton studied furniture design at Middlesex University before starting at the RCA in 1997. After graduation he shared a studio – Design Laboratory – with a fellow RCA graduate, the Danish designer Mathias Bengtsson. Now working on his own, Buxton has developed commercial projects for Kenzo, Habitat and Eurolounge as well as the burgeoning MIKRO-Man collection which is now expanding into environments with a stainless steel fold-up MIKRO-House. He was one of the four designers shortlisted for the Design Museum's Designer of the Year award in 2004.
Q. How did you first become interested in design?
A. It wasn’t until I applied to study product design at degree level that I started to look and think about furniture and product design. Up to that point art and architecture had been my main creative interests, in fact they still are, along with science and astronomy. Design covers an incredibly broad spectrum of interesting fields.
Q. What influence did your design education have on you?
A. I spent a lot of time questioning whether I was doing the right thing – art or design. I now don’t feel that I have to choose – it keeps it interesting. I like the idea of ambiguity – that there aren’t boundaries – I need this idea. By the time I graduated from the Royal College of Art I had transferred colleges, having to do two degree first years, told that I was “unsuitable for degree education”, taken a year off to get away from design and returned to win a place at the RCA. My two years at the RCA had a big influence. I felt pushed there – constant thinking and questioning. Ultimately I felt that it taught me to be my own critic but at a higher, more personal level. When I left the RCA, it felt like learning had only just started.
Q. Which of your earliest projects were most important in enabling you to establish your reputation as a designer?
A. Reputation requires not only interesting work but exposure of it through exhibition and press, it means nothing if your work is not connecting with people. My fold-out business card has been a useful way of demonstrating my work straight from my pocket, the subsequent MIKRO product series has connected with many thousands of people through the sales. Winning a major project commission from Kenzo helped bring long sought financial stability and a high profile name to the client list and portfolio. More recently the MIKROcity installation in the Design Museum Tank was the first time my work was free to view twenty-four hours a day in a public space, and an amazing variety of people wandered by and stopped to take a closer look.
Q. What were your main preoccupations in your work at the time?
A. I was trying to continue the experimentation in industrial technologies and materials that I had started at the RCA and to explore more abstract concepts about the relationship of the body to objects. The reality was that I had living to pay for - many ideas had to be put to one side - I needed to be realistic and business-minded in the early years if I was to preserve this working independence. There were so many pressing factors beyond the initial idea, how to fund making objects and which ideas made financial sense to make (often not my favourite), convincing manufacturers to help, what objects might bring money in to help keep the studio alive, producing objects to shout about and objects to hide. So often there were no answers - the result was constant trial and many errors.
Q. How have those preoccupations - and your approach to design - evolved since then?
A. I am now beginning to work on projects that I truly believe in. Securing several well-paid commercial projects over the last years has enabled me to invest in new work, to prototype new objects, utilising technologies I find interesting, projects that had been previously put to one side. You cannot escape the importance of running a business to supporting creative freedom and creating new opportunities.
I’m more and more interested in working on a wide range of projects and creating opportunities to cross the boundaries between art, science and design. I really enjoy making new things, exploring manufacturing technologies, reinterpreting objects - hopefully making objects which are new and engaging. I find the interface between the living body and the built environment very interesting, from body traces to information exchange. It’s an ongoing preoccupation which continues to produce object experiments.
Q. Can you describe the development of the Surface Intelligent Objects Table?
A. I’m interested in blurring the boundaries between the display screens we have around us – such as the computer, mobile and PDA screens - and the physical environment. To begin to combine information display onto the surfaces of objects - creating active surfaces on familiar objects around us.
The SIOS Table is one of these experimental projects and begins to explore the potential of an intelligent surface on an object we use every day. The surface display of 66 illuminating areas can be used to dictate table etiquette and I felt it was important to make a reference to a familiar use of a table. However it is also meant to explore the much wider potential of a surface that can communicate, display information and react to objects placed on it. The Table is part of an evolving research project.
Q. And the Timepiece Clock?
A. The display of time and embodiment of time passing interests me. I wanted to break down the familiar circle dial and create a clock that not only displayed the time but went much further in expressing the passing of time and somehow celebrated time intervals. The electroluminescent technology I had been looking into was perfect in creating an affordable panel display. The micro chip sequencer is programmed to show both time building on the panel and changing animation at time intervals such as thirty seconds, one minute and one hour. I want the clock to become a living thing in ones space, moving and changing as the day passes - and with a little knowledge a glance over tells you the time.
Q. How did you develop the original MIKROman?
A. I wanted to make a unique business card, I find most so dull, one that expressed the work I do as a designer. Most cards suggest that you call a number or visit a website - I thought wouldn’t it be great to design a card that transformed into a piece of my work that could be kept. The acid etching process, used predominantly in the electronics industry, seemed an ideal technology to create a card that could fold from flat into a 3D scene. The original business card is a miniature scene of me working at a computer, displayed in an exhibition at the Design Museum in 2001. I was approached by a company who thought they would make a successful commercial product, I called them MIKROman and to date there are six versions. To me it is still my business card but the MIKRO series is a lot of fun to develop and will continue to grow.
Q. And how has the MIKRO series of characters and environments evolved since then?
A. Alongside the business card, and long before the MIKRO series, I had an idea to create a complete living unit – a machine for living with all the equipment needed for a home – an idea which I had initially been thinking about as an exhibition stand in laser-cut stainless steel. Not having an opportunity to make it large I decided to make a miniature version using the acid-etching process - I no longer want to make a large one. All elements had to be connected to the sheet but I still wanted the room spaces to be interesting three dimensionally, it was a real challenge to include all the objects and features that a kitchen or living room etc. might have. I wanted people to look at this miniature cube with all these elements folded out and think; I recognise that I could live there. I made it for myself, only now has it become available within the MIKRO series, really through demand more than anything.
I really enjoyed the Design Museum Tank commission, I wanted to make a really engaging exhibit that people would want to explore on all sides. After thinking about it for months I built MIKROcity, the laser-cut buildings solved the problem of using the height of the space, allowing children to see low down and to bring the miniatures right up close against the glass. The city was covered in CCTV towers and satellite TV dishes - there’s always a deliberate balance in the MIKRO designs of what’s included and what’s left out.
Q. What do you consider to be the main challenges facing a designer today?
A. Maintaining as much freedom as possible to push innovative ideas - not to become dumbed down by commercial pressures. Combining business skills with the free thinking approach of an artist. Producing genuinely new objects and finding ways to make them accessible to the public. Trouble is there never seemed to be a clear precedent to follow. I keep saying it but getting your work out there, connecting it with people is so important. The MIKROcity installation in the Design Museum Tank made me realise how much I enjoy the public reaction. You often design it in your own bubble but the public feedback can be so varied and valuable.
Q. What or who has inspired and influenced your work?
A. Many artists and designers are inspiring for their sheer enthusiasm and dedication to making new things. It’s rare that I like all of someone’s work but more so their approach and exploration of ideas inspiring. That’s why for me retrospective exhibitions are often the most rewarding you see the whole journey and you relate it to your own discoveries and investigations. I do like much of Tatsuo Miyajima’s work from Japan, it deals with time in a spiritual (but non-religious) way, the sculptures often innovating with new technology but in a sensitive way. There are so many interesting artworks, technologies, toys and research programmes out there - I do search out new ideas, objects and technologies that I haven’t seen before. I enjoy reading about the latest experiments and research in science and the universe. I love mountain biking and keep up with new designs coming out of the small innovative bike builders in the states. To a large degree I keep my eyes wide open.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. New electroluminescent objects, a clock for Habitat, a chandelier for Swarovski Crystal, a project for Vauxhall, a range of paper products for a US company, continuing the SIOS video volumes project and new MIKRO designs. Diverse as I like it!
Visit Sam Buxton's website
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain