One of the great things about studying at a school of design, is that the skills you acquire are transferable to different creative disciplines. Concepts and principles found within fashion design can be translated to jewellery or furniture, and vice versa. The realisation that as a graduate one does not have to be confined to any one particular field is quite liberating. Grace Prince is a good example of these possibilities of transition and fluidity. Having graduated from BA Fashion Design with Marketing at Central Saint Martins in 2015, she has now discarded the cutting of cloth and rather focuses on hand carving of marble and wood; and using the skills she attained on the fashion course (research, collage) – she is proposing new shapes in the furniture landscape.
I would like to start by asking you about the transition from leaving Central Saint Martins with a degree in fashion design, to launching a line of furniture. Why did you have the change of heart in terms of discipline, and how did you progress from that realisation onwards?
During my final year Lee Broom, the product and interior designer, gave a talk on how he went from a fashion degree at CSM to designing furniture and products, and I think the penny dropped for me that it was possible to change design fields. Especially as I feel a Central Saint Martins degree is very liberal and the tutors focus heavily on developing your personal design aesthetic, brand marketing and rallying a strong work ethic, transferable across any design field.
Like many in my year I felt fashion wasn’t for me, but design was, and after using thinly cut marble, hung on the body for my final collection, I became fascinated with the stone. My collection was quite gestural and sculptural, so after graduating I knew I wanted to focus my creative efforts towards a more sculptural field. Therefore it felt the right thing to enrol myself on a marble carving course, in Carrara, Italy. Once there, I became transfixed with the carving process, so much so that my tutor sent me to visit Lutfi Romhein, who hand carves chairs and sculptures out of olive wood (one of the hardest woods to carve) in the south of France. This meeting was a turning point, Lutfis determination to follow his artistic path no matter what deeply inspired me and my desire to design structures collided with my love of carving. I wanted to create sculptural, artistic, hand carved chairs. I wanted to be a Furniture Artist.
On hearing of my new direction, a friend of mine introduced me to a lady who had an abandoned workshop at the back of her estate, just outside London, she the kindly gave me the workshop for free in return for gardening favours! I couldn’t believe my luck, every step felt very natural so I knew I was heading in the right direction, and I spent a month converting it to a functioning one. Even though I had design ideas flowing out of my ears, I felt I needed more making experience (youtube can only take you so far). I at least needed to know the basic joints and get familiar with how to use woodworking tools, so I contacted a carpenter’s workshop I knew of in Canada, asking if I could pay him to teach me simple woodworking joints. On the second day with him he offered me a paid carpentry apprenticeship. So I spent two months learning basic woodworking skills, enough to get me started.
I returned home, got a barista job two days a week and spent the rest of the week in my workshop, designing, making, experimenting with materials and tools. My plan was to give myself a year to transform my portfolio in a new furniture design direction. I whittled my designs down to three chairs I felt differ enough design wise and skill-set wise, to help broaden my learning – and when finished, to showcase an ability to push aesthetic boundaries, and an adaptability to sway within contemporary styles.
“I decided the overall artistic aesthetic first. In the end, the designs were quite fluid, so when making the chairs I was able to analyse – as I went along – how it would respond to the body.”
Does your designs reference anything in particular? How did you set out the research and development for them?
The way I designed was collaging images of contemporary artworks, sculptures, photographs and furniture I found mainly on Instagram – or screen shots I’ve taken over the years, with old antiques catalogues I found in a charity shop. The the images worked so well together as it was a juxtaposition of the new and the old, of the traditional and the modern. I then traced shapes over them, following very loosely the line of the collage, I traced like a 100 shapes or so until I felt I had seen a possible chair design. They’re now sitting in a gigantic folder.
Is there anybody you’re looking up to as furniture design heroes in this respect?
I’m utterly in awe of Wendell Castle, Guillermo Santoma, Isamu Noguchi, George Nakashima, Barbara Hepworth, Christian Rosa.
It also makes me think about functional aspects, which is such an integral part of furniture. Did you want to create something particular, in terms of accommodating a way of sitting, a mode of being?
For these works I decided the overall artistic aesthetic first. In the end, the designs were quite fluid, so when making the chairs I was able to analyse – as I went along – how it would respond to the body. For one chair I conducted multiple tests of different paddings, and I ended up layering a calculated mixture of different padding weights and materials. For the hand carved chair I was continuously feeling the wood, sitting on it at each stage of the carving process, and adjusting the height which it would eventually be fixed to. Some people mistake the back of the carved chair for glass, but it’s polycarbonate, which is bullet proof and won’t break when leaning on it. It was a continual rigorous process of research and problem solving until I felt form and function synchronised. Just like fashion you make many ‘toiles’ and you have a fitting model, the process was not dissimilar; I made many mock-ups and material samples, constantly sitting on them, contemplating style choices, taking photos and re-sketching to adjust the design.
“Just like fashion you make many ‘toiles’ and you have a fitting model, the process was not dissimilar; I made many mock-ups and material samples, constantly sitting on them, contemplating style choices, taking photos and re-sketching to adjust the design.”
How much time does it actually take to hand-carve a chair?
I estimate it took me about two months to create the hand carved chair, I carved the seat and the ‘boulder’ it rests upon. Firstly I made a clay mock up, then I glued blocks of wood together to make the right sized starting block. From there I went between pencil and carving tools, constantly redrawing the line I wanted to follow, adjusting the shape continuously, whilst having the clay mock up as a helpful guide. I find carving really indulges the senses, you’re constantly looking at and feeling the wood, examining its shape and line and hearing the rhythmic noise from the mallet hitting the tool, it holds your entire attention.
How would you position these pieces of furniture in a broader artistic context?
I see the two more abstract sculptural chairs as furniture art, which would require a particularly modernist and minimalist setting to be featured in. Although they are both completely functional and very comfortable, I feel they’re best as one off pieces, to be enjoyed as sculptures but also function well as chairs. I see the more geometric chair with the side table, that I made from solid walnut wood, as a more commercial piece. It’s more tame than the other two, for the very reason that I wanted to show I could do both. I already have ideas on how to expand its concept, I feel its design is very malleable and its style can be positioned in a multitude of environments with ease. As well as the chairs, I also created a few furniture accessories that I felt complemented the works; a leather room divider, made to resemble a stone wall, a hammered aluminium sculpture and a hand carved marble sculpture, as well as two gestural minimalist paintings. Although I feel very passionately about designing chairs, I feel it’s important to design aesthetically pleasing accessories that can complement the works and the spaces the works will inhabit.
What are your plans for the next few months ahead?
My plan now is to find work within a small team designing and making furniture pieces, in an atelier or small studio, in London or in Europe. I want to work vigorously within the furniture design industry, taking a particular interest in blurring the lines between sculpture and furniture, in a minimalist, gestural fashion.