Handmade: Alex Chinneck, Concrete Rug

by Katie Treggiden in Bespoke stories

This week for her handmade column, Katie Treggiden speaks to British artist and designer Alex Chinneck, about his paradoxical concrete rug.

“My practice is relatively cross-disciplinary, simultaneously exploring art, design, architecture, engineering, theatre and construction. My interest in each of these fields is born from a constant thirst for innovation and a tireless hunger to impress and please. I’m forever tired of my ‘last’ and excited by my ‘next.’ I think this attitude stems from an obsession for progress and I see culture and creation as an exciting way to satisfy and accelerate that need. I’m not fame driven and I’m certainly not money driven, as my accountant will tell you. I like to think I’m audience driven and I draw significant adrenalin from the praise and in the pleasure of others.”

“What does the future hold for handmade? While mankind has hands, we will use them.”

“The Concrete Rug was born from the discovery that it was possible to cut concrete with computer precision. I had been cutting brick in a similar way with the British brick manufacturer, Ibstock Brick, in preparation for my sculpture From the knees of my nose to the belly of my toes. I wanted to defy the material nature and common perception of the concrete by giving it a baroque language and elevating it to a decorative status. I especially like the fact that the hundreds of jigsaw-like parts are cut from everyday council paving slabs.”

“The Concrete Rugs are the least hands-on things that I make. It is a digital process with a very physical outcome.
I begin by sketching patterns and motifs. My partner is British dressmaker and patch-worker Lu Flux and I treat her enormous library of fabrics as my principal reference. Then, for about a week, I work with the digital illustrator Mathew Gaffen to digitalise, join up and generally untangle my doodles.”

“I have been working with concrete for some time and have developed a good understanding of how the material behaves. The drawing evolves with this experience in mind – I’m conscious of which parts will work structurally and visually. Once we have a drawing, we print it at 1:1 and lay it out to get a feel of the parts and the pattern. The journey from screen to full size is considerable, so this part of the process is very informative. Once the design has become refined we isolate the parts into a cutting list of 250 – 500 pieces depending on the design. These parts are cut with a computer-controlled jet of water, a process that creates many rejects and breaks.”

“Installation and assembly is case by case, the parts are sometimes contained within a steel or ash timber frame and other times set within the ground. In theory the Concrete Rugs could be mass-produced but there is neither the market nor the need for them. My other works, especially the architectural sculptures, are certainly one-offs because they are inspired by and conceived for specific locations.”

“My favourite part of the process is a finishing. I’m driven by the thought of completion and seeing. I love to step back and for a split second feel productive, and in that moment not feel anxious.

“I prefer that people don’t understand the process. Some of the processes we use, especially on the large and complicated projects, are really interesting, but I prefer to hide the breadcrumbs and make the evidence of the making disappear. Questions are more interesting without the answers.”

“I think when something is handmade it possesses an unquestionable charm – we find character in imperfection. Creative and experiential value becomes diluted as an item is repeatedly produced. I’m not a critic of mass production. I appreciate that good design must consider efficiency, cost, performance and profit, and high production numbers allow more consumers to access and afford a potentially life-enriching or even life-saving piece of design. At the same time, the more rare something is the more precious it becomes and this is the kind of object or experience that I seek to create.”

“What frightens me most is the mass production of ideas. It sometimes feels as though society has become a slave to trends – we are all encouraged to act, look and think the same way. This reality restricts exploration. If everyone in the world was different, it would be a brilliant incubator for imagination and innovation.

“What does the future hold for handmade? While mankind has hands, we will use them.”

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