Looking around your home or office—or anywhere, really—it's extraordinarily likely that you posses something constructed of a plastic polymer. This item was most likely pumped out by the hundreds of thousands in a factory overseas, along with billions of other mundane objects that have come to completely surround us in our daily lives. James Shaw wants you to shift your conception of plastic from a nameless, faceless material to one steeped in handcraft and tradition. Designing a suite of baroque furniture (and a tool for manufacturing it), Shaw hopes to break the mold by elevating these pieces high above the lowly plastic counterparts you have seen before.
A recent graduate of London's Royal College of Art, Shaw first created the plastic-extruding gun used to make this furniture as part of a graduation project while enrolled in the school's Design Products program. It was part of an arsenal of three "gun" tools—the others were a gun that shot out molten pewter and another that sprayed plastic fiber and glue to create papier-mâché upon contact. "The project was informed by the idea that the tool dictates the outcome and so having new tools would allow new outcomes, but it was also to make tools that would allow small-scale expedient manufacture, to set me up for the studio furniture practice that I would embark upon after I left the college," Shaw explains. "The reason that I styled them as guns was partly a tongue-in-cheek idea that I would need to 'fight' for survival once I left education, but also based on the observation that so many tools are already in gun form—think nail gun, glue gun, spray gun or even the common power drill—and I liked the relations between creation and destruction that this raises."
Shaw's extruded-plastic bureau. Furniture photos by Paul Plews The gun
Shaw's plastic-extruding gun pumps out high-density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the most commonly used packaging plastics, which Shaw sources from a recycling company in East London called Closed Loop. "We have what can only be thought of as an extremely unhealthy relationship with the polymers that completely surround and make up our daily lives," Shaw says. "The plastic-extruding gun turns it into a handheld process."
Shortly after his graduation in 2013, Shaw's gun became the catalyst for a number of commissions, pieces that allowed him to hone his skills and refine the process for using the tool. Adam Gallery approached Shaw in the early summer of 2014, asking the designer to develop some new work for an exhibition during London Design Week. The result is the Plastic Baroque Collection, inspired by visual similarities Shaw noticed between the 17th-century art movement and how the plastic naturally behaved when extruded. "The sense of dynamic movement and complexity of form seemed to have an association with artworks and furniture from the Baroque," Shaw says. "Then, as I researched more into the movement, I found that a lot of the ideas rang really true with what I was trying to achieve with these works. The Baroque is all about embracing sensuality and worldly values and the expression of movement through mass, which for me resonated strongly with a project that is about trying to come to grips with a very ubiquitous and misused material."
A closeup view of the bureau
With a starting point in mind, Shaw chose to base the items on the tradition of a suite of furniture, usually comprised a bureau table, a mirror and two candlesticks. "These pieces were often the most precious and exquisite in the house—or more likely, palace—made from rare materials such as exotic inlayed timbers or marble," Shaw says. "Louis XIV is reputed to have owned one made from solid silver. I decided to kind of riff on the idea of one of these baroque suites."
Shaw began the process by sketching and prototyping in tandem. "A lot of my ideas come about from the material and the way that it behaves," he says. "But since this collection draws so heavily on concepts around the Baroque and historical references, sketching and visual research were a bigger part of the process than usual for me." Alternating between the mediums of paper and plastic, the designer made sure that the formal development on paper always matched up to what he could realistically execute.
Shaw in the studio Experimenting with the plastic-extruding gun. Left and above photos by Sasa Stucin
Working quickly, Shaw started at the base of each object, moving upwards to build out each piece based on his sketches and prototypes. Since the material would only bond while still warm—and since it cooled quickly—the designer used multiple jigs to get the correct dimensions and ensure that pieces with glass components would fit together properly. "When the plastic comes out from the extruder, it kind of has the consistency of blue-tack or marshmallow, but it starts to go solid quite quickly as it cools," Shaw explains. "You probably only have a minute or so before it goes too hard to work with, so you have to be quite fast-paced when working with it."
Dealing with the somewhat organic nature of the material proved to be the most challenging part of the process, as the plastic would continue to move as it cooled even up to a day or two later. "I was really surprised to find how 'organic' the behavior of this 'synthetic' material was," Shaw says. "Because of the freedom of the material, it requires a certain amount of improvisation as you are going along—which I enjoy. It becomes a very dynamic way of making something where you really have to respect the material."
The complete Plastic Baroque Collection
Shaw's final suite consists of a bureau, a mirror and two floor lights (replacing the traditional candlesticks)—in what at first glance could be mistaken for sheets of glass supported by globs of very thick teal and turquoise toothpaste. The colors are a result of what Closed Loop sweeps up from its floor, bits and pieces of a light greenish hue. Shaw wanted to accentuate those even further, however, so he added pigment and other bits of HDPE to alter the saturation. "I wanted to choose colors that were a bit weird but somehow worked, which is the vibe I was going for with the whole collection," Shaw says.
With this collection under his belt, Shaw has been mulling over what to tackle next, but thinks that a series of smaller objects or accessories produced in batches using the plastic-extruding gun might be in store. "I am also getting to a point where I want to adapt the tool," he says. "Having worked with it for a while now, I am starting to see how I could improve it, which is exciting. As the tool evolves, the capabilities of what I can do with it will, too."
This is the latest installment of In the Details, our weekly deep-dive into the making of a new product or project. Last week, we checked out a light-socket projector.