Reappropriating Stainless Steel: A conversation with Alex Davis
Think of shiny, sturdy Stainless Steel.
Now stop, and think of soft, supple plant forms–a sheet of creepers or the tender, plateau-like leaves of water lilies, perhaps even the knobbly but slender branches of a small Champa tree.
Do these two images fit together at all, in your mind? Likely, it is hard for you to imagine any partnership between these two.
And yet, artist and designer Alex Davis is fostering this very partnership through his work.
Davis' glossy sculptures and installations, created primarily with sheets of stainless steel, take these extraordinary forms–leaves, flowers, creepers, trees and even a grove of bamboo. In some cases, the form is an enhanced or reinterpreted version of its natural reference, but in some cases, the delicate steel constructs are entirely true to their origins.
Breaking down the stereotype of Stainless Steel as a sharp, almost surgical element, Davis shows us the soft, poetic side of this material. His work is believable, feels natural and makes you think about stainless steel in an entirely new way.
Having admired Alex's work, which has been showcased at international design forums and fairs such as Maison et Objet, Paris, Salone del Mobile, Milan and Abitare il Tempo, Verona, as well as commissioned in India, we wanted to reach out to Alex and learn more about his reappropriation of Stainless Steel.
As we speak with Alex, It is clear that his work is positioned at two intersections–one is the intersection of "Design and Art" as he says, and the other is the intersection of outdoor landscape and the interiors of buildings. His delicate but robust work belongs both outdoors and in indoor spaces. Here is our conversation with Alex:
MD: Alex, why is Stainless Steel, and in sheet format, in particular, the medium of your choice?
AD: My history with Stainless Steel dates back to experiences such as designing trays for the Indian Railways years ago, and then to my time working with Alessi* at its factories in Italy. That was probably when I realized how much I enjoyed working with sheet metal, which one can custom fabricate quickly, molding with the hand. For those exact reasons, I am not a fan of casting solid metal, and therefore casting stainless steel.
Another interesting fact is that I have a background in engineering–Mechanical Engineering. Perhaps this gives me an advantage, and a feeling of comfort when it comes to working with materials like stainless steel.
I do now, work with materials like copper and brass, as well as Stainless Steel, but it is always sheet metal, that is my medium of choice.
MD: Bamboo groves, Champa trees, Vertical gardens and multiple species of flowers and plants. Your work takes formal inspiration from nature. Tell us why.
AD: The strongest reason for this, I believe, comes from my childhood. I did my schooling in Kerala, in India, and spent lots of time in the forests and on the beaches. The influence of nature and that tropical experience is immense, so these forms feel very familiar to me.
A second contributing factor is this: I don't believe in generating an abstract form for the sake of it. I enjoy regenerating and reinterpreting existing forms and forms that come from nature feel like a perfect reference and inspiration.
MD: 'India Modern' is a term you use to describe your work sometimes, tell us what that term or idea means to you and how your work represents this idea.
AD: I think that term is best illustrated by a collection of work I did, titled "Dented, Painted." This collection consisted of murals or relief in sheet metal that drew inspiration from the iconography of the Indian highways. The idea was to pick up icons such as the trucks and blow horns that are found all over the subcontinent and to amplify them, through my sculpture. At the same time, the idea was to be very curatorial about this and look into possibilities that would be quite out of the ordinary for the Indian Landscape.
MD: How does the design and fabrication process begin for you?
AD: A lot of the work I do starts directly with the material itself–sheets of stainless steel, copper or brass. Occasionally, there may be modeling, or testing with material like foam, paper, or thinner sheets of metal that will happen before. In the case of a few, specific and detailed projects, there has been computer generated three-dimensional modeling to understand fabrication and final product better.
Most often my techniques are hand-bending the metal, and laser cutting, by hand again. There is no fixed set of techniques that I employ, it varies by project, except for the fact that most of it is done by hand.
MD: As a Landscape Designer, I am intrigued by how your work belongs both in the interiors of buildings and outdoors. Tell us how your work migrated to the landscape.
AD: I think it is in the nature of my work, to occupy the in-between. Between Design and Art, and between the interiors or architecture and the landscape. Having said that, I collaborate extensively with architects and landscape architects on commissioned pieces, so they are created specifically for those sites and contexts- indoors and outdoors.
MD: What are you working on now and what is ahead for you?
AD: I am currently working on the second part of a collection of work titled "Hyperblooms". I expect to complete and exhibit it by the end of the year.
Also, at this time, I am doing a lot of large-scale commissioned work in India. There has been a fair bit of institutional work in this, but I am keen also, to impact public spaces through my work. This has meant submitting proposals to several state governments for large public space projects.
From 2005 to 2012, I exhibited my smaller work at the Maison et Objet in Paris.
As the scale of my work has increased in recent times, however, and commissioned work in and around India has progressed. I would love to take some of this larger scale work abroad again now, through commissioned work.
MD: Thank you, Alex, for speaking with us and sharing your journey and process!