Blake Griffths' union of natural and synthetic material addresses the societal issues and needs of the 'Age of Man'
Blake Griffiths' woven creations are beautifully patterned and gruff-edged. Their textural richness and imperfect shapes and forms allude to a sense of cultural significance often associated with such handmade, bespoke objects.
Unknown at first glance, however, is the fact that these pieces bring together materials as disparate as recycled plastic bin liners, rubber bands, cotton fabric, and hand spun nettle. A combined weave of what is natural and synthetic, these objects question how a surplus of materials such as plastic or rubber–at the root of much adverse environmental impact today–can actually play a constructive role in the survival, and future of humankind.
Created by the textile designer and art educator, in continuation of his project 'Carrying on Carrying,' Blake Griffiths' most recent work, for Milan Design Week this year included two tough, flexible peices–portable flooring and a bag. The first of these pieces was 'Home is Where you Carry it'–a patchworked textile intended to serve as flooring, made of plastic bin liners and spun nettle. The second, 'A Bag to Drag your Life Across the Border' (seen above) was a vessel woven from rubber bands and natural material.
Both works were intended to support the temporality that marks the lives of thousands of people displaced from their homes today; such as refugees. While the attractive yet robust and waterproof portable flooring seeks to create a sense of 'home' for them, in the most shifting and temporary of circumstances, the tough and gritty bag intends to be an accompaniment to the harsh journeys undertaken by refugees.
In addition to the known physical materials used to create these two works and the obvious elevation of materials such as plastic trash liners, there is another element that silently contributes to their making–Endurance. Griffiths chooses an arduous, labor-intensive path to create these hand-made works. Each panel is handspun on the loom, with the not-to-simple introduction of plastic or rubber as 'supplementary wefts.' Then these panels are patched together by hand and also backed by fabric. By working in this way, Griffiths hopes to relate to the audience of his works–those who are having to muster a great deal of endurance and cope with strife as they journey across unfamiliar lands and waters.
Griffiths' two creations were an excellent fit for Form&Seek's Age of Man exhibition at Milan, where they were seen this month at Ventura Lambrate. The exhibition's theme 'Age of Man' was boldly reflected in his work–he projected a future where surplus and unfavorable synthetic materials can actually support us, while advocating for ceasing their use and production, so that indeed, one day, his works cannot be created for the lack of such raw materials.
Recently, we spoke with Blake about the concept and materiality of his works and his experience being a part of Form&Seek. Here is that conversation.
MD: How did your two works for Milan relate to your practice as a whole?
Blake: My work has always been concerned with the tension between synthetic and natural materials, and understanding this tension through a socio-cultural lens is definitely an extension of my previous research on the concept of ‘carrying.'
My last project, Carry On Carrying On touched on understanding social issues and how the field of design can contribute to, or undermine them. Those works helped me to understand current societal concerns, whereas my works for Milan were much more concerned with the societal concerns of the future. Both bodies of work are troubled with how man will enter the future, and are, in that sense, predictions of ages ahead.
MD: The ‘Age of Man’ represents our relationship with the environment and our age–both in what has passed and how the earth has already been impacted and in the ways in which design is responding and adapting to it. How does this theme express itself in your work?
Blake: The conceptual, moral and ethical integrity of materials is a central aspect of my work, and I have always positioned myself as an advocate for natural, ethical and organic materials. But thinking of materiality in relation to the future, or in relation to the drastic social issues of our time, I have been forced to embrace and understand making in a synthetic realm.
I have used plastic and synthetic rubber to better understand the environmental impacts in a post-industrial revolution world. I understand these products as pre-existing (available en masse for ‘re-use) and explore ways that they can positively contribute to or predict a progressing age of man. I’m suggesting that perhaps, the materials that have caused our demise, just might be the ones that will contribute to our saving.
MD: What were the primary materials and techniques employed to make these works?
Blake: The works are created on a handloom. My loom is an eight shaft table loom, and the process is completely manual. I have used a tied weave structure that is primarily backed with a layer of plain cloth. This technique alludes to upholstery fabric and creates a dense, much stronger fabric. I have created the works in a series of panels and then stitched the panels together by hand.
This process, from winding the warp, setting the loom, weaving the fabric and stitching the product together is arduous and incredibly labor intensive. This aspect of endurance in my work is essential to understand the clientele whom I have designed for. I am interested in understanding the endurance needed to create this work in comparison to the endurance needed to say, seek refuge across unknown and dangerous waters.
I am not asking us to value one more than the other, rather, to try to comprehend if a common ground exists here. I have used cotton, plastic bags, rubber bands and hand-spun nettle to create these works. The understanding of my work shifts when we see these ‘endurance’ variables in relation to the endurance suffered by our planet to produce these materials. Is this the bigger question? I suppose the conceptual space between the integrity of materials and contemporary social issues is where I positioned my work for Milan 2017.
MD: Tell us about your history with weaving, and material experimentation.
Blake: I learned to weave with common and traditional materials like wool, cotton, silk and linen. Most of my early works were using a technique mastered by weavers in West Bengal in India called Jamdani. I learned this technique while in India and have used it a lot in my work since then.
For me, a process of supplementary wefts (extra threads that make a pattern) morphed into a process that saw me trying to weave plastic, elastic, and pretty much anything that fit between the warp threads of my loom. I even wove a panel using the ribs of a sheep. As part of this experimentation, I began to use rubber bands and plastic bags.
I work with these materials because they are so readily available. I see the concept of using plastic bags as a superfluous human activity without which we could see a huge reduction of our daily carbon footprint. Until they stop being consumed, I won’t stop weaving them.
MD: How does your project create an impact on the earth, on mankind?
Blake: My work is answering this question is a strange and potentially contradictory way. I am using materials that have a known environmental impact (or have, historically caused environmental impact) and am employing them in a way that suggests that there are positive and sustainable futures ahead for man. These works ask us to embrace the surplus we have created, take the already occurred destruction and understand it as part of the human progression.
I suppose, in essence, this is a project of re-use and recycling, but it is important not to view these objects as advocates for producing synthetic counterparts. In an idealistic, futurist setting, my works would no longer be able to be created as this surplus of synthetic materials may not, and will not, hopefully, exist.
MD: How did you connect with Form&Seek? And how you feel about this unique collective of designers.
Blake: Form&Seek first spotted my graduate collection in Sydney, displayed at the Australian Design Centre, as part of the Bright Futures exhibition. They felt my work fit with the Age of Man theme for Milan Design Week, and I was thrilled.
The idea that this collective seeks to “provoke discussion” is what really interests me. Provoking discussion on a global level, for me, is the future of our field and why I am so excited to be a part it.