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Max Lamb’s Personal Collections

At the London Design Festival in 2009, Apartamento magazine collaborated with local furniture wunderkind Max Lamb on a show called “The Everyday Life Collector.” The title referred to Lamb’s father, Richard, who had spent more than 15 years surrounding himself with British studio pottery, of which 400 examples were on view. But while age might have given him a leg up in the volume department, it turned out that the elder Lamb wasn’t the only one with the collecting bug: Max, too, admitted to joining his dad at flea markets from time to time and almost never coming home empty-handed. So when we had the idea to start a new column called Inventory — for which we’d ask subjects to photograph a group of objects they found meaningful — we turned to Max first, and he didn’t disappoint. He sent us 10 images of the collections on display in his live-work studio in London, then gave us a personal tour. “All of these groups are linked by form or material,” he says. “I can buy things because I really like the looks of them, or because I really like the function, or because there’s an interesting detail or surface texture. But generally you don’t find an object that combines all three, so I end up with this set of items that are relevant to me for all sorts of different reasons, and that’s how my collections evolve.” Read the interview we did with Lamb that follows, and then check out his images below.

What is the first thing you ever collected, and why?
“Badgers. Anything to do with badgers. Not sure why I started — in fact perhaps I didn’t. I think I received an ornament or a cuddly toy of a badger as a gift, and because I took a liking to it, every birthday and Christmas for the next few years I received numerous others. As a child I collected everything and anything. I have always loved multiples of things. My first real self-initiated collection was of seashells and pebbles from the beach, a habit probably inspired by my mother’s own collection. I spent many a day on the beach with my parents, and a common activity was to walk the length of the tide-line searching for wooden lollipop sticks, mermaid’s purses (a type of seaweed), weird shells, and pebbles or ‘diamonds’ (bits of broken glass roughened by the sea and sand). To this day the beach remains one of my favorite places to escape to. Currently I’m collecting studio pottery, mostly British, and especially Cornish pottery. I’m very interested in the work produced by the Leach Pottery in St. Ives which was founded by Bernard Leach in the 1920s. In particular I collect the so-called ‘standard ware’: basically a range of stoneware plates, bowls, cups, and cooking vessels that were all hand-made but produced en mass.”

When you amass objects like these, do you consider it research, or pleasure?
“With my collection of Leach pottery, for example, I call it research — I’m teaching myself pottery and have recently bought a second-hand kiln, and both my collection of standard-ware and the Leach philosophy provide inspiration. But I also use it to cook with and eat from on a daily basis, so in addition to the research aspect, I most definitely gain pleasure from my collection. It’s an interest, a passion. I collect also because I enjoy the act of collecting — the thrill of discovering a piece that’s rare, or beautiful or bizarre, or a bargain.”
Lamb’s Pewter Stool series, created for Johnson Trading Gallery

I know that in recent years you’ve grown fond of shopping alongside your father, but was there ever a point when his collecting habits made you vow never to acquire two of the same object? What do you see as the difference between his collections and your own?

“I have the same hunter-gatherer instinct as my father. I can manage two of the same object just as I can manage to eat two pasties — whether I need both or not. And as I said before, I have an interest in multiples. Somehow repetition helps to reinforce the relevance or sheer beauty of an object. But my father’s collection differs from mine not only in that he’s far more focused on what he collects, but also in that he’s able to justify his collection as an investment. He’s learned his trade, focused his knowledge, and honed his eye. He goes to a flea market at 6AM on a Sunday morning and finds a nicely glazed vase for 50p knowing that its true value might be up to 100 or even 200 times that. Whereas I tend to collect anything I find of material or aesthetic interest, regardless of its value.”

Nearly all designers appear to derive pleasure from collecting, or even seeing objects compared and contrasted with one another as you have in these photos. What do you think it has to do with the practice of design, and with your practice in particular?
“Speaking for myself as a designer, and perhaps more critically a maker, I create physical objects that serve at least some degree of function. I take inspiration from the physical world around me and the way humans (including me) interact with it, both historically and today. So the objects I surround myself with provide important stimuli. My collections offer references to history, culture, human behaviour, evolution, technology, technique, material, chemistry, physics, process, form, aesthetics, etc — the list could be endless. But from practical point of view, it’s often the physicality or materiality of these objects that inspires me to try my hand at working with a particular material, or to develop a version of the process used to shape it.”

If you could acquire any other subset of objects in the world, what would it be?
“I think I’m doing ok. Other collections I have include chairs, jugs, tools, books, cutlery, postcards of groups of people, tape-measures and rulers, rocks, crystals and other minerals, and in fact anything elemental. Space — or my lack of it — is becoming a big issue, so I might like to collect more space in which to keep my collection of collections.”

1. METAL. “This is a weird mix of things made mostly from silver and pewter and aluminum. I love the scale of jacks — they’re these tiny little objects but they’re so perfect, and they remind me of concrete sea defenses. A few of these objects I made, like the pieces of polystyrene cast in pewter at left, while the little pewter spoon with a hexagonally shaped handle I got from a flea market for really cheap. The hexagonally shaped cup and the saucepan with a spout I bought from an antique fair in Paris two years ago, and there’s something so modern about them even though they’re really old. The thing that looks like a piece of ginger I found on my grandfather’s farm. I haven’t got a clue what it is or where it came from, but my grandfather came up with the theory that it’s part of a melted plane from WWI. It makes for a nice story. When you’re trying to speak about materials and what they can do, these are fantastic images to use, because you see this plethora of forms and shapes all created from the same material. They’ve all been worked in very different ways, and each one is functionally and aesthetically completely different. That’s a huge inspiration for my work.”
2. SPOONS. “I also collect spoons, mostly wooden ones and especially those that have obviously been made by hand or by other visible means. I enjoy making my own spoons, too, and once produced an entire collection of them from common materials and ready-made objects such as copper pipe or a nail; it came about after I decided I wanted to make a series of objects using all the materials and processes I’d used to date for my furniture. Now it’s the kind of thing where when I don’t know what I want to do or make in an evening, I walk into my workshop and I can pick up any kind of wood or metal and quite quickly turn it into a spoon. The wooden ones shown here are all works in progress. There’s just something about spoons; they’re so beautiful. I love knives as well — I suppose the fork is the only bit of cutlery I’m not so fanatical about.”
3. GLASS-MAKING TOOLS. “All these weird pieces of wood look really primitive and obscure, like cavemen’s tools. You don’t know what they’re from or what they’ve been used for. Actually, they’re from a glassblowing factory in Slovakia. I did a project with Lobmayr, and visiting their factory was my first real introduction to the world of traditional mouth-blown glass. The artisans take pieces of wood and cut them into the shape of the tool they need, then they dip the tools in water and use them to sculpt the balloon of glass. Once a tool is burnt out, they make another one. They’re constantly throwing these things out, but I loved them and picked up a whole pile of them. They’re so rough and crude, but they create the most exquisite and delicate crystal glasses — it’s a really interesting contrast. The little man with the hat on is a carved head I bought at an antique fair just outside the town of Gruyères, which we visited while I was teaching at ECAL because Gruyère is my favorite kind of cheese.”

4. COPPER AND BRASS. “In the foreground are little brass junctions that are T-shaped and threaded. I just love the solidity and engineering that’s gone into these components even though all they do is join two pieces of metal together. The function they serve is so basic, and yet they’re so exquisitely made. When I first discovered them, I bought them in every single size I could find, and displayed them in my studio along with these copper piping junctions, as a comparison. The copper plate I bought in an antiques market in Paris, Clignancourt, and it’s something you keep on the sideboard to empty your change and keys into when you come in the door. It was designed for Christian Lacroix’s showroom in Paris. It’s so gruesome and so beautiful at the same time — it looks like a little witch’s hand reaching up and trying to grab something.”

5. GEOMETRY. “These stone pieces and geometric toys sit on my staircase, so when I walk down the stairs in the morning, they’re the first things I see. On the right is a 9-centimeter cube of Cornish granite which I made while working on my furniture at the De Lank quarry in Cornwall. To make raw blocks of stone into a chair or table, I make two or three slices to expose a place to sit, but the rest ends up looking the way it’s always looked for millions of years. So I wanted to create something just for fun that would be the opposite, but in the same materials — something very geometric. The piece of pink marble is from a flea market, and it’s a fascinating shape I became a huge fan of during my studies: a cuboctohedron. It recurs in chemistry and biology, and I’ve made a few designs based on it before. The white cuboctahedron connected with magnetic spheres is a geomag toy. When I was a child I used Legos, that was my toy, and this is a slightly more modern version of that.”
6. WOOD TOYS. “This collection also hangs out on my staircase. The wooden bangle is my girlfriend Gemma’s. It’s from the Lost Gardens of Heligan, in Cornwall, close to where I was born. Whenever we’re in Cornwall we go there; it’s like a tropical exotic garden which had been lost and was rediscovered about 20 years ago. They have a wood turner there who creates objects out of fallen trees. The biggest puzzle I bought at The Future Perfect in New York about four years ago, and it’s really difficult to put back together. I think it might be dark walnut, and I think it’s Japanese. They’re all made and machined so well, and it’s a natural material but at the same time it’s been cut into such precise components that just kind of lock into place. They relate to the geometric or mathematical forms on the step above. It’s difficult to apply those qualities to my own work as such, but I still find them very interesting.”
7. CERAMICS.“The little terracotta pinch pots I picked up in Jaipur. They’re disposable earthenware vessels that street food is served in, and they’re fired at a low temperature, so they’re quite porous and fragile; once they get used, they get thrown on the ground and smashed up, and they just disintegrate. It’s a nice life cycle. Some of the other pieces came from the two-month J.B. Blunk residency I did in California with my girlfriend in 2009. J.B. was also a potter, and we were able to use his equipment. We had never done pottery before, so we had to teach ourselves, but one of J.B.’s old assistants gave us a little bit of assistance. At the end of our stay I’d made about 300 pieces of pottery, and the assistant and I made an exchange — the plate on the left is the piece he gave me. The mug with the gold cross is a really old piece made by J.B. himself, which his daughter gave us as a gift at the end of our residency. The jug with the spout cut into it is one of the pieces I made while I was there. The small ramekin in front with dots inside is part of my collection of Leach pottery; it’s an early piece, probably the early to mid ’20s. And the rough, multi-colored cup is an old tin-smelting pot from Cornwall that I bought on eBay a few years ago. Before they started mining a spot, they would drill down and remove cores of stone, then melt the samples down in these crucibles to see how much tin content there was. The tin itself has glazed over the ceramic, and created an incredible pattern.”

8. BAKELITE. “Another recent interest that has quickly evolved into a collection is objects made from Bakelite, the precursor to plastics. Bakelite is seldom used anymore, but just like modern plastics, most pieces still exist due to the permanence of the material. Unlike modern plastics, though, artifacts made in Bakelite have a richness, a tonal irregularity, and a warmth more typical of the handmade. I only started collecting it a couple years ago, after going an antiques fair with my parents in Lincolnshire. I found a specialist whose entire stand was Bakelite, and I bought the plate shown here, the cup, and this hexagonal napkin ring. I’d also spotted this little round tape measure where the casing was bakelite and the metal tape coils up and flops inside. But when I went to pay for the other pieces, the tape measure was gone, and I got really annoyed. It turns out that while I’d been absorbed in conversation with the stall owner, my mom had bought it for me, and she gave it to me for my birthday that year. Since then I keep getting Bakelite gifts from people — it’s like the badgers, where it wasn’t like I chose to collect them, it happened by default. At some stage I took a liking to an ornament or something with a badger on it, and then everyone started buying them for me. But my parents and sister have developed an eye like mine, so they know the kind of things I’d like. The pieces they give me are always very interesting.”
9. CAST IRON. “I like the quality of the finish of cast iron, and the fact that it’s very apparent as to how the object has been produced: A master is pressed into soft sand, and leaves an impression into which the molten iron is poured, and so everything has this slightly rough, sandy texture to it. It’s process I use quite a bit in my work, both with my pewter-stool casts on the beach and the chair I made in polystyrene, buried in the sand, and cast in bronze. My interest also stems partly from my father’s love for Scandinavian design objects, particularly Danish; I think some of these candle holders are Dansk, from the ’60s or ’70s. The nutcracker, I think, is by the British designer Robert Welch. It’s very heavy, very solid, and an absolute joy to crack nuts with.”
10. CAST IRON II. “The large, ribbed candleholder at left is British-made in Sheffield by David Mellor. I think I actually bought that new, and it’s one we use on a regular basis. In front is an ashtray and bottle opener I bought in Japan, the first time I ever went. I wanted to buy every single thing I found there. These were for sale in a housewares shop, and they came in these beautiful little boxes. For an ashtray, it’s just so simple — we use it for burning incense papers. The bottle opener’s handle has a slight kink in it, which raises it slightly off the table surface so it’s easier to pick up. From a design point of view and a material point of view, they’re very fascinating objects.”