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James Shaw On Why He Hopes His Design Practice Will One Day Eat Itself

“Daffodils are great,” says British designer James Shaw when I point out the bright yellow bunch sitting behind him in his southeast London workshop during our Zoom call. “They always start off really unpromising as those little green buds, and then they get better and better and they last for ages.” It’s an apt metaphor for Shaw’s own work, which often begins as discarded post-consumer plastic that he turns into slightly trippy organic forms reminiscent of crude cake frosting, created with his self-built plastic extruding gun and sculpted into quotidian objects from toilet paper holders (a runaway hit, released in sporadic, online-only drops, like some sort of bathroom Supreme) to bowls, candelabras, and chairs. While his work (some of which can be found in the permanent collections of MoMA and the Montreal Museum of Art, among others) has gained attention for his irreverent plastic pieces, Shaw’s latest collection, titled Bi-metal Confusion Spoons, was sketched free-form before being laser cut from sheet metal, then formed, riveted, and polished by hand. Here, we talked to the Royal College of Art graduate about non-prescriptive ergonomics, the intimacy of cutlery, and why he hopes that his practice will one day eat itself.

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Hi James, how are things in London?

We’re on the fullest lockdown that we’ve ever had here. I’m still able to go to the studio. In a way, it’s kind of at that point where it’s been going for so long that it just feels normal. I feel so privileged to have another space to go to and be around other people like my studio mate and assistant.

What are you working on at the moment? I can see you’ve got some black marks on your hands!

I’ve been doing some tests today of different dyes and stains. But I managed to completely cover myself in it as normal [laughs].

Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. Where did you grow up and how did your interest in design and making first take root?

I guess, like a lot of designers or artists or makers, it’s just something that I’ve always done. I’ve always been off in a corner fiddling around with stuff, whether it’s mud pies or Lego bricks, onwards. I grew up in Devon, a countryside location on the edge of this place called Dartmoor, which is like real wilderness, or as close to wilderness as you get in the UK. Lots of funny shaped rocks and bits of moss and heather and all these weird organic shapes. I think that just tooling around between all of those has built something into my consciousness about an appreciation of certain types of textures and shapes and forms. Dartmoor was amazing for that because it’s all this volcanic-formed igneous rock and these things called Tors, mountains that have been worn down to hills by the elements with these piles of rocks on top.

You studied at the Royal College of Art. Is it important to take an academic approach to what you do? And how has that informed your work?

I studied quite “down the line” in a way, like my first degree was called Product and Furniture Design and my masters is called Design Products, so it’s a bit “does what it says on the tin” in terms of what I’m doing now. I wasn’t particularly academic at school. But obviously, university does have that academic underpinning, and writing dissertations and taking quite a theoretical standpoint on things was something that did really get me going. That theoretical and academic way of thinking is something that’s still at the heart of what I do, even if the reality of what I’m doing is covering my hands in black paint [laughs].

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Especially with the work you’re making, it’s so connected to human interaction and this feedback between the body and household objects such as chairs, cutlery, and toilet paper holders.

I was really interested to find a type of work that connected head and hand, that brought the whole thing together. What I really like about what I do is that you’re thinking but you’re also doing something physical at the same time. I feel really lucky to be able to do that because so many types of work these days is just purely sat in front of a screen. Being able to combine something that uses your body and uses movement is really important and feels really good.

And you have a fascination with cutlery, specifically. Tell me about that.

I’m quite interested in objects that we use all the time and our daily lives. So, doorhandles, cutlery, and toilet roll holders are things that are there all the time, but somehow, often, we don’t give them much presence. We don’t give them much thought. The door handle is a really good example of that because you literally have to touch it to get where you’re going. And so that allows this possibility for an interesting interaction if you make an unusual door handle; if you make a door handle that’s trying to question things or trying to do something more than the normal door handle does.

Cutlery is definitely in that same category because it’s one of the few objects that you actually put inside your body, so there’s an extremely intimate connection you have with it as an object. And then on top of that, there’s all this interesting stuff, like a lot of cutlery is very old because it hangs around for a long time and so we can get a lot of good usage out of it. And that ritual experience that you get around meals and people laying the table. The cutlery I’ve got, it’s just 1950s cutlery, it’s nothing particularly expensive or special, but it belonged to my grandma and it was the cutlery that her and my granddad bought when they got married. And I just think it’s amazing that it’s an object that they used every single day of their lives, three times a day. And now here we are, 70 years later, and I’m still using it every single day of my life. There’s that nice connection between them.

You use the term “non-prescriptive ergonomics,” when describing your work, which I find really interesting. Can you explain that to me?

With that set of cutlery, they’re all pretty weird shapes, to put it simply. I think that we’ve been going through a period of trying to make the objects that we use ultra-functional and ultra, ultra streamlined and performing—performing to the absolute limit. Obviously, that makes sense for a lot of things—for spaceships or racing cars—but it isn’t necessarily what we need to do with the objects in our home. Your spoon can be ultra-performing, or it can find a different way of being. I like the idea that everyone’s different and the way that people want to use cutlery is totally up to them. That set of cutlery was for this organization called Store Projects that I’m involved in, and that’s all about embracing diversity and bringing people together. So, the idea was to create as many different types of spoon as possible, and almost not be thinking about it, to just let the shapes guide themselves and then allow the user to find the thing that speaks to them. And then it’s up to them how they want to use it. Again, it’s about trying to create a connection between the user and the object and allowing that to happen rather than creating a way for that to happen.

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And with your furniture pieces — your chairs for instance, there’s a wonderful, Surrealist element to them. Do they feel more like art pieces to you? Is there still a lot of ergonomic thinking happening?

I think that whole question of if something’s an art piece or not, it’s such a weird conversation to have to have. Because, what’s that even about? [laughs]. I guess one thing that it’s about is that it has to function. The key difference between people who are making something that performs within the art world or something that performs within the design world is that if you make a chair in the design world, you have to be able to sit on it — I think! All of the chairs that I make, you can sit on. That whole process of thinking about, Is it comfortable? They might not be as comfortable as even a chair that costs £2, but we’ll definitely be trying to make them as comfortable as possible. So, the ergonomics are there.

Is there a certain sentiment you feel your work evokes? Is it joy? Is it humor? What do you want people to feel? Maybe that’s a weird question!

That’s a really difficult question for me to answer. I hope that people will read those things into it, but I hope they read many other things into it as well. And ultimately that’s up to them.

Tell me a bit about your use of plastics and recycling waste, and the materials that you like to work with.

I’ve been working with plastics for a number of years now. It was a weird one to get into because I started from this point of really being quite disgusted by plastics. These are not nice materials to be working with. Everything that I associate with [plastics] is bad. And so, in just trying to explore that, I discovered that it is an incredibly abundant resource. That’s the problem, is that waste plastic is everywhere, and we need to be doing something with that. Especially when I was starting out as a young maker, the fact that I could go to a plastics factory and they would literally give me a ton of materials for free — you know, the stuff that falls on their floor and they sweep up — was an amazing resource to tap into and it allowed me to work. As I’m sitting here, that big pile in the background [he points to a stack of large brown paper-wrapped packages that reach the ceiling], that’s 600 kilos of waste plastic.

Is there anyone else working with waste materials that you think is doing a good job? What direction do you feel people can go in to make better use of that material?

There’s heaps of people who are doing really interesting stuff with it, especially now. Like Dirk van der Kooij, the Dutch designer. But the main thing is that it shouldn’t really exist. My niche shouldn’t exist. We’re growing hopeful that my practice won’t be able to continue because that will mean we’re not, as a society, doing such crazy things with a valuable resource that also happens to be quite bad when it gets released into the environment. I hope that in the future my practices won’t exist.

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Are there other materials that interest you or that you’re exploring in different ways?

Absolutely. I’m always playing around with stuff. I’m just interested in products of the world. Last year I was doing quite a lot of stuff combining plastics with polished metal and timber in this sort of riff, I suppose, on classic mid-twentieth-century modernism.

Yes, you have a mirror that combines those three materials.

I guess it’s an idea around midcentury modernism as being both archetypal good taste and also the moment when all of our negative consumer habits or negative material habits came out. Like that Paul Simon song Kodachrome or that scene from The Graduate: What’s the future of plastics? That moment when maybe things started to go wrong, but at the same time it’s also the height of good taste or quality. What I was trying to look at in that work was this idea of something gone a little bit wrong. The reason that I bring up Kodachrome is that mirror, the yellow [plastic] is actually made from old Kodak film canisters. There was a factory in North London that Max Lamb bought, and it happened to have a few tons of waste plastic in it. And part of it was all these bags of proprietary Kodak yellow chipped up canisters. I thought it had this nice connection.

It seems like you’ve had these serendipitous moments of discovering a glut of materials. Are there any other treasures that you’ve unearthed that were interesting?

The way it is with plastics is that I tend to come across 600 kilos here or a ton there of one thing. Like those plastics from Max’s factory were really interesting because it was literally two bags of this one type of plastic that we might not even know what it is, but it hasn’t been touched since the ’70s. It’s kind of this finite resource in that sense, which gives the objects that we can make from it a kind of rareness.

What’s your research and development process like?

I do have a very hands-on approach to trying things out. Obviously, like everyone, I’m always going out and taking pictures of stuff. But then the moments tend to happen when I have something that’s just sitting on my desk, and it can be sat there for a really long time until it sparks something, or I’ll take something into the workshop and try to connect it together. That trial-and-error process of trying stuff out in real life is very integral. I’ve done a couple of things that have been about making new materials, which, ultimately, should be science—it should be left to the scientists. But through this sort of iterative process and getting involved in a hands-on way, that’s how I’ve gotten from A to B.

Would you ever consider collaborating with scientists or material developers in the tech world?

I would love to. It would be a tricky thing to arrange. I don’t know if they would think that a lot of the way that I work is silly in some way, but absolutely, it would be really exciting to find a way to work like that.

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Portrait © Rory Mulvey