Matthew Hilton

With appropriate timing we just had a delivery of rather magical foldable star structures from Massachusetts I used these beautiful objects as props in some recent photographs  ( http://matthewhilton.com/tables/horizon/#595 )  and I wrote recently to John Kostick, the designer and maker, to tell him how much I appreciated their simple and yet totally fascinating structural qualities. 
These stars came out of explorations John made in the early 1960’s, whilst a student of Physics he became very interested in a concept Buckminster Fuller called ‘tensegrity’, the sculptor Kenneth Snelson who used it to produce seemingly impossible structural sculptures, called it ‘floating compression’, a name I find far more evocative.
John Kostick’s stars came from investigating this ‘floating compression’ idea, John says: “The basic idea, the story of the stars, is that I found it inspiring that one could build objects that are mathematically elegant and have structural integrity, working with simple, readily available components, and using basic tools and techniques. These wire sculptures are stable, yet flexible, expressions of spatial symmetry that do not require any precision machining, casting, etc. The intent was, and still is, to make the geometry and physics that are expressed through the stars accessible and appealing.  They are a kind of fusion of science and art”
http://www.kosticks.com/star-history.html
http://www.kennethsnelson.net/tensegrity/
Whilst exploring the internet briefly for background I thought of ‘Skylon’ which was built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, held on London’s South Bank, next to the Royal Festival Hall and opposite the Houses of Parliment, this led me to look at the Millenium wheel or London Eye as it is now known, built 49 years later on almost exactly the spot as Skylon briefly existed. London Eye uses similar principles as Skylon and from certain perspectives has passing visual similarity, I wondered how much the Architects had been inspired by Skylon as an object or social statement of celebration. 

With appropriate timing we just had a delivery of rather magical foldable star structures from Massachusetts. I used these beautiful objects as props in some recent photographs and I wrote recently to John Kostick, the designer and maker, to tell him how much I appreciated their simple and yet totally fascinating structural qualities. The stars came out of explorations John made in the early 1960’s, whilst a student of Physics he became very interested in a concept Buckminster Fuller called ‘tensegrity’. The sculptor Kenneth Snelson who used it to produce seemingly impossible structural sculptures, called it ‘floating compression’, a name I find far more evocative.

John Kostick’s stars came from investigating this ‘floating compression’ idea, John says: “The basic idea, the story of the stars, is that I found it inspiring that one could build objects that are mathematically elegant and have structural integrity, working with simple, readily available components, and using basic tools and techniques. These wire sculptures are stable, yet flexible, expressions of spatial symmetry that do not require any precision machining, casting, etc. The intent was, and still is, to make the geometry and physics that are expressed through the stars accessible and appealing.  They are a kind of fusion of science and art”

Whilst exploring the internet briefly for background I thought of ‘Skylon’ which was built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, held on London’s South Bank, next to the Royal Festival Hall and opposite the Houses of Parliment, this led me to look at the Millenium Wheel or London Eye as it is now known, built 49 years later on almost exactly the spot as Skylon briefly existed. London Eye uses similar principles as Skylon and from certain perspectives has passing visual similarity, I wondered how much the architects had been inspired by Skylon as an object or social statement of celebration. 

During our last photoshoot at Landguard Fort in Felixstowe, we noticed the cobblestones in the main entrance seemed mis-matched. The ones on the right looked like old cobblestones, but the ones on the left looked to be much newer, and made from wood.

We asked one of the tour guides why there were wooden cobbles, and he told us that during wartime the main entrance was used for bringing in ammunition. The carts used to carry the ammunition had steel wheels, and if the cobbles were made of stone then there was a risk of sparks igniting the ammunition. They also had the added benefit of dampening the sound of carts and troops passing through.

"Then why does only half of the walkway have wooden cobbles, and the other half have stone ones?" we wondered.

"They are all wooden," he replied, "the ones on the right are just older".

On closer inspection it was obvious, the grain clearly visible. The cobbles on the right had been there since the 18th century, and had been worn in a way that made them look like stone. They had small bits of gravel pressed into them over the years, and were even cold to the touch. The cobbles on the left were much newer, a mere 100 years old. It was another reminder of what an amazing, versatile material wood is.

Maia is a solid wood object, of intentionally non specific function, a step, a bedside table, a light table, a stool, it is made using a 5 axis cnc machine and utilising a joint detail we invented specifically for the machine. The design started with a conversation about a photograph of a stool seen in France. Matthew made sketches and we then produced a  computer model.
The first physical models of Maia were made using paper and card, at 1:1 scale. We often use this simple way to make models to get a good feel for scale and proportion.

We then made a 1:1 scale version using plywood, which allowed us to judge something with a similar weight and strength to the final design.
When we were happy with proportion, size, weight and strength we asked for the six components to be cut from MDF on the new CNC milling machine in order to properly test the joint.

After this, we were ready to have one cut out of solid walnut, which went on to become the final design.

We are very proud of our new packing tape with the MH logo, this will be used from now to pack products leaving the Portuguese factory.

 

Above, a stack of newly assembled Maia waiting to be sanded and oiled.

David, Harry and I were at the factory in Portugal recently to see prototypes of pieces we will launch in London and Kortrijk in the next few weeks.  As we watched components being machined, I was pleased and honoured to see that the main operator of the large CNC machine Rui Miguel Saramago Santos (Rui Saramago) has changed his seating.

He used to use a lovely, almost Arte Povera object made from components found around the factory (see earlier post dated 20.12.11). He is now using the original prototype of Maia which was one of the first things he made using the CNC, it is made from veneered MDF and is not perfectly assembled.

The great thing about this is that he uses it is exactly the way we intended, he sits on it, stands on it, kicks it from place to place and treats it generally with great disrespect. I would love it to be a production one and see how it is worn and dented in a few years time.

I love the combined simplicity and sophistication of bicycles, at their most beautiful they are elegant structures with high quality engineered components. I have always owned a bike and always cycled. I own two steel framed road bikes and a lot of bits, a 1990 Condor Baracchi in immaculate condition and a lovely 1984 Raleigh Sirocco. Bikes mean freedom, exercise and fresh air, they are cheap, quiet, fun and beautiful. Cycling is a very efficient means of transportation and there is a growing interest in many major cities. I love the ease of maintenance and potential for customisation which allows a bike to become a very personal vehicle. Bike enthusiasts, mostly but not exclusively male, change components for new, nicer, lighter or often just prettier parts. Bikes become almost an extension of ones body, with the gears and brakes as jewellery, and with the excuse of it being transport or exercise or an appreciation of engineering. People often tell how they have owned a particular bike for years but that is a bit like the story of the 20 year old workshop broom which in fact has had numerous new handles and a similar number of new broom heads.

I had been looking for some time for a small road racing bike for my son, he was sure what he wanted: skinny wheels, drop down bars and derailleur gears, he wanted a classic steel frame racing bike. It is hard to find a good used one of these for a child, I carefully trawled eBay and bike shops in London. Eventually we both walked around on a sunny weekend in my home town of Southsea on the south coast of the UK, visiting the five or six bike shops, searching for a suitable bike.

We did not find what he wanted, but by following a rumour and making a few phone calls we found Stuart Trett who works in an old Mews garage, rebuilding and recycling old unloved bikes, he restores and cleans them up, not to as new condition but back to a safe clean useable machine. Stuart had a nice small racing Puch which must be around 25 years old, it looked in a pretty bad way when we first saw it, we discussed and agreed what needed to be done to the bike and Stuart told us to come back at the end of the day. We returned to pick up a transformed bicycle, my son was so excited and pleased he kept saying how much he loved his new bike. The next day we went on a fabulous ride along the coast of Southsea, crossing the water by ferry connecting to Hayling Island and along the coast of Hayling to the fun fair. This kind of journey is only really possible on a bicycle; it's too far to walk with a child in a day, the speed of cycle travel allows closer observation of surrounds and you get to meet fellow travellers.

During a recent visit to a friend of mine, I was introduced to a very charming, and very tall Dutch gentleman. We met in the middle of the countryside, in front of his completely unassuming and quite messy farm buildings. When I asked what he was doing there he said, with an intriguingly wry smile, "take a look around".  As I entered the building I noticed three beautiful, Italian, steel frame road racing bikes, suspended from a breeze block wall. This was clearly no ordinary farm.

 

 

Deeper inside, these ordinary buildings house an extraordinary collection of around 15 cars or remnants of cars. Some are little more than a rusting chassis and a few pieces of half rotten oak. Owned by collectors, the cars and motor bikes are from the 1920’s onward and are waiting their turn for restoration.

 

 

That wait can be up to five years. On this very slow-moving, small-scale production line, every process is executed by these highly adaptable and expertly skilled men.

 

 

There are three, sometimes four men working here, often until the early hours of the morning. Complete engines are dismantled and re-assembled, worn or broken parts replaced and new body panels are beaten to shape. In addition they attend to leather work, upholstery, solid oak frame building, welding, high quality paint finishes.

 

 

The workshop has lathes and precision engineering machines alongside sewing machines and rolls of high quality Axminster carpet. Jig saws to rough-cut the complex profiles of the Oak skeleton frames.

 

 

These cars are works of art, hand crafted as they must have originally been produced, using a great variety of techniques and skills and materials.

 

 

I spotted this little girl playing with the doors on Different Trains, without her realising I took a few shots as she ran them up and down their tracks, absorbed and animated until I broke the spell and asked her what she thought of the piece. We have some very intuative, critical and demanding customers out there.

 

Different Trains was originally designed as a single piece for a show I had in early 2010 at a gallery called The New Arts Centre. It was to contain books published by Persephone Books. In this version we made the cabinet with veneered and solid lipped boards and the doors used mdf and coloured laminates.

To adapt the design for production we made a lot of significant changes and improvements. The overall size changed considerably and we decided to make the cabinet using solid American Black Walnut, there is now internal bracing to prevent movement and twisting of the timber.

We now use a solid material called compact laminate which is very hardwearing and yet easily machined, it also has the advantage of gliding very smoothly against the solid timber.

The doors are now very much simplified and a far more elegant solution was developed for the sliding and mounting of the door in the slot. Each door lifts and slots easily into the grooves in the cabinet. This seemingly low technology solution relies however on the very accurate machining tolerances possible with CNC machines.

I visited Portugal during the middle of February to work in the factory on new products we will launch at ICFF in New York in May. I also had a day photographing new pieces with Alexandre Kumagai, a talented Portugese designer who has worked as De La Espada's product developer for six years. Kuma (as we know him) is now based in a small town near the factory. 

 

The De La Espada factory is on the edge of a very small village called Lentisqueira of about 200 inhabitants, many of whom have lived there all their lives and know each other. On the morning of the day of our photoshoot we loaded the four Windsor chairs into a small white van and drove around the vicinity of the village, we stopped on the side of small country lanes and jumped out with chairs. I took photos, Kuma helped me carry and set up, we explored 3 or 4 sites around the village. 

Quite a few cars stopped or slowed down to near walking pace and people inside looked enquiringly at us, two elderly gentlemen on bicycles discussed our activities at distance for some time. At some point Kuma walked into the village to get a coffee.

Later in the afternoon I walked out from the factory alone with my camera and two Windsor chairs. I walked around the woods near the factory, I suppose I looked fairly odd. I said hello to a woman working in a field and a man wheeling his bicycle. I found a good site for photography and was absorbed in the production of images. I eventually became aware that a group of around eight villagers had gathered and were stood talking about seventy meters away from me. Eventually a man walked from the group and through the woods toward me. I was feeling a little nervous, maybe I had upset them, was I trespassing? 

The man said in quite a loud voice "This isn't a good place to take photos." I thought I must be on someone's private land, I began to apologise, he said "No no its ok, but why? Why take photos here, it isnt good?!"  I began explaining, I liked the effect of the trees and the light...he looked disbelievingly at me as if to ask did I think he was a fool? He then told me, in a fast running and quite animated stream of words, "This morning you were seen out at Señor [so and so's] field, then at the barn, then at the woods, then the Japanese man went to get coffee, then you are walking around with chairs on your back and in the trees here taking photos.....what are you doing?!" 

The extensive McQueen range has a cast iron leg. In the design and development of this component we exploited the knowledge and skills of an excellent metal casting company in Portugal. The process used is known as Sand Casting, it is a well established and elemental, almost primal process. Every leg made comes from it's own mould, used only once to produce a single leg. An original perfect model of the legs is produced and this is embedded in a fine sand. The original model is removed and holes and channels are cut into the sand to allow the glowing red moulten metal to be poured, sparking hot into the space left by the model.

Earlier in the design process, following sketching and CAD work, the first physical models were made from cardboard. This enabled us to get a more accurate understanding of the form and the balance of the leg than was possible with the computer virtual model.  One of our concerns was getting the visual weight and balance of the leg correct when mounted on all the various pieces in the McQueen range with pieces of such varying size and mass this was quite a challenge.

After a trial casting in iron we got a very good idea of final form, and a real sense of the weight and balance.
We encountered some technical problems with initial castings, but once these were solved production began.

 

Our website and identity, which have recently been nominated for the Design Museum's Design Of The Year Award in the Graphics category, were designed by Spin.
Here's some photos of their studio. In the early days of Matthew Hilton Limited we shared part of their studio (pretty much exactly where the table football is!). For further reading on graphic design studios you should see their book, Studio Culture.

Hal is the Coffee Table we launched at the London Design Festival in September 2011, it is made from 12mm thick solid Corian with a tempered glass top.
The design came about through experiments with tesselating and slotting together simple hexagonal and octagonal shapes. 
We had a series of 1:5 scale shapes laser-cut from acrylic sheet.

The transition from scale model to a full size can sometimes be an unexpected and not altogether positive one, in order to get a feel for the object in real size and minimise waste we often make a full size mock up from less valuable materials. The images below show the full size plywood model in our studio.

I have visited hundreds of different furniture factories around the world, and however highly crafted and beautiful the pieces produced there are, the furniture they use themselves is often not of similar standard, these places are after all tough working environments. The furniture the crafts people use themselves often displays a fabulous inventiveness and appropriation of things found around the factory. The 'high chair' was seen in Slovenia.


De La Espada have just invested heavily in a very advanced CNC routing machine. While the operator is setting the machine up or watching over it as it performs it's complicated cutting manoeuvers, he sits on this beautiful stool constructed from components and off cuts found around the factory.

Tom design in Turin put on a lovely exhibition of my work. I gave a presentation at an evening event with drinks then we were invited to a typical and very good Piedmontese dinner.

 

The fabulous Lingotto built between 1916 and 1923 as a huge automobile factory, constructed by Fiat. The building was at that time, the largest car factory in the world. The internal spiralling ramps are very elegant concrete constructions.

A modern production line that started on the ground floor with raw materials and ending in an incredible banked roof top test track, the building contributed hugely to Fiat's growth during the 20 century.

The National Cinema Museum of turin is located inside the Mole Antonelliana a bizarre tower and huge domed structure originally built as a synagogue and left empty for many decades the building is now the symbol of the City of Torino. This photo is taken from the top external viewing platform.

The lift to the top external viewing platform is via a glass elevator, rising on slim steel cables like magic through the centre of this vast domed space, it is just like riding with Charlie through the chocolate factory.

 

I was invited recently by the Mihai Gurei and Claudia Chirilescu who own and run Intro to give a talk at a conference they organised with Constantin Goagea of Zepplin Magazine in Bucharest. We all then went on a road trip to Maramures, an area in the North west corner of the country next to the border of Hungary and Ukraine.

Some of the most beautiful country in the Balkan area, low rolling mountains, forested slopes covered with giant Beech and Pine trees. This is an area of agriculture and forestry and some tourism but it also seems to have been left untouched for 30 or 40 years, it is really like stepping back a little in time.

There are fascinating wood houses here constructed from giant slabs of solid timber laid edge to edge on top of each other and with a type of massive dovetail joint at the corners. They have a feel of Japanese houses and are built more like boats than living quarters.

The incredible Barsana Monastary, entirely constructed from solid massive timber. Built on the side of the valley, we visited early on a cold misty Sunday morning as people slowly gathered for morning Mass, it was moving and very beautiful.

 

There is a small private Museum run by the Pipas family in Tisa, this is Mrs Pipas who is one of the most impassioned people I have ever had the pleasure of watching and listening talk about their life of art, craft and collecting. The family were friends with many of Romania's most succesfull modern artists who often stayed at their little farm.
The collection grew through gifts from these friends as well as purchases. Mr and Mrs Pipas and the family are well known and have been approached by museums in Bucharest to move the collection to the capital, all requests so far refused, the family believe it should stay where it is and be accessible to the people of the village.

The wood carver lives in a typical wooden house in Sacele with his mother and father, they have lived there all their lives. Mother cooks, looks after the house and her family and spins wool, father works with his son in the yard making things from wood. They have a well for water and an outside bread oven. The yard of the house is full of farm implements and mud, we were plied with strong alcohol and a cheese snack like a little parcel of melted cheese inside crisp fried pastry.

Below is an interview filmed by Juriaan Booij. Part filmed in the Matthew Hilton Studio, and part on the beaches of Dungeness.

Music is by Andrew Simms and sound is by James Benson.

 

Wandering around the streets in the old part of Porto I spotted an old door where a map had been drawn to help direct someone at some time in the past. The Google one isn't as evocative or attractive, but perhaps easier to use?

 

The older part of Porto just North of the River Duoro is a maze of small streets with granite block roads and buildings, it has the crumbling beauty of Venice.  Washing hanging off balconies, graffiti and flaking paintwork. It is poor but beautiful.

 


There are massive five or six storey stone built houses and apartment blocks leaning into the middle of the road with shops, restaurants and cafe's at street level. Children play, people discuss and gossip, men and women hurry off to work. These are not the streets of many European cities, there is no Starbucks, no Gap, time stopped here thirty years ago.


In amongst this rich street life are some fabulous shops, a vegetable store in the meter wide hallway into a house.


A shop selling materials for maintenance and renovation of the goldwork inside churches.


This is a hardware store where every little thing they sell is wrapped in thick brown paper, tied up with string with a sample on the front and placed in neat ordered stacks on solid wood shelves. When I asked to see a couple of these brass handles the owner climbed his wood ladder, carefully got the beautiful brown paper parcels down, slowly untied the string and removed one piece from each pack, he placed the articles in a neat line on top of his clean countertop, stood back and smiled. That is a shopping experience not to forget. The shop has been in his family since 1876, it is not polished and chic, it isn't stylish, but it is so fantastic, run by a man who cares, is passionate and relishes the enjoyment of his customers in his shop.

I travelled to Portugal recently to take the photographs of pieces we launched in Milan this April. I photographed Hal, Welles, McQueen, Orson and others in a factory and whilst doing that I tried making sculpture with the Light table bases which were stacked around waiting for finishing.

Below are a couple of videos of Different Trains in action.

 

 

Examining the first prototype of the Kimble Windsor chair.

 

 

The prototypes travelled in disguise on their journey back to London.

Church of our Lady Grace in central Porto with Azulejo, a tiled wall, incredible.

 

 

Yellow sandwich man in front of blue tiles.

There are some really beautiful painted tiles on walls of buildings in Portugal. The term for this method of decorating walls and floors is Azulejo.

Colombo chair being made in Portugal. Most of the pieces we make are produced using a very exciting and interesting blend of technical advanced CNC controlled machinery and highly skilled hand assembly and finishing.

 

Components are machined on the Homag CNC five axis machine. Every stage needs the intelligence and experience of years of working and manipulating solid timbers.

Sr. Vidal knows all there is to know about making wood furniture.