Design Duos: JAMESPLUMB
The sculptors whose design flies free of pigeonholes.
JAMESPLUMB was founded in 2009 by the artists Hannah Plumb and James Russell. They had begun working together at art school, a collaboration that gradually segued into a professional partnership. As sculptors – who also work in interior design – their designed objects and environments are highly theatrical and poetic, inspired by their very different but complementary feelings about materials and processes. They share a love for found objects, the meticulously hand-made, the imperfect and the time-worn. Their aesthetic is on full public display in the two Aesop stores in London’s Lambs Conduit Street and New Bond Street, as well as in galleries and art fairs internationally. A statement on their website beautifully encapsulates their approach: “We are artists who conceive, create, and direct work across a wide range of industries and disciplines, but we are less worried about how to define our work, than with what it adds to the sensation of the world around us.” Some of their most recent work will be on show in London in September at FUMI gallery (17 September – 31 December 2020).
The Design Edit (TDE): How did you meet?
JAMESPLUMB (JP)/James (J): We met at Wimbledon School of Art, getting on twenty years ago, on the Foundation course. Then we both went on to study Fine Art Sculpture at Wimbledon, graduating in 2003. Officially, we started to work as a team eleven years ago, which was when we had our first exhibition as JAMESPLUMB – our combined name.
JP/Hannah (H): Before that James was a technician at an art school and I was working for an interior designer, so our work together was more part-time and informal and we didn’t have a name.
JP/J: And then we started on this journey together, initially through making lights …
JP/H: It was a journey through function.
JP/J: For a while, we were mainly known for making lights which felt a bit odd having studied Fine Art – at times we felt like frauds in the art world for embracing function. We were offered the opportunity to design a retail store and even though we hadn’t trained in interior design we enjoyed exploring all the elements that are normally excluded from the art world. Over the last ten years we’ve explored the territory in between design and art – artworks that function and furniture that doesn’t. Recently, we feel that our work, both for ourselves and for our clients, has become more explicitly sculptural again.
TDE: What drew you to work together?
JP/H: I guess we were quite aligned and at art school we were always helping each other make work. I was mould-making and poor James was always roped in.
JP/J: Even in a critical way, talking, and helping each other develop our work.
JP/H: I was very interested in animism and empathy in objects. Some of the moulds I was making were of inflatable sex-dolls, which look so much more human when they are deflated. I would set them up like reclining nudes and busts and fill them with vermiculite, then I would then cast them.
JP/J: For Hannah, it was always about seeing life in objects – often discarded or abandoned objects. I was obsessed with reflections of light from street puddles. Our work was apples and pears. But looking now at the combined work, both those things are still strongly there.
TDE: How has your combined creative output evolved?
JP/H: When we became JAMESPLUMB, that marked the moment when we said, “Right, we are really going to do this.”
JP/J: Yes, it wasn’t my ego or Hannah’s. It was a joint enterprise. And that allowed things to fall into place. At that point, it was still mainly lighting commissions. Certainly, in my work, light and shadow had always played a big part – I have always been obsessed with James Turrell and other artists in that realm. Light felt like a transformative medium that elevated things from the everyday. The first piece we made together was a little dog lamp called ‘Sampson’. It was a broken hobby horse who had lost two wheels and his head, so it was this little thing on wheels.
JP/H: A shell.
JP/J: And at the same car boot sale where we bought him (with Hannah saying, “Oh we can’t leave him!”), we bought some old pub swan lights, totally unrelated. We were just playing around when one of the pub lights became his head, and immediately the angle at which we could put his head dictated his mood. He could look up, literally lighting up the room, or slightly sombrely look down in a corner sulking – so the emotion and the light combined. He became quite popular and we have since been commissioned to make all kinds of one-off pieces – chandeliers, beds, seating – sometimes on the sculptural end, where it’s been barely functional, and then other times, very, very functional.
JP/H: We’ve been involved in shops, retail spaces and homes, but also temporary environments like set design and event design.
JP/J: It’s been highly varied and we’ve often thought we would like to be involved with film …
JP/H: … or opera.
JP/J: We’ve been very lucky with the range of projects. It’s the excitement and opportunity of the brief, and the chance to create experiences of real depth and resonance for people, that matters more than the industry label you apply.
TDE: How do you work creatively? Do you split the work, do your skills overlap and complement, or are you polar opposites?
JP/H: I’m probably more flighty and James is a bit more grounded, but overall it balances.
JP/J: There is a lot of overlapping, but for sure Hannah is maybe a bit more impulsive and I am definitely the procrastinator. Occasionally that will just reverse and I will be saying, “We’ve just got to do this”, and Hannah will say, “But don’t you think we need to …” It really goes back and forwards – even with skills.
JP/H: We have quite a broad understanding at an intermediate level of so many different processes. We make as much as we can ourselves and with our team in the workshop.
JP/J: We love to be connected to the materials and processes ourselves and in the accidents and the mistakes you find gems. Whereas if you had just handed a drawing over to a fabricator, you would miss that opportunity to say “Oh no, that’s really beautiful and interesting”.
TDE: How do you deal with tension and friction, pulls in different directions?
JP/H: I think it just gets talked out. Of course, there are differences of opinion and arguments but we just have to get over it as often we are a team of eight in the studio, and we can’t really have a domestic – it’s not fair on anyone.
JP/J: I think we are lucky. The tensions are more in the work than between us. It’s very rare for there to be a difference of opinion, it is more a question of “this question about the work needs to be resolved, how are we going to do that?”
TDE: Why are two people better than one?
JP/J: Everything goes back and forwards so many times.
JP/H: And there is definitely a gain in confidence because the responsibility is shared. So that we might dare to do projects that are not strictly financially sensible – like our ‘Stained Moons’ project which started when we discovered some derelict greenhouses not far from Hampton Court. The old glass in them was beautiful, covered in lichen, and we thought, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” So we took a couple of pieces, found out who owned the greenhouses, and eventually we were able to harvest a lot of the glass. We didn’t know what we wanted to do with it but we just knew that as a material this lichen-covered glass was very precious to us.
JP/J: There was this Hannah part – which was about this old material marked with time, in this beautiful, dishevelled, derelict building – and then there was something about the way the light passed through the glass, as well as the shadows, the patina on the glass and the links to photosynthesis and transformation. Over several years we created a body of work called ‘Stained Moons’. Eight sculptures. And then we had an exhibition in Northern Ireland called Silent Light. The sculptures are based loosely on old fashioned overhead projectors. And we created the image by very carefully cleaning the glass and lifting the patina (just to leave spheres or crescents of the patina intact), so when we layered two, or up to four, layers together and projected light through it we were able to create quite beautiful images of the phases of the moon.
JAMESPLUMB, ‘Stained Moons,’ 2020
JAMESPLUMB, ‘Stained Moons,’ 2020
We exhibited them for the first time in an incredible building in Northern Ireland called Mussenden Temple, which was built as a library but felt to us more like an Observatory. This octagonal, virtually circular building, right on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the North Atlantic, thirty-seven metres above the waves – it was just the perfect dimensions for the installation we had in mind. The exhibition was in collaboration with the National Trust as it is one of their properties, and they were hugely supportive as what we were asking was not straightforward.
JP/H: It took two years between finding the building and doing the show. I would not have had the balls to do that by myself.
JP/J: It happened in February in Northern Ireland, during the snow season and at night, and there was a beautiful walk across the cliff top up to the building, in the darkness, which allowed visitors eyes to adjust before experiencing the extremely low light installation in the Temple.
TDE: What are you working on at the moment?
JP/J: We are currently looking for more space – and possibly out of London – as our work seems to be getting more ambitious in scale, and London rents aren’t getting easier. Also we have the classic London developer scenario that our studios are under threat of development. A farm with a nice big barn feels very appealing right now.
JP/H: We are also working on a commission for some sculptures for a sculpture garden at a new Art Museum in China.
JP/J: And we are making some commissions from our ‘Steel Roots’ series, where we use twisted rebar and concrete rubble. After this meeting we are driving to Enfield to a demolition site to source some rebar, because it is very difficult to find. That series came out of a commission: we were asked to make a chandelier and we said very quickly that we would love it to be a candlelit chandelier, and we wanted the candles to be moveable around whatever the chandelier was to become – so that you can have just two candles on it, or several. Gallery FUMI have said they would love one of our ‘Steel Roots’ pieces for an upcoming show, so we are making them a floor-standing version. This will be the first time we have shown them in the UK.