Matthew Appleby is a multidisciplinary artist who grew up in the UK but has recently been doing his thing here in Berlin. We’re happy to have him, in Berlin of course, but even more so as a part of our upcoming bicycle-themed event. His latest series of reconditioned lights and lamps need very little introduction. Made with anything from discarded, industrial, car parts to bread boxes and espresso makers – they tell stories of their own.
Please tell us a bit more about your education, work and life experiences that lead you to Berlin, working on your current art and design collections. Were there any funny coincidences?
I studied fine art sculpture and media in Winchester and London and after scraping by in London for a bit I found freelance work in antiques restoration for a company mainly dealing with old and sometimes very expensive chandeliers. I am not sure if I got this job because of my art background or because I am quite tall, which helps when changing light bulbs but I learned a lot from it. I think this work made me appreciate old materials and objects and think about lighting design. I then built myself a little studio round the back of my Dad’s garage near the south coast of England and started to commute there a few days a week. The studio was across the yard from the metal skip and surrounded by mechanics and car parts, all things that I had rejected as a kid but which now became quite inspiring. By transforming old car parts into something else, I could be involved in my own way. Moving to Berlin a few years later was partly a financial decision. But I was also tempted here because it is a bit of an an enigma. It’s a capital city unlike others, in that it seems to be more open to creative diversity and the landscape doesn’t seem so fixed. It is not as demanding in the same way that London is whilst still being a vibrant, interesting city. It is also a lot more cycling-friendly, which I enjoy.
Throughout the large majority of your work, the use of discarded, scrap and found materials is definitely evident. What about these materials inspires you?
To me there is often more character in something with a history. I enjoy slippage in context – when it takes a few extra minutes to realize what the components were in a previous life. For sure it is also about consumption and waste. It saddens me when I end up buying something new that turns out to be a cheap, quick fix, but I am quite particular about what I use. Sometimes it is the shape of an object or what it was previously used for that is inspiring and sometimes it can simply be the material… or even the tools and process used to transform it. At one stage, I considered that it is not about what can be made into a lamp but what cannot. As a student studying sculpture the materials we could afford where often scrap and because of space and financial issues we would re-use parts of each others work when it was discarded. You could call it “permasculpture” although I think this term has been used to describe something else.
Your new collection is made ‘to be displayed in a domestic setting’ and the pieces may be viewed as something in between appliances and works of art. Can you give us a bit more insight on this notion?
I am battling with the problem of finding a common ground between my art work (which is not particularly commercial) and making things that you might like to have in your home. There are similarities but they have different intentions. I am not true to any medium with my art work, it could be considered multi-disciplinary. Materials often re-occur in my lighting design and there is more of an overall brief. The difference is that I do consider my design to have a domestic function. I don’t really believe too much in telling people how it should be contextualized.
What is the project Werkstatt all about and what do you hope to achieve with it?
I like the word Werkstatt. As a word, it is still kind of ambiguous to me. Directly translated into English it would be workshop. In English and German it has also been appropriated as something you can do in the context of learning, experiencing and developing, like a dance workshop for example. It might also be just the place you think of when you get your car fixed but I think there can be similarities. In January 2010, I opened something like a shop next to Ostkreuz station where I work and sell my objects. The space itself is an evolving project because it represents a new working process for me, which is more open to the public – people can come and see what I am working on… sometimes its an art piece, a lamp or commission. The sign outside the shop says Werkstatt, in big red letters. I was happy to find that I could spell this out from another sign I found, in a skip by a shop in England, formally called Work Town Stationers. I hope, as a shop, Werkstatt can provide an alternative to buying mass-produced items and be somewhere you can also get an idea of how the items are made.
Do you purposely avoid the word ‘upcycling’ when you use words like ‘reconditioning’ and ‘transformation’? What are your stances on the notions of upcycling or reconditioning and what does this mean in regards to your work?
The word upcycling is relatively new to me and it wasn’t something I had really considered until recently so I am now investigating what it really means. I have really liked some things I have seen labeled as “upcycled”, and some I really haven’t. I think it would be a word I could use but I’m wary of using it as an umbrella term that describes what I do. I do my best to use found objects and source waste material but there are reasons for this: balancing environmental issues and costs. Although, if it is important to the structure, safety or aesthetic, I will use new materials (often turning the waste into something else). Most of my work is making one-off, individual pieces and there is an element of play involved. Making things fit together that you wouldn’t normally expect is very important to me. It isn’t just fixing something up so it can be used again or so that it looks better. It is also about challenging my expectations and questioning the objects around me that I might take for granted. I would hope that the objects say more about themselves than what I can say about them.