Currently a designer-in-residence at London’s Design Museum, the work of Bethan Laura Wood is difficult to pin down. While she can generally be considered a product designer, her work includes everything from furniture to jewelry, textiles to lighting and set design. She drifts through the city looking for inspiration in the actual materiality of the urban fabric – whether it being the awning covering a building site or the fake plywood counters in a high street bank. What is remarkable is that despite the variety of her projects, a common aesthetic – characterized by a fascination with the production process, a mixing and matching of techniques, and an intermingling of forms and genres – emerges.
What inspired you to become a designer?
Mr. Roberts and Michelle Edwards. Mr. Roberts was my DT teacher [shop teacher] at secondary school who allowed me to do dangerous things like use a router and go on the lathe – use tools that we weren’t mean to. He had an open workshop for all the final year kids who were lazy and hadn’t done anything. I was in year 7 and he let me come in and make stuff after hours.
Michelle Edwards was a tutor on my Foundation. I was a bit confused because I liked doing everything –my practice now is still quite multidisciplinary – and at that time we had to make a decision what to do for the last term. She was the one who took me by the scruff of the neck and said, “Look, don’t be an idiot. You’re not an artist; you’re a designer… Shut up and make some furniture.” – so I did.
People seem to know you as a jewelry designer. I often hear people refer to you as, “Oh, that one who makes the hexagonal wooden jewelry?” and I say, “Well, actually she does a lot more than that.” How did you come to work with laminate?
Well, it mainly comes from work that I’ve done for my MA. For the last two years I have been under the tuition of Jurgen Bey and Martino Gamper. The platform was all about the city and the idea surrounding the fact that the city is never going to get bigger, only smaller because there are more and more people, how industry has moved and all the systems are in place.
I walked around different parts London and became fascinated by all the different surface qualities and the actual materials that for me make the city, so laminates became the point of fascination in that investigation. I took photographs of launderettes with their amazing faux marble… and orange washing machines – there is a take-away just down my road that has this great, really disgusting vinyl interpretation of cork. (Laughs) Like a cork floor surely isn’t that expensive.
Instead there is this fake vinyl…
So I became quite obsessed by this process – to actually make a laminate or a vinyl or any of these faux materials. They used to be made with three to five or maybe more screen prints and a mixture of resin, then paper, then resin on top, and I am intrigued by the amount of work that had gone into making something that’s seen as being very very cheap. In fact it’s only because its mass-produced that it becomes cheap again, whereas the intricate production process is quite complex.
One of my favorite laminates is in branches of the bank Halifax, where they have a fake cheap plywood. I like the thought process of why it’s a fake then why its a fake plywood rather than a hardwood, you know. There are so many connotations that go into some of these things that we miss every day.
Then you used the laminate in the most recent project by re-digitally printing what you had already created in laminate onto a silk scarf…
Yeah, I mean it’s difficult because when people see them, they question why I do this intense marquetry on the furniture and why I don’t print my own laminate, but for me there is a very particular reason why the marquetry has to be done with the laminate for the investigation, on a particular work for that project, and why then it can be a printed thing for the fabric.
A lot of my work celebrates this mix between more traditional techniques, processes and fabrics and the new manufacturing of products like the laser cutting, which I used to do the marquetry – using modern technology to make something in an old fashioned style. It’s the same with the scarves, because now you can digitally print you can have this mix between photo quality and then flat matte colors.
You mentioned in the Design Museum interview that what you would do if you weren’t a designer… that you would be a collector.
I don’t think I have a choice in that one I’m a bit of a magpie…
And this thing you do have coming up at the Design Museum, can you tell us a bit more about that?
This year I think they were interested in work that was communicative and interactive. They really liked the way I had taken the research about London and then made the work, and so invited me to make a proposal. I decided I was still quite obsessed by laminate. The project I am working on is still using laminate, but the research is based on the area around the Design Museum, which is a dock, so I did research into the shipping, packing and crate industry.
What have you got for them so far?
Well, pattern-wise I am working on particle board – part of the work is shipping and crating and part is based on temporary hoarding that you see in the city – part of the city is always covered by something while its being re-devoloped, so I am designing a pattern based on those – using different faux woods then the forms are based on crates and shipping. So far I have some patterns and illustrations and loads of photographs of the area.
So it’s going to be a big installation in the Design Museum?
Yeah, in the café area. It’s going to be something people can sit in, a library area… The boxes are the seating.
It’s going to be a crazy particle world made of all these crates.