Often exploratory and steeped in historical reference, Gregor Jenkin’s pieces are elevated beyond mere “furniture”. Many of you will know him for his reinterpretation of Cape Dutch and Shaker style tables and chairs that bear the same design language as their predecessors, but in new materials, and using new ways of engineering. Whether by way of fragmented and crooked form, or surfaces emblazoned with the scribbles of frustrated youth, Gregor’s anthology of work digs deeper, as he looks critically at his subjects and gives them new expression.
Everything he makes relates to what he has seen or experienced. “I like to think I see things that many people might not notice and then design something in response to those things,” he explains. He prefers to remain out of the spotlight, letting his work to do the talking – refreshing modesty for one of the country’s most exported designers, whose work catapulted to the floors of London’s Conran Shop and who was the first African to exhibit at Design Miami.
Do you recall where your love of making things began? I’ve always made things. I remember going on holiday with my friends around the age of 11 or 12; on the days I wasn’t surfing I was fixing things at their parent’s houses like webbing on furniture, things that often their parents couldn’t get around to.
Whose teaching has had the biggest impact on the way you do things? A combination of my mother and my father.
And what did you learn? My mom was of the attitude that everything could be done in-house, I remember her teaching me how to put putty into windows for example. My dad taught me a way of thinking that was more applied; he wasn’t very hands on, he was more intuitive about how things could be done in a different way. It’s a very potent way of thinking, because you don’t have the baggage of people who do things in a set way. I’ve ended up with a combination of pure pragmatism from my mother and lateral thinking from my father.
The majority of your work has been produced in mild steel, why is that? I started out on the back of my dad’s business, he was in industrial fasteners and all of them were mild steel based. I’m quite applied-knowledge minded, so I came across processes and used those to make things outside of the existing industry.
I’ve made things out of hundreds of other materials, but I keep coming back to mild steel, because it’s undervalued and overlooked. When I started making mild steel furniture, there was a lot of it in the market, but it was mostly wrought iron or painted, it was never an expression of what the material really was. I was always struck when I saw mild steel at mills or suppliers; it had an intrinsic beauty and all this patterning that was incidental to its making. It was something that I wanted to explore. In many ways I like to put a piece of material to use, make something out of it in such a way that the material qualities can remain.
You’ve often said you’re a maker, not a designer, what does that mean to you? It’s an hours-in-the-day synopsis. I spend most of my time making things and while I’m doing that I’m designing. The two happen concurrently, but when I finish making something I consider it made as opposed to designed because making is such a large part of my process. Making things is a real time, solutions-based way to live your life, when you put your hand to something, you get results.
In terms of collaborating, who’s next on the list? I’ve had wonderful collaborations with William Kentridge, Charles Haupt of Bronze Age and Cameron Platter. Artists have a very different way of seeing things that I wouldn’t naturally see. I’d love to collaborate with Adriaan Hugo but we’ve never managed to get it together since the nature of our work means we’re in the same production cycles.
One piece of furniture that has forever captured your love of making? There are plenty. So many of them are historical: Gate leg tables, shaker chairs, shaker machines, all of them essential pieces of design and making. What really thrills me the most is when people make something out of nothing; or when they make things haphazardly and the way the final product looks (its form) is incidental to what it needs to do (its function). I call that incidental form.
Tell me about the newest additions to your upcoming exhibition, like the salvaged heritage steel pieces? That’s just a small aspect of it. I got all the steel from the silo, most of it was too big to reuse as sculptural objects. It comes back to incidental form, looking at it and seeing shapes which I couldn’t engineer. I’m trying to find new form, useable from those original forms.
The exhibition is an overview of everything I’m interested in making at this point in my career, of me and my studio and what we are up to at this point. It follows no theme, it’s a snapshot of our design and production right now.
What do you hope visitors to the exhibition will walk away with? An understanding of how diverse my studio’s interests are and how everything is so varying and variable, but there’s a common pattern and language around the way we make things and the way that finished pieces are presented.
- The Gregor Jenkin solo runs from 9 November 2017 to 12 February 2018, at Southern Guild Gallery, GUILD, 5B, Silo 5, V&A Waterfront.