Sometimes, I work with architects and designers to conceive, write or edit books. They might want to mark a studio milestone, it could be to highlight a thematic body of work, or even a single project, or they might want a physical catalogue to give to potential clients, or sell. One of the most interesting ‘catalogue’ projects I have worked on in the last few years has been Exercises in Seating by Max Lamb.
Max is a British designer known for his craft processes and innovative use of materials: chairs cut from polystyrene and blasted with quick-drying rubber, stools sand-cast in pewter and entire rooms lined with ‘marmoreal’, his much-imitated terrazzo. In 2015, he was invited to stage a solo show of his chairs for the Milan Salon del Mobile. I was invited to co-edit the accompanying book, Exercises in Seating by Max and his wife, the artist and designer, Gemma Holt. I edited his technical and diary texts and wrote a description of his approach. The book was designed in a newspaper format by Åbäke, featured studio photography by Erika Wall and was published by Martino Gamper, Kajsa Ståhl and Maki Suzuki’s imprint, Dent-De-Leone. The first 2,000 copies sold out and an updated edition was published in 2017. You can buy it here.
Architecture monographs tend to be cloth-bound or glossy, printed on heavy silk paper and designed to last, like buildings. That had been my experience at Foster + Partners. I contributed to two editions of the Foster Catalogue, as well as a number of other studio publications. These were large-format, serious books for a practice engaged in large, serious projects. I also helped with Heatherwick Studio’s Making, a beautifully-presented, but similarly substantial hardback. By contrast, Max’s book was printed on newsprint and had the thrown together layout of a sketchbook, in keeping with his hands-on ethic.
The book covers 37 projects over 128 pages through drawings, photographs and candid descriptions. I remember Max saying that these were seats, not chairs. Designers of chairs don’t tend to acknowledge that they make objects for people to rest their bottoms on; he wasn’t shy of cheeky humour. There’s also bathos. “Electrical faults are impossible to predict, and unfortunately my work was the recipient of a rather serious one.” It doesn’t skim over the realities of making things, the focus is usually on the process rather than the finished product. Max’s writing is intelligent and entertaining, but also very practical. He’s meticulous about explaining the details, down to the cost of making his DIY chair. “When I designed and built the original DIY Chair, the wood and the screws required to make one chair cost just £9.77. Thus, it is possible to self-construct a dining set of six chairs for less than £60.” I might even have a go.
It’s unpretentious and feels right for a designer that can see creative potential in a heap of polystyrene offcuts or a cardboard box. Like Max’s work, there’s nothing superfluous, apart from my text, perhaps; the projects speak for themselves. It’s also experimental, as I wrote then: “The title, Exercises in Seating suggested something ongoing, an evolving body of work rather than a conclusion – a learning process, where he is willing to fail. He admits that not every experiment has gone exactly to plan: not every chair is comfortable, wax melts, hands get cut, fires start, people don’t always like the end result, but each project has inspired a future exploration.” It shows how a catalogue project can capture a moment in time, not a life’s work – and it doesn’t have to be cumbersome or expensive.