Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Max Lamb

Designer and artist Max Lamb is one of today’s most adventurous and intriguing creatives. He is a renegade of sorts, charting his own path and doing all he can to avoid compromises. When Max was a child, he and his family moved around quite a bit, but regardless of those changes in scenery, the stability of his home and his imagination allowed for him to grow into who he is today. In this interview, Max speaks about those routes, where they’ve led him, what he appreciates the most about the remarkable way his parents raised him, and what he hopes to impart on his son.

Max:
Being in London, I think the first two years of London, I was working full time for an interior designer and very new to London and didn’t have a close-knit group of friends at all, but then started at the Royal College of Art, then found a new family, and that’s Martino Gamper and friends.

Arkitektura:
Martino Gamper is someone that I would associate more with you, just from the surface, the fascination with chairs and seating obviously.

Max:
Yeah.

Arkitektura:
And that sort of hybrid world and I don’t want to get into this and I’m not sure if it’s, it’s so talked about, but that hybrid world of art and design.

Max:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
But you grew up in Cornwall, which is very different from London, and there’s a popular video of you making one of your chairs on the shores of Cornwall.

Max:
I think the first video I ever made, yeah.

Arkitektura:
Until what age were you there?

Max:
On and off until I was about 13, so really not that long. My dad, he was in the Royal Air Force, so we moved around a lot as a family. I was born in Cornwall, we were there for a couple of years supposedly, and then we moved to Staffordshire and then back to Cornwall, then we moved to Germany for a couple of years and then back to Cornwall. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, always kind of maintaining Cornwall as our home, but wherever my dad was posted, we as a family would follow. It wasn’t until, I think I was about 13 years old we moved to Lincolnshire, and then we continued moving on, and I didn’t return to Cornwall until, well, I still haven’t returned to Cornwall, but my parents moved back there probably when I was about 18. My dad’s last posting, and then he retired from the Royal Air Force about five years ago.

Arkitektura:
So they’re there now?

Max:
They’re still there, yes. They’re retired into Cornwall, which is really nice that it’s a place that I’m very connected to. My only childhood memories really were spent in Cornwall up on the moors, Bodmin Moor or on the beaches. Really making our own forms of entertainment and just kind of being outdoors.

Arkitektura:
That’s exactly what I was going to ask. Given the fact that you’ve moved around, when you think about your childhood memories, that is the place that it goes back to?

Max:
All my memories really go back there and Yorkshire, funnily enough, which is where my grandfather lives still at the age of 92, and still farming, still doing what he has been doing since he retired at the age of 60, so for 32 years now he’s been farming in Yorkshire, and as a child our summer holidays, most people go to Cornwall for their summer holidays, and we would leave Cornwall and go up to Yorkshire and spend a few months on the farm.

Arkitektura:
When you think about, I grew up on the coast, I grew up here, and I spent some time in New York, which is also a coastal place. I’m not sure I could live somewhere that isn’t at least near the coast now because it influences me in so many different ways.

Max:
Yeah.

Arkitektura:
When you think about the coast and how it influences you, what comes up for you when you think about that time in Cornwall and who you are today?

Max:
The coast, so when you get to the edge of the land and you see you’re standing by the sea, and there’s nothing else to see other than horizon, there’s an amazing sense of space, and you really get to understand just how big the world is and how perhaps insignificant we are as people. I think there’s just that sort of emptiness and therefore freedom that is experienced when being at the edge of the land, by the sea. There’s nowhere else that you can experience that. I think just that sense of freedom and space and understanding about the world, kind of connection to the world and how grand it is.

Arkitektura:
Maybe a crude connection between that and your work is that there’s a lot of freedom in your work to not necessarily adhere to normal ways of creating things. Maybe there’s an internal freedom that you allow yourself based on that freedom that you experienced as a child.

Max:
Well, it’s partly about being alone, I suppose. It’s a solitary moment often, and without external influences, human influences to think properly, and that definitely applies to my work because I really do make work for myself and by myself. That’s how I think. That’s how I create. A lot of the decisions I make are through the act of doing, are through the act of making, not necessarily through the rules or being told how to do things or what can be done, what can’t be done. It’s a very kind of personal experience, an exercise in experimentation.

Arkitektura:
When you say it happens in the making, I think about making radio and how you can plan a story, and then once you get into actually making it, things evolve.

Max:
It’s a conversation.

Arkitektura:
With the material.

Max:
Yes.

Arkitektura:
And material for you is not, that is the starting point. It’s about what that chemistry that happens between you and this material.

Max:
Material and or process or technique or skill, whatever that is. Sometimes it begins with a process or a fabrication technique, which lends itself to a certain material, a set of materials, and other times it is specifically a material itself, which lends itself to a certain set of techniques or processes, so it’s this sort of three-way dialogue. It’s material, process, and me.

Arkitektura:
Each material calls for a different skillset. How do you manage that? Is that something that you learned at the RCA or is it something that you’re constantly in this process of learning to work with a different kind of material, say steel or clay? I’m just throwing out some different materials off the top of my head.

Max:
That’s my work, I would say.

Arkitektura:
That is the work.

Max:
That is the work. The work is navigating.

Arkitektura:
The learning curve.

Max:
The learning curve, understanding. It’s sort of an immersion into a material, a medium, and a process, and just discovering really. That is what I do. That is the fun for me is picking up something that I don’t yet know. It gives me something to learn. It’s what I want to learn, it’s what I want to know, and it’s how I come up with ideas quite simply. They’re very rarely preconceived ideas. I very rarely go into a project and pick up a material with a decision made, what I’m going to make. I may have an idea. Of course, I have preconceived ideas as to what the material can do and will do, but it’s only once I get my hands on it that I really begin to learn and really begin to discover where I can take it.

Arkitektura:
Just to paint a picture, you’re in your studio. Is there anyone else in there?

Max:
On and off.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. Who might be in an assistant here and there?

Max:
Yeah, I very rarely take on interns. Many of my peers, I’d say, can run their businesses and run their studios in interns, but I’ve always liked the idea of a much longer term relationship if at all. Otherwise, I’d much rather just be doing everything myself, which has its problems and has its benefits, absolutely. I’m very much in control. I think it’s one of my biggest problems and biggest assets is that I am in control of everything, whether it’s the communication, emailing correspondence, developing ideas, physical work in the workshop, communicating with manufacturers, fabricators, workshops, all of that work. Exhibitions, traveling, transport, logistics. I really try and take charge of everything, and in doing so it limits the amount that I can physically produce, which I think is also important. I think it’s important for me that there is a real personal contact met between me and everything that leaves my studio.

I try to achieve this very honest product, I try to achieve this very honest product, a product that has detailing or somehow tells its own story. If you look at the product without any further communication or description, you understand it, what it is made from, and how it was made. I try to make things that tell their own story.

Arkitektura:
What keeps on coming up is this element of the personal, which reading interviews that others, the way I always prepare for interviews is I read other people’s interviews, one to, not, ask the same question, but mostly because there are things that people say in their answers that I pick up on that I want to pursue further that maybe someone else hasn’t. I’m also generally attracted to the element of emotion and what’s personal, and looking through your work, just visually speaking without the descriptors that you give to it when speaking about it. It is so personal because there’s such a presence of the hand. Even in the glasses for the lemonade glasses, there’s such a sensuality to those pieces. So many of your pieces, you feel as if you can actually move yourself through it. It sounds like when you’re doing something for, let’s say Opening Ceremony, you’re not thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to do something for some clothing brand and shop. I’m going to actually find out the essence of this place.” That personal relationship seems to be first and foremost aside from anything, before the material, before the process.

Max:
Yeah. That’s possibly why I only manage to do so many things and why I find it so difficult to outsource my work or to take on more or greater assistants, because those moments, those initial moments of forming a relationship with a customer or client or producer are fundamental to what happens next and to the quality of the work that’s produced. My relationship with Opening Ceremony, my relationship with Acne Studios, my relationship with private collectors such as Sandy Rower of the Calder Foundation, Jay Frankie in Chicago or my gallerists, Johnson Trading Gallery Fumi, salon 94, Organic Metal who do the electric forming of my copper chairs. Lee, who’s a nightmare, who does the thermal spraying. The places that I buy raw material from, Jeff in Cornwall who melts my pewter. All of these people and personalities are what or who make my work what it is. I know everybody. I know everybody by name, whether they sell me raw material or fabricate my work for me or help with the fabrication of my work for me. David Osborne from X-Pand International, who hasn’t recently but used to pack and ship a lot of my work. Now I used a company called British Shore and it’s Malcolm. So many people. Dave Connoway from Cirrus Laser who does all my kind of laser cutting since 2006.

We were talking 11 years now. I’ve got relationships with these people, and they’re all really important because without those people my work wouldn’t exist. They help me develop my work. Even though at the beginning of this interview I said everything I do is so personal and I do things somehow with a sense of solitary confinement, like I’m doing it isolation, but really that’s not the case. I choose to work alone and I choose to be in control of as many aspects of my work as possible, but actually there’s an entire, huge community of people out there that help me realize my work, and that allows me to work alone somehow. I’m still working with all these people, but I’m still very much working alone. My practice is me.

Arkitektura:
Have you, this is a little bit of a strange question, but when you think of yourself in your teen years, were you very sensitive? Did you have your friendships were deep and significant, close to your parents, close to your sibling?

Max:
A sister who is three years older than I am who’s a jeweler in Edinburgh now.

Arkitektura:
Oh, so you’re both, interesting. That’ll be the next thought.

Max:
Yeah, I would say I didn’t have many friends, but the friends I had were very close, I suppose a consequence of moving house and town and county and country sometimes even every two years, so I’m constantly changing schools. I feel like I had a very unusual upbringing. I do have a very close relationship with my parents because of that. They’ve always been incredibly supportive. They chose not to send us to boarding school, which would be the normal choice of parents in the military, so every posting my sister and I would follow my parents and we’d be with them. Yeah, I guess my best friends were my parents, and my favorite enemy was my sister. I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question. I’ve held on to a few very, very close friends from the different parts of the world that I lived in, but I think probably, and this sounds really sad, I spend a lot of time by myself in my own little world, and probably a lot of children do, but I definitely wasn’t part of a huge gaggle of kids and children. I didn’t have a huge group of friends and have always been very comfortable with myself and just doing what I do.

Actually, I see it in Ivo, my son now. He’s so happy just playing by himself and investigating the world and surfaces and textures when we’re walking and always wanting to reach out and touch a brick wall or something with stucco on it or a piece of wood. Weird things. He’s very, very tactile, and I remember those moments of my childhood too, just being by myself, whether it’s in the woods or on the beach and just being very content exploring. I lose myself in those moments, and I still do. I really do, and I’ve traveled a lot for my work in the last ten years since I started my practice. I’ve done a lot of projects where I’ve been to a lot of the quarry projects, let’s say. Visiting quarries in Russia, Australia, Vermont, upstate New York, Switzerland, Ireland, literally all over the world, and I’m by myself. I’ve been to China twice, working on two big stone quarry projects where I’m really in the heartland of rural China without translator, without anybody who speaks my language, spoken language at least, and I’m there from anywhere between two weeks and a month. I’m really by myself, but I’m working with a people, and they become my new friends.

We learn to communicate somehow, usually by sign language and by drawing on paper and on material is often how I’m giving instruction, just by drawing directly on to the piece of material that needs to be cut. Even from my childhood through to now, I think some of my most creative moments are those spent by myself.

Arkitektura:
I’m sure. I actually think that’s a great strength. My daughter is still in the world of fairies and gnomes and …

Max:
Unicorns?

Arkitektura:
Quite possibly unicorns, yeah, absolutely, definitely. I love that she is still there and can get into that, and I think it’s something, it’s a character trait that can carry you through the rest of your life, and that sort of self-reliance and, well, that strength and interest in the introspection is something you can have when you’re 85 and 90, which quite possibly, potentially your grandfather has.

Max:
He’s been a bachelor for, a widower, for 30 years almost.

Arkitektura:
You didn’t know your grandma very well then. Let’s see your five years younger, so you’re about 37.

Max:
‘m 37, and I think, yeah, my grandma died when she I was seven, about seven or eight years old I think, so just as my grandpa retired and moved to Yorkshire and started farming. He retired into farming. He was a scientist and retired into farming, and shortly after my grandma died from Alzheimer’s. I have amazing memories of my grandma, but probably from my parents’ point of view or my mother’s point of view, whose mother my grandma was. They were probably quite sad moments because of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. From a seven year old’s perspective, she was incredible fun. The moments I spent with her, she was great fun. Dancing in the kitchen and very jolly.

Arkitektura:
Amazing.

Max:
But yeah, my grandfather since then has been by himself, lived and cared for himself, and run a 200 acre farm by himself with one incidentally or interesting part-time assistant or part-time laborer much like the way that I run my business. I’ve never really kind of made that parallel, but he’s an incredible man and very inspiring to me. And perfect just the way he is. I totally can respect the way that he does what he does and how he’s managed to keep doing it for all these years into his 92nd year, having had hip replacements and knee replacements and all sorts of ailments, but he’s up there on his tractor every day, and they’re all old archaic machines that he’s had to modify and improvise in order for him to be able to use them, so he hasn’t got any strength in his, it would be his left knee, I think. In order to apply the brakes on the tractor, he’s welded a big lever so he actually operates the brake with his arm, with his hands. It’s a really way that he’s managed to navigate his situation and his age but keep doing what he does, and again, probably sadly, I’ll probably end up doing the same in my practice.

Arkitektura:
You do do the same in your practice. It’s really interesting that he …

Max:
Until I’m 92, I mean.

Arkitektura:
Oh, until you’re 92. Yeah. What are the ways he inspires you?

Max:
His independence really inspires me. His agility to, I mean, sort of cerebral and physical agility. He’s able to continue and to make things happen against many odds. That sort of ability to improvise, his resourcefulness I suppose is something that’s an attribute that I admire massively and try to apply to my work. He makes nothing go a very, very long way. He makes something out of nothing every day. He’s growing crops. He’s growing things for us, and he mends everything. Nothing’s ever broken. Nothing’s ever disposed of. All materials, whether natural or man-made have value. He’s blessed with a 200 acre farm on which to store or never to dispose of things, and I think as a child as well, I was exposed to that, exposed to that environment and exposed to those materials and stacks of scrap metal. Not really scrap metal. Somebody’s scrap, but a precious resource for precious material for my grandpa, and he would make things with those. He would repair the plow in order for it to continue operating. Yeah, he’s a creator.

Arkitektura:
Absolutely. Interesting. I mean, scientific background, although there are a lot of scientists that are quite creative. He’s independent. He’s a lot of things that you are. It’s interesting. Some people say, of course a very Nor Cal kind of thing to say, but the things that you love in someone else or the things that you admire in someone else are often the things that whether you would like to admit it or not are the things that you potentially might see in yourself as well.

Max:
Yeah.

Arkitektura:
You also said that your parents raised you in, I don’t know if you used the world unusual, what you cited as unusual was that you didn’t go to boarding school. But now that you’re a parent, what are the things that you’re taking from the way that you were raised that you hope to impart on your son?

Max:
‘m trying to be patient, but it’s probably my worst trait, that of impatience.

Arkitektura:
Were they patient? Were they patient with you?

Max:
They must’ve been. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but this is the wonderful thing about being a parent is that suddenly you realize just how much has been done for you.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, this is true.

Max:
Because I’m doing the same for my son and Gemma’s doing the same. I’m really beginning to appreciate how hard work it is and must have been for them and just what a commitment it really is, and to this day. I know because they tell me but I also know because of how they behave that they’re just so proud and they’re just so proud of both my sister and I. They are now lucky enough to be semi-retired pretty much. I say semi-retired because they are both retired officially, but my dad likes to tinker with things, antiques and studio ceramics and doing a lot of flea markets and fairs.

Arkitektura:
Yes.

Max:
Trying to make a bit of money on the side, but essentially they’re retired and now they have the time to explore the world with their children and to shadow us almost, which is very, very sweet and much appreciated. They’ve been to San Francisco whilst we’ve been here. They came for ten days.

Arkitektura:
That’s great.

Max:
I have a show next year in Chicago when they keep asking, “What dates are you going to be there? What’s the date of the opening? We really want to be there.” They’ve come to Milan for the Salone de Mobile the last three years, I think.

Arkitektura:
Amazing.

Max:
Just to be there, just to be part of the moment and to experience what it is that I do. What do I do? It’s kind of an abstract thing for a lot of people, and of course my parents know what I do, but just to meet all the people that I’m meeting through my work and to go to the openings and the private views and to see the exhibitions and to meet my friends and the media and all the things that I’m exposed to through my work, they’re interested.

Arkitektura:
I love that.

Max:
So yeah, still very close with my parents.

Arkitektura:
So special. It really is. I think particularly when you’re doing something creative and especially the kind of creative that you are, you could easily say, “Oh, my son, he’s wonderful. I love him. He’s a crazy artist.”

Max:
Yeah. Totally. Yeah. That’s probably the more common attitude or reaction to children’s work.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, absolutely. Especially of different generations.

Max:
That’s probably what my grandpa says.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, but he-

Max:
But no, he gets it too.

Arkitektura:
Also, you resonate in different ways, in other ways. It may not be as literal, as direct as a translation. You don’t have a farm and it’s not that, but the characteristics are right there, and that’s interesting.

Max:
I think sort of the industriousness of what I do is very much in parallel or comparable to what my grandfather does.

Arkitektura:
Industriousness, independence.

Max:
Yeah, and so our conversation is very practical, whereas with my parents it’s more emotional definitely.

Arkitektura:
Right, which is what sort of the combination what your work is because it is practical. It’s objects that either you can drink out of, sit on, use, but it starts with an emotion or this fundamental sort of root is that. So you’re both craftspeople, you and your sister. Amazing. How do you explain that?

Max:
Parents who support whatever their children desire. Being in, it’s social learning ultimately. It’s who we as young people are exposed to or what we’re exposed to, and there are many things.

Arkitektura:
There’s such a, particularly here in Northern California, there’s such this sort of love for craft and the handmade and machine bad, craft good, and one shouldn’t be cut out for the other. I think there’s real power in both, and actually what I think is most fascinating is to take something that is used for one large and consistent purpose and adjust it for what you want to use it for and sort of re-contextualize it. Re-contextualize its use.

Max:
Yeah. I think that singularity of material and process is something that is consistent and prevalent in my work. These bits of forged furniture that I just made aren’t going to be upholstered. They’re not going to have wooden trim. In fact nothing else is going to happen to them at all. Nothing else is going to be added, nothing else is going to be removed. The way that they are having been forged straight from the factory is how they would exist. There’s that simplicity and singularity of material, process, and message that is my work.

Arkitektura:
The word that keeps on coming is just this sort of essence. Distillation, but it’s not quite the right. Maybe it’s fundamental.

Max:
Yeah.

Arkitektura:
Well, it’s all of those, I suppose.

Max:
It’s not distillation. It’s almost like the opposite. It’s like before distilling. It’s like before distilling even happens.

Arkitektura:
BD. Yeah. You said that you’re going to, just by the nature, you’re going to have to make some decisions about how you’re going to move forward, and your response wasn’t “And so I’m going to choose the projects that are financially most rewarding and just do those, because I’ll choose fewer but make the same amount of money.” Your response was, “I’m going to choose the projects that are most personal and intimate.” What does that mean?

Max:
It means I only do what I do because I like doing it. Money helps. Being paid for what I do helps, but there are many ways of earning money. I’m here now in San Francisco teaching and enjoying every minute of that teaching. In fact, teaching is probably one of the most nourishing things that I do, but equally it doesn’t pay a huge amount. But what it does is gives me freedom, gives me the freedom to do the projects that give me most satisfaction.

Arkitektura:
You can’t put a value on that.

Max:
No, not at all.