Oscar Medley Whitfield + Harry Trimble
Designers in Residence 2012
Designers Harry Trimble and Oscar Medley-Whitfield share an interest in sourcing local materials and using bespoke manufacturing processes. Together they experiment with how products can be independently made and embody local identity and heritage. They believe this approach has significant economic, environmental and emotional benefits. Harry and Oscar graduated in 2011 from 3D Design at the University of Brighton and Industrial Design at Kingston University respectively. After meeting at New Designers, they found common ground in their practice decided to work together.
For Designers in Residence 2012, answering a brief entitled Thrift, they were inspired by the historic Southwark ceramics industry that thrived in the area surrounding the Design Museum 300 years ago. Harry and Oscar produced a range of ceramics, Wharfware, made of clay dug from the banks of the Thames between London and Tower Bridges. Before the clay could be used it had to undergo an extensive refining process. The clay is dried and then made into a slip before being sieved through progressively fine grades of mesh to remove impurities. After further drying on plaster to achieve the right consistency, the clay is ready to be moulded and fired. A complex testing process was used to find the right composition of clay with sand and the firing temperature.
The geometric form of the works is process driven. Rather than using traditional ceramic techniques unlikely to work with the unpredictable raw clay, Harry and Oscar applied an industrial approach. Moulds were designed to allow the clay to be shaped under pressure and easily removed from the mould. In creating Wharfware, Harry and Oscar have created a locally relevant product in an innovative and resourceful way.
When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
For both of us, our interest in design came from being drawn to making from a young age. The awareness that this is design and what design actually is, came later and is still becoming apparent now. Oscar was given a junior tool kit by his Grandma which stirred his enjoyment for making and likewise Harry received a K’nex roller coaster for his birthday which started him playing with his hands.
Why did you decide to study design and how has your education influenced your work?
We are both dyslexic and had similar experiences at school. Though we are curious and thoughtful people, our achievement in the core academic subjects did not reflect this. So, at the time, the decision to study design was due to it being the only real subject we showed flair in. Our enthusiasm and immersion came during our university degrees, as we realised the scope and potential of design.
What was the influence of your design education on your work?
What we took from our formal education was learning how to learn. You become skilled at going outside your comfort zone and seeing the core principles of the unfamiliar. In a broader sense, design education stretches well beyond any university or college. Life experiences have had an equal, if not larger, role to play in influencing our current approach to design.
When and why did you start working with Thames river clay?
It was a means to answer to a brief, which asked us to be resourceful. The definition of resourceful is essentially making something from nothing. We noticed the material was overlooked and unused, despite its potential to be formed and made permanent.
What / who inspires you?
Materials, or more specifically material opportunities, energise us. When we start talking to a client or look over a brief, we try to see users and scenarios with new eyes and through material interactions.
How would you describe your approach to design?
Hands-on. Good design, from our experience, comes from actively searching out and uncovering insights and possibilities. We prefer to find things out for ourselves, as opposed to going to second hand sources. Why trail through pages of a specialist book, when you can talk to the specialist yourself or experience a material first hand? This way we get tailored answers to our questions.
How important is process in the making of your work?
Process is always important because it is the act of doing. How much emphasis we put on process, really depends on the client. If we have been commissioned to do a project for an exhibition, we put emphasis on process because there needs to be a story to follow. If on the other hand, we have been asked to design a product, the importance of process is less so, as it is the final outcome that counts. Each project has its own subtleties and requirements.
How important is the story behind the work?
The stories in our work simply result from a series of clear reasons and decisions. They come from the research we feel obliged to do around the people, contexts and materials we deal with. Stories, being a strong feature of our work, are a by-product of us ensuring our outcomes are relevant to and resonate with the audience or user.
Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to work?
For Oscar his Worth the Weight (2011) project; that tried to prove scrap copper could be recast into a more valuable bullion form has similarities with our residency proposal. Both with the copper and the clay, it was about methodically testing a material, to prove it can meet a series of technical requirements. Harry’s Lancashire Mousetrap (2011), sought to see how the identity of a place could be represented and enhanced in the material of a product. These projects parallel our aim for the Wharfware collection to communicate the rich heritage of the area surrounding the Design Museum.
How did your project for Designers in Residence develop?
In the early stages of the project we realised how sequential and lengthy a process of refining raw clay is in practice. Taking this into account, we streamlined the methods with which we processed our material. Joining different stages more fluently by utilising techniques and tools better suited for specific purposes.
How do see your practice developing following the residency? What are your goals as a designer?
After our time at the Design Museum, we hope for opportunities to work with companies and manufacturers to develop and promote their products and outputs through material applications. The motivation is to move towards a space where we consult with clients to see how materials and products be revised to be more economically, socially and environmentally dynamic.
Where do you see your work fitting with other designers / design movements / broader design discourse?
There is and has been for the last few years, an impulse among designers to design and produce work on more local scales. At present, we see ourselves included in this group of local design activists. We would like to progress this approach by crossing it with some of the virtues of industrial design like efficiency and standardisation, in order to make ‘local’ products more accessible in price and concept.
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