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Cue the Crazy Shit!

Hornu

4 February 2016

Part way through a guided tour of his new exhibition at Grand Hornu in Belgium, the industrial designer Michael Young starts to become confessional. “OK,” he says softly. “This is the really crazy shit.”

It’s a surpising moment. Young, a Sunderland-born designer who splits his studio across Hong Kong and Belgium, is a consummate industrial designer. By his own admission, he is a product man; a designer who characterises his work for brands such as Brionvega, Emeco and EOQ as “pared-down aesthetic design”. Young is not the first name you might leap to when you think of crazy shit.

But that is part of the appeal of al(l) - Projects in Aluminium, Young’s exhibition at Grand Hornu’s centre for innovation and design (CID). The show is nominally straightforward – a display of Young’s industrial designs executed in aluminium – yet behind the slickly designed chairs, consumer electronics and bicycles is a more pedagogical thread.

Each design is displayed with detailed captions illustrating the processes to which Young has subjected the aluminium: stamping, hydroforming, laser cutting, powder coating, swaging, and so forth. Throughout the exhibition, a desire to reveal the complexity behind producing a seemingly effortless industrial product is apprarent. “I want to show the nastiness of the product,” confirms Young. “I want to show people the things they don’t necessarily want to see.” Cue the crazy shit!

Young’s Oxygen chair (2015) for Veerle Verbakel Gallery is a case in point. It’s a design that shows that when Young chooses to do something crazy, he does so with a not inconsiderable brio. Oxygen is a vast, 160kg stub of blue anodised foamed aluminium, out of which Young has CNC cut a simple seat. It is primeval and sedimentary (part of an art series entitled Metal Rock), but further detail of the design’s creation ought to come directly from Young. It is a remarkable story.

“It is one of the most unusual things I’ve tried: almost impossible to make,” he says. “The only reason I could make it is because I found a small, specialist factory in China close to the Russian border. To find that factory, you need to fly to one place and then take a taxi for three hours along roads with no tarmac.

“To actually make the chair, you use a custom steel tool that is about 170kg, so you need a crane to lift it. Inside of that tool you put molten aluminium and generate an explosion at 600°C, which forces the aluminium outwards. But then you’ve got to quickly turn the pressure off before the molten aluminium starts spraying out. The first tool was destroyed after making one chair; CNC cutting the seat afterwards destroyed the blade of the CNC machine. But then the next difficulty is anodising the chair.

“The only places that anodise things are telephones factories and normally those factories want to make 200,000 telephones a week. So to anodise something like this instead, you’re asking a factory to reduce its profit margins for a week, which is nearly impossible. Another difficulty is actually anodising something of this scale. It has so much air inside the aluminium, that if you drop it into water it floats, even at 160kg. So you need six or seven big men to stand on top of it to get it under the chemicals. And the anodisation process takes place in six stages, so you need to do that six times. I will never do this again in my life.”

The Oxygen chair is a remarkable design, but once you learn of its creation, it is difficult to deny Young’s characterisation of it as crazy shit. The chair has no viable commercial future outside of gallery art, and even this avenue seems prohibitive in terms of the time and cost demanded to produce it. Young’s pledge of “never again” seems wise.

Yet what is interesting about Oxygen, and its place in al(a), is that Young does not seem to sharply divide it from his more commercial design projects. “There was no idea of an end result with Oxygen and maybe I’m only halfway through it,” he says. “There’s no particular commercial applications yet, but I just saw that these processes could come together, which is a part of the evolution of the studio’s projects. Maybe one day we’ll find a use for it and, if we do, that’s great. But if it stops here that’s fine, because we’ve learned something about a certain process. Part of being a designer and doing these kind of projects is that you live in a state of organic evolution and pull things out when the right thing comes along. It’s just the chaos theory: you roll the dice and that’s your life. It’s all about process and trying to find new uses for materials.”

This spirit of exploration and experimentation seems to be the prevailing ideology behind al(a). What is surprising about Oxygen’s story is that it is not the only one of its kind in the exhibition; it is perhaps the most extreme story, certainly, but even Young’s more straightforward product designs have their own stories of complexity, their own “nastiness” behind the finished product.

There is the City Speed bike for Giant, in which the headlights and tail lights are integrated into the frame (“to actually invest in that is very difficult; you don’t see this technology a lot”); the Less Than Five carbon fibre chair for Coalesse (“an industrial design intended to sit comfortably in a showroom; an effort to place that material in the commercial market through its price point”); and the Bayer shelving for EOQ, in which extruded aluminium links generate the product’s stability while also serving as decorative, branch-like structures (“achieving their exact configuration was incredibly difficult”).

When Young says of his flatpack Otto Stool, “It looks very straightforward, but it’s not”, he could just as well be talking about every other piece in the exhibition. Which is the outstanding achievement of al(a). It makes clear a basic principle of design: behind every straightforward product design is a lot of crazy shit.