COMMENT

Making a Living by Max Frommeld

London

22 September 2017

Max Frommeld has managed to condense an impressive number of concerns around contemporary design into Making a Living, his new exhibition at The Aram Gallery in London which has been curated by the gallery's Riya Patel.

The first strain is economic or else concerned with the realities of living and working as an emerging designer. Everything in the exhibition has been produced by Frommeld himself, half in California (of which more later) and half in Forest Gate, east London. Frommeld is up front about the fact that nothing in the exhibition would have been possible to produce were it not for a £10,000 grant from The Arts Foundation that he won earlier this year (and in his application for which he cited a desire to produce a show at The Aram Gallery as a planned use for the stipend).

Everything produced for and exhibited in the show is for sale. Many of the pieces are industrial in appearance (again, of which more later), but each is the outcome of personal exertion and expense on Frommeld’s part – their making is only practicable if they can later be sold. Frommeld initially planned to design for industry having graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2011, but has since largely worked as a designer-maker such are the challenges for an emerging practitioner to break into an industrial world that is often conservative in its choices and miserly in its willingness to pay for development costs. Making a Living, then, is a playfully descriptive title – it is through his making skills that Frommeld has been able to execute his designs and bring them to a wider audience.

Having worked consistently as a maker appears to have done Frommeld a power of good: every piece in _Making a Living is immaculately executed. There are sumptuous curving bowls, handles and light pulls, each carved from offcuts of Californian redwood, maple and walnut, that have such a weightiness and ancientness about them that they might be fossilised Mastodon bones dug up from the forest floor. Alongside these pieces, however, are a regimented wooden table, produced in wooden sections reminiscent of steel I bars; collapsible baskets made by backing 3D wood veneer onto a linoleum base; a bed clad with stone veneer; and a set of “lenticular” shelves whose constellation presents different views through the structure as you move around them.

If that sounds as if there is considerable variety within Frommeld’s output, it is because it is. Making a Living is composed of two different collections. One consists of the carved pieces, all of which were produced in California, the other contains the more structured pieces, which have been designed with industrial production in mind in London (I told you I would get to it later).

The former collection is experimental and intuitive, produced with the stated ambition of moving Frommeld out of the comfort zone of his studio (replete with equipment and materials) and into more immediate forms of production. The wood that Frommeld used was all sourced from the “chunk archive” of the artist J.B. Blunk(1926–2002), a sculptor based in Inverness, California, who produced monumental artworks from wood salvaged from the logging industry. Blunk was Frommeld’s father-in-law and on many of the pieces on display in Making a Living chainsaw marks from the process by which the Californian artist initially prepared the material are visible and raw. Each piece, through the marks produced by both Blunk and Frommeld, becomes a kind of family narrative – a generational act of design.

Next to these are the London-made pieces. They are exacting and technically innovative, the work of a gifted designer with an array of sophisticated tools and techniques at his fingertips. There are Japanese-style serving trays that join together different species and shades of wood that move through bands of café-au-lait to dark burgundy tones; folded aluminium benches designed to pack down and stack; and a set of swing sets, seesaws and skateboards made from simple forms cut out of cherry, iroko and ash.

The joy of Making a Living is in seeing these kinds of technically advanced pieces placed next to their more naive, expressive counterparts, such that the manner in which terroir plays into design becomes apparently. Frommeld may be the constant running through everything in Making a Living, but in seeing the range of his output one becomes aware of the extent to which a studio, location, materials and tools inevitably seep into a design and inform the eventual outcome. Frommeld may not yet have become the designer for industry that he originally envisaged, but the success of Making a Living is that it invites reflection on the manner in which the career paths he has gone down might have shaped and informed the designer that he has become.