Newton's Bucket by Silo Studio


9 June 2014

Silo Studio go in for jerry-rigging. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art's Design Products programme in 2011, studio founders Oscar Wanless and Attua Aparicio have built a practice on ideas of the makeshift.

Aparicio and Wanless' most famous project, NSEPS, was a structural material formed by steaming polystyrene beads inside of fabric moulds until they melted into fat beams. Similarly Tela was a set of wonky glassware vessels imprinted with textile patterns, a reminder of the fabric pockets in which they were blown. With each use the moulds degrade, meaning that each resultant glass is different from any other.

"One of our studio themes is to create uniqueness from moulds,” says Wanless. "With the glasses we maybe get to use the mould 20 or 30 times before it degrades."

"Maybe 50 now,” adds Aparicio. "We’re getting better at it."

“But we're a craft design studio and we work with serial production, but we like to give options and ideas about ways of making,” says Wanless. "You can buy standardisation from many companies, but you can’t always buy a non-standard product.”

Non-standard, serially produced objects are a prevailing theme of Silo Studio’s work. It’s an ethos on display in the practice’s most recent project. Ttitled Newton’s Bucket, it’s a production method for creating swirling jesmonite bowls.

The jesmonite bowls developed using the process

The bowls are decorated with op-art monochrome spirals that ripple sometimes neatly, sometimes messily, across their surface. They would look classic, were it not for the spills of block colour that disrupt the monochrome, squatting over the patterning like scar tissue. On some bowls there are trails of twisted jesmonite that lash across the bowls in sweeps (“unicorn's horns” says Aparicio), providing further disruption to the base pattern.

“It looks like a big top to me," says Wanless, handling a black and white bowl with a green splash on one side and multiple hooping unicorn horns. “A stripy canvas and then all these ropes hanging down from it.” All of the bowls are the same size, but their decoration is unique. Silo Studio couldn’t repeat the patterns a second time, even if they tried.

The machine that creates these bowls sits in the ground floor workshop of Attua and Wanless’ Leyton studio. To all intents and purposes it's a bastardised potter’s wheel, which an early prototype of the machine actually was. “But we couldn’t get it to slow down stably enough,” says Wanless.

“It was going aeeeerrrr,” says Aparacio. “It didn’t like it."

The current version of the machine is all rough welds, wooden boards and make-do componentry. A wheel from Wanless’ old skateboard forms one part of the structure, an electric motor is bolted to the side, and a silver bowl perches on top, embedded in a chipboard hood. When the machine is switched on, the motor rotates the bowl, spinning it at 76rpm.

The machine spins the jesmonite at 76rpm to form the bowls

This spinning is what creates the bowls. While the bowl is at rest, Silo Studio draw a monochrome pattern on the base of the bowl. They pipe in liquid jesmonite, squirting it into nested spirals and ripples of immiscible liquid. Then the wheel is set turning.

As the bowl revolves, the pattern curves into a parabola, spreading up the sides of the container. The speed of the rotation defines the form of the bowl. Too slow and the liquid stays in a shallow pool; too fast and it flicks up the side to leave a gap in the centre. It’s a production method adapted from a thought experiment designed by 17th-century physicist Isaac Newton in which he imagined a spinning bucket filled with water, a refutation of the idea that true rotational movement was relative to external bodies.

Silo Studio’s take on Newton puts such rotational movement to practice. The spinning flicks the jesmonite up into a curved bowl, while preserving the original patterning of the material. The jesmonite stays in the machine for seven minutes and sets in twenty. After an hour, the finished bowls can be extracted.

The swirling patterning of the bowls

“At first we were just making these zebra patterns, but it was a bit too controlled and predictable. So we stuck our hands in," says Wanless. "Just by doing that that changed everything.” Introducing disruption to the process was the crucial moment in the development of Newton’s Bucket.

The studio began developing tools to disrupt the spreading of the jesmonite – nodules for the liquid to flow around; pipes that can flood the monochrome jesmonite with vibrant colours; tripods that alter the material's flow and which, when pulled out, whip the trailing jesmonite into Aparicio's braided unicorn horns. It is these elements of unpredictability that mean no bowl can be precisely reproduced.

“I think as designers we’re moving on from the industrial revolution," says Aparacio. "Industrial processes started by looking at craft, industrialising it and making it bigger or more efficient. They standardised things. So how do we now innovate in craft and industrial processes? By having a conversation between them. We’re using industrial materials but hand techniques."

The bowl in which the jesmonite pieces are formed, with the tripod tool displayed

The technique was developed for Paris’ recent D Day design festival, an event themed around the idea of movement. Silo Studio displayed as part of Freewheel, a group exhibition curated by Fabien Petiot and Isabelle Daëron at Passage de Retz, and the Newton’s Basket bowls are a fitting embodiment of the presiding theme of the festival. Within their swirls and splashes, the motion of the materials and physical processes that shaped the bowls become manifest.

But materials in motion would be a fitting mantra for Studio Silo in general. Rather than design fixed, standardised forms, Wanless and Aparacio have based their practice around developing on-the-hoof methodologies; ways of working with materials that produce variable, craft-like results. For Silo Studio very little is fixed about their finished objects, everything is in flux. Process, not product, is king.

“When we were developing NSEPS, everyone was saying that we needed to get some IP and protect our stuff," says Wanless. “But why?"

“If people are copying these processes, we’re open to that," agrees Aparicio. "If someone else wants to try it, then go for it. The same way we’re inspired by other people, we want people to be able to learn from our stuff."

"The best way of owning something is through authorship. If you do something then do it well,” concludes Wanless. It’s a fitting summation of the project. The Newton’s Bucket machine may be jerry-rigged, the decoration of its resultant bowls may be anarchic and random, and it’s certainly a methodology that relishes in chaos. But Silo Studio do chaos well.

“Maybe we could control things a bit more," muses Aparicio. "But we like to introduce randomness.”

“Mess,” Wanless admits, “has been in more than one project. It's part of our language.”

The production process of the Silo Studio Newton's Bucket bowls