Q&A with Tom Emmett

Q&A with Tom Emmett

Tom Emmett is a practicing designer, artist and design writer based in Brisbane. In both his art and design practices he aims to create beauty out of the mundane and ordinary. His creative process is labour intensive, focusing on the handmade, and the relationship between traditional craft and modern design.

Tom’s Mundanity Continued exhibition is showing in our Ivory St Window Gallery from 22 August – 2 October 2016.

Born from a diminishing cube, the curvaceous forms of Mundanity Continued have been individually sculpted from solid offcut pieces of foam. The original form, which was developed while Tom was studying at Central Saint Martins in London, has progressed to take on different scales and functions. Handcrafted and industrial processes converge in these pieces, with the forms being individually carved yet modular with an industrially applied coating.

artisan curator Richard Stride caught up with Tom is discuss his practice and the ideas behind Mundanity Continued.

What is the relationship between the art and design sides of your creative practice?

I’ve thought about this a lot, because I’m an artist and I also study Industrial Design. Before the Industrial Revolution there was a distinct difference, but after that the roles of both changed, as did craft in relation to design. Kind of like how photography changed the role and place of painting. I guess they inform each other, but they perform different functions or fulfil different roles. Art plays to the emotional/spiritual and design plays to the functional. Both are needed. Some of my design pieces are described as ‘sculptural’, but they’re not sculpture or art. They may represent an idea or concept, which art does as well, but they don’t invoke or stimulate any spiritual connection or conversation, which art does.  Saying that, work by the Bouroullec brothers, which is both industrially produced and also limited editions, challenges that and does border on being spiritual, so the relationship between what art and design can offer is constantly evolving.


What inspires you to create beauty out of the mundane and why is this important today?

I think it’s a really important way of appreciating life. Many people don’t realise, and gloss over, the thought that has been put into creating everyday objects. The mundane usually have hidden qualities or value and through my work I try to highlight those. For example some of my sculptures are made from 4×2 pieces of fence post, but the end result is completely different. So the transformation is really interesting and important.

Tom Emmett, work in progress. Image courtesy of the artist.

Was there anything in particular about your experience studying at Saint Martins in London that led to the forms in Mundanity Continued?

The original object, mundanity, was the first in this series and was created during my Foundation year there. When you live in a different country and culture you tend to notice things that locals may not. I think that happens everywhere and these tend to be very ordinary objects, things embedded in the everyday fabric of the place. I also visited a really great exhibition that was about removing the excess and the ‘noise’ from popular objects and items, resulting in pared down objects that had just the essential parts. I loved the concept of removing all excess ‘stuff’, so I took the most common form of all, the cube and decided to remove all of the excess, leaving the eight corners and the supports between them, creating mundanity! I also think, looking back, I was subconsciously trying to develop a form and shape that was mine and I could apply to a variety of functions and scales and settings.


You’ve previously created hand-carved wood sculptures, which is a more traditional craft or art practice. How does that work relate to the work in your current exhibition at artisan?

The form of my yellow pieces, which I call mundanity, was created before I began focusing more on my art and sculpture, so it’s a precursor to them in a way. But the way I use, repurpose and recycle materials is similar throughout my works. Here the original foam blocks are offcuts I got from the factory. Huge slabs of foam are cooked in giant moulds and then cut to size for different clients and they’re left with all of these in between bits, so I thought, why not use them to create something special? In a similar way I use very ordinary and unexciting blocks of pinewood from Bunnings to use for art. For my piece which will be exhibited at Swell Sculpture Festival next month I took a surfboard blank which had been graded a reject (which means it won’t be used by a surfboard shaper) and transformed it to create a sculpture that is of the spirit and soul of the beach. So again, reinterpreting and reimagining what are perceived to be throwaways and change them into special pieces of their own.


Tom Emmett, work in progress. Image courtesy of the artist.

Are there any particular examples of the combining of handcrafting and industrial production methods that have inspired you?

Again because of the Industrial Revolution, where objects were and still are mass-produced to be identical, some designers have looked at ways to ‘individualise’ the mass-produced. Hella Jongerius is very clever, tampering with the manufacturing processes or ceramics and other techniques to achieve this. Max Lamb addresses this too, as do Stephen Ormandy and Louise Olsen at Dinosaur Designs, so it’s not a rare area of practice to focus on these days. It can go very badly and produce awful results, but these designers do it pretty well. Isamu Noguchi was another who did both and his work is truly amazing, there is a clear link between his production pieces and his sculpture.


What can “design thinking” as an intellectual process learn from sculpting which is a hand-driven process?

Design thinking refers to applying the design process to other problems and tasks, which is great, but it’s been diluted by some business schools and short courses and almost become a buzzword or sorts. I think it’s a strong argument to hire Industrial Designers in more diverse fields to work on the business or problem being faced and approach it from a design point of view, because that’s what we study and learn: tackling and solving very diverse and complicated issues and problems. In regards with its relation to sculpture, I don’t think there is one. Perhaps it could be in the way in which sculpture is the end point of a distillation of many concepts and ideas to produce a single piece, so in a way solving a problem, but no I don’t think there’s a link between the two necessarily.



Tom Emmett, work in progress. Image courtesy of the artist.

Modularity is generally associated with mass-produced design. What is its relationship with the handmade?

Most things that are modular aren’t truly modular, you can only use them with certain parts and they usually end up disappointing you. I think it’s a great idea but it hasn’t been applied very well, except for a few instances such as Rams’ work at Visoe and a few other products. That being said, standardised parts and sizes could be described as modular, the 4×2 is pretty universal. But back to the question, I think it’s a difficult relationship because one has preconceived ideas about modular structures being mass produced in order to increase efficiency, speed of implementation and economy of means, which is at odds with the handmade which is generally slower etc. So there’s an opportunity to design a modular system that combines standardisation with the handmade. Here with my work at artisan, I used the form in a modular fashion, changing the scale to accomplish different tasks, which is a different interpretation of the concept of modularity.



Tom Emmett, mundanity continued (detail), Ivory Street Window Exhibition. Image courtesy of the artist.


What projects are you working on at present or have coming up that we should keep an eye out for?

I’m partaking in the Swell Sculpture Festival at Currumbin in two weeks time (9th-18th September) which is incredibly exciting and my first public exhibition. The work was created specifically for the beach so I’m looking forward to see the piece in context.

I have also just created an artwork to be installed on a new carpark at the RNA Showgrounds which is also pretty cool, not only because of its scale. It revolves around the concept of place, connectivity and journeys and should be completed around March next year. It’s a continuation of my sculpture work that is based around place and the landscape, so this piece, being a façade, is about being a two dimensional sculpture.

And then there’s finishing my degree, this is my last semester and I’m working on a project which is quite technical and very different to my art and this exhibition.

Tom is currently exhibiting mundanity continued in our Ivory Street Window Exhibition space.



Tom Emmett, Mundanity Continued, 2016. Ivory Street Window Exhibition. Photo courtesy of the artist.