I love concrete and I love juxtapositions, so when I heard about Alex Chinneck’s Concrete Rug I was intrigued. He very kindly talked me though how it was conceived, designed and made.
Of his inspirations, he said: “Every day I walk over an arrangement of two by six paving slabs to get my lunch. I used to look them and liked the line, just the material on the ground as an arrangement. I also walked past an enormous old parachute factory with thousands of smashed windows, I think these images influenced me through osmosis.”
“Another reference was probably my girlfriend [fashion designer Lu Flux]’s vast collection of vintage fabric samples. It’s definitely the most obvious example of her presence infiltrating my designs – her studio is in our home.”
The concept itself stemmed from an interest in decorative marquetry and the level of complexity that can be achieved. Alex said: “The rug was originally going to be made of wood. I like to bring contemporary processes and techniques to materials that have a rich history; a blending of the old and the new. It was just a way of using the material nature of something – using the natural pattern and colour to do the work. The original idea was to create wooden rugs with a fairly basic pattern, but allow the grain within the wood to create another level of complexity.”
“What was quite nice about the rug idea was taking something decorative, domestic, and soft, and taking it away from soft furnishings and into a harder material, but I realised that wood wasn’t doing that enough. I started to think about more industrial, heavy, brutal, sharp materials, which of course led me to concrete. Then I was asked to create a piece of outdoor sculpture – a well-timed realisation with that commission led to a concrete Persian rug.”
Alex had been exploring ways of water-jet cutting brick, so took a standard paving slab to see how cleanly he could cut the concrete. He said: “All things begin in their simplest form, so from there we set about designing a very a basic simple Persian rug. I wanted to use council paving slabs – they’re always on the floor, beneath our feet – they’re very simple and mundane. I wanted to elevate the familiar into a whole new arena, but keep it beneath your feet. I liked the idea of removing it from its context, interfering with it and putting it back.”
“So I just started playing with the idea; just doodling, I did a digital drawing then made something from six by three paving slabs. It was very basic, but a lovely foundation for what we did in its brutalist form. I loved how it looked inside too, especially on a wooden floor – it really heightened the contradictions going on.”
“After the first outdoor rug, I couldn’t shake the idea of a wooden rug – so I made one, but it didn’t work. There wasn’t enough tension. It was too much about decoration, it took the baroque associations too far, it was too deeply rooted in wealth and craft and beauty. But it was a very useful step in the process.”
Seeing the pieces for the first rug stacked up outside made Alex realise that he needed to break out of the grid set by the paving slabs. He said: “It was so nice tonally, and there was so much going on. I loved it stacked it up.”
So the next iteration was a lot smaller and broke away from using the paving slabs in their original grid layout, although it was still made from slabs. “We upped the complexity at this stage – it was still about paving slabs and concrete, but the complexity gave it more fluidity and intensified the illustion we were trying to create,” said Alex.
“What I was originally excited about with wood was the ingrained patination and colour, but I found that in its own way the concrete had that too. In creating the pattern, there was a real tonal variation within the concrete – it was doing so much of the work for me – the colour, and tone and surface so often unnoticed on paving slabs. By working with a familiar materials, so much of which go unnoticed, it’s really nice to present the familiar in a slightly tweaked way, so that we learn to observe the world around us a bit better.”
“It took weeks of work to get to the next drawing. There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing with the design – it’s about understanding the material and the cutting process, and knowing which shapes and angles will work. Drawing for the machine, not for the eye. The cutter has to have a path, entrances and exits, so the design has to be visually right and technically right. I learnt through many, many failings; pieces snapping, and wasted time and money.”
“At this point in the process, we founded The Sculpture House, which works with emerging sculptors to create furniture – the concrete rug explored this idea of domesticity, design and function, so we set out to design a new version for The Sculpture House. It was a hybrid of all the lessons learnt – it needed to be easy for the person to install – a fun jigsaw puzzle, rather than a self-assembly nightmare, it needed to stand people walking on it without ever breaking, it needed simple design, yet something that was complex enough to be decorative.”
“So I don’t know what we were thinking with the next design! It had 450 pieces. It tooks hours and three laptopos to install. It was far too complicated. And it moved around too much.”
“It was a complete failure and and an expenseive failure. We got it all wrong.”
So Alex went away and refined it and eventually got a design that worked, and from this design came the Sculpture House rug.
And it’s just perfect!
Further reading for the especially geeky: