A/D/O by MINI | JamesPlumb: Soul Searchers



JamesPlumb: Soul Searchers

Creative duo JamesPlumb discuss the importance of shadows, the spirit of things, and design as client therapy.

London-based studio JamesPlumb – individually Hannah Plumb and James Russell – initially made a name in lighting design, later attracting attention with thoughtful interiors for the likes of Hostem and Aesop. However, being “designers” didn’t always sit easily with the pair, who met at Wimbledon Art School when they were both studying sculpture.

“Back then, we had an inner fear that people would maybe see us as sell-outs,” said Russell. “These days, we have more confidence. Now we’re most likely to describe ourselves as artists who work across a range of industries.” And, after 10 years of designing intriguing objects and intelligent spaces, “it’s interesting that our work is coming back to fine art,” he added. “We’ve held our first specific fine art exhibition in our time as a studio, called Silent Light.”

JamesPlumb's Silent Light was staged at Mussenden Temple, Northern Island. Photos by Rich Stapleton.

Silent Light, which was staged in Northern Ireland earlier this year in collaboration with the National Trust Northern Ireland, was a multifaceted piece. Visitors embarked on an adventure involving a silent, dark-sky walk to Mussenden Temple, perched on a cliff above the Atlantic (they were required to switch their phones and camera flashes off, although they were provided with flashlights with red filters that would not interfere with their night vision).

Once inside the circular, neoclassical building, they found Stained Moons, a series of works exploring light and shadow. Greenhouse glass panes – salvaged and heavily patinated – bore images of the phases of the moon, which were projected onto delicate hanging screens using optical instruments that the duo had built themselves.

Greenhouse glass panes were projected onto delicate hanging screens using optical instruments.

The whole experience celebrated a primeval world of shadowy mystery and natural moonlight, one that Plumb and Russell believe is increasingly overlooked, yet still resonates strongly today. “There’s too much brightness in the world now,” said Plumb. “It’s a kind of noise. We wanted to create a moment of presence, of feeling our own insignificance. We think shadow is very undervalued, just as negative space is. Shadow should be considered a material – and so should time.”

Indeed time plays an important role in JamesPlumb’s work. Silent Light began, as many of their projects do, with the chance find of a time-worn raw material. “We were walking our dog when we found the beautiful old panes of glass in a broken-down greenhouse,” said Russell. “In the beginning, we had no idea what to do with them. We instinctively started shining lights through them and making silhouettes in an abstract way.” Eventually, they hit upon the idea of the phases of the moon, creating the images by selectively removing the patinated surface of the glass.

“It’s almost as if the work was there already, and we uncovered it,” said Plumb. “We like the quote from the Arte Povera artist Marisa Merz: ‘This work already existed before it was made, because mankind is ancient’.”

In Cupboard Steps, a medieval oak spiral staircase is combined with an 18th-century corner cupboard.

Frequently, JamesPlumb’s work takes an old element like the glass, weathered by time, and gives it a new incarnation that somehow also speaks of its previous life. In Cupboard Steps, a medieval oak spiral staircase is combined with an 18th-century corner cupboard, preserving a sense of the functionality of each even while making them part of an enigmatic new object. In A Reading Room, a Victorian oak pulpit is transformed into a space for quiet reflection and meditation; an internalization, perhaps, of its former role as a platform for prayer and preaching.

The reuse aspect of their process can be misunderstood. “’We were pigeonholed for a while as doing Dickensian stuff,” said Plumb – in a design climate in which old things are often chosen as sustainable recycled options, or even as window-dressing. For the duo, using elements of the past comes from their pursuit of “an innate understanding of objects.”

Russell: “It’s not so much the age of a thing, but its traces of life. We love used, weathered things – they feel more human.” Plumb pointed out that they are just as likely to treasure a seven-year-old beaten-up traffic cone, or a piece of sea-weathered polystyrene, as an antique chair.

For the Aesop store in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, the duo tapped into the area's history for design inspiration.

In their interiors too, articulating space through an understanding of its past use is a common theme. For the Aesop store in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, for example, they headed to the local archive, wanting to know the story behind the street’s odd name. “We discovered that, in 1577, William Lamb had established a conduit in order to bring water to the area,” said Russell. “The residents could tap into it to bring water to their home. It was described as a ‘quill of water’ and we loved that phrase.”

They translated it into the design by gently streaming water from shelf to shelf via thin pipes, creating a soft bubbling sound. The oxidized copper shelves become flat-bottomed troughs, with platforms above them displaying the products.

The PSLAB showroom and office occupies a former tannery in Bermondsey.

Their new showroom and office for PSLAB in Bermondsey was similarly inspired by the site – a former tannery – as well as the client’s home base in Beirut and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology. The result is a cast concrete interior that also approaches architecture – a new departure for the studio: “We wanted to re-configure the front of the building, so we recruited an architect to work with us for 18 months,” said Russell.

“There is nothing antique and repurposed about this place,” added Plumb, eager to emphasize that JamesPlumb doesn’t always need to reuse old elements. Even so, the space still channels the past, in this case by reimagining the original tannery pits of the Victorian building as a continuous concrete landscape.

The PSLAB interior reimagines the original tannery pits of the Victorian building as a continuous concrete landscape.

“It’s not like we need things to look a certain way,” said Russell of the interior, which has a minimalism not typical of their usual style. “We look at the location, the client and the brief. We’re not interested in imposing ‘our’ style on everything. The right look for us is when things work and feel right.”

“We absorb a lot of client DNA,” added Plumb. “Often, we help create the brief. That’s something we do well. It’s a kind of empathy; almost a sort of therapy. It isn’t just about how a space looks – it’s about how it feels to be inhabited and used every day – it’s the smell, the sound, the shadows and the negative space. Interiors encompass everything.”

Hannah Plumb and James Russell, photographed by Leon Chew.

Text by Jane Szita.

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