Forcing their way through cracks in the pavement or springing up around kerbsides, the weeds of London are most remarkable perhaps for triumphing in inhospitable circumstances. Yet the average city dweller pays very little attention to their achievements. One exception is Glithero, a pair of product designers who encourage us to look at them differently.
words by Frances Ambler
Glithero is British designer Tim Simpson and Dutch designer Sarah van Gameren. London-based, they met and studied at the city’s Royal College of Art. Their broad range of products and installations, including everything from organ music translated into the weave of a scarf to expertly crafted paper planes, shares an emphasis on process and in particular the moment when something is created – as they describe it – ‘from nothing, the moment of transformation when a product just starts to exist’.
Fascinated by ‘production processes that change colour or shape over time’, the Blueware collection is built around the cyanotype technique. This process – most recently widely used to create architectural blueprints – particularly appealed because of its relative obscurity. ‘To us it is a bonus when the process has become out of fashion or completely forgotten about,’ they explain.
The cyanotype process originated as an early photographic printing method. The basic technique is that a material coated with a photosensitive solution will turn cyan-blue when exposed to UV light, meaning that areas blocked from the light, such as by placing an object on the surface, will remain white. Perhaps most significant for the Blueware Collection is that in the first half of the 19th century it was widely used to create photograms of plants, an accurate way of capturing the details and peculiarities of their forms without drawing them. But while there is a long-standing link between the cyanotype and botanical life, the technique had never previously been applied to three-dimensional surfaces and it took Glithero a year of experimentation to perfect the results.
On a purely aesthetic level, the results are stunning: the almost ghostly white outlines of plant contrasting to the deep Prussian blue of the rest of the ceramic surface. The process also pulls on rich range of historical associations. The colour blue is often closely associated with ceramics, for example, while in the 1840s Anna Atkins used cyanotypes to document her collection of ferns and seaweeds, in the process earning herself the reputation of being the world’s first female photographer. For Glithero, it reminds them of ‘a very noble but sadly almost forgotten tradition of capturing botanics in herbariums for scientific purposes.’
While the 19th-century cyanotypes documented species from all over the world, the plant forms used in Glithero Blueware Collection come from a much smaller area – all found within an area of about a mile around Githero’s studio in north London. Seeking out weeds from unseen places in the city for Glithero is a way of ‘rooting’ into their environment.
The stages of the process echo those undertaken by their predecessors. These ‘very humble’ plants are dried and pressed before being carefully arranged on the cyanotype-infused surface. Following their exposure to UV light, the weed is captured in a white silhouette, every detail of their leaf, stem or flower captured for posterity – a contrast to how they are ignored within the urban environment. As Glithero explain, ‘We love how the coating goes from invisible to blue by exposure to light and has the potential to reveal a certain intricate beauty.’
One additional outcome of the Blueware Project is that Glithero now have hundreds of weeds collected from their neighbourhood stored in large flower presses. Echoing the enthusiasm of their 19th-century counterparts, each plant is also recorded in their Botanical Archive book, and used to inform their future designs.
More recent projects have seen the Studio use the similar process of silver printing to capture more overlooked natural beauty. The London weeds have been replaced by seaweed, harvested from beaches along the English Channel. As almost all seaweeds are slightly translucent, Glithero describe how ‘this can really give a stunning effect when exposed to UV light on print’.
The appreciation for the Blueware collection is one of the Studio’s most wide reaching. They attribute its appeal to being able to make ‘quite a scientific process understandable to a broad audience of spectators and consumers’. This informs one of Glithero’s ambitions for the future, ‘to present a new collection of work that evolves around a much more high-tech production process that is built on the same virtues of being understandable for everyone’.
It’s understanding that’s at the heart of the Blueware Collection. On one level, the tiles, the vases and the lamps are simple objects. But, by making you stop and consider the process that made them, your appreciation of their beauty increases – along with your admiration for the otherwise unloved and uncelebrated weeds of their subject matter, of course.