We talked with designer and researcher Leo Maher about his work that collects research from material cultures, past and present, and the narrative they present tethered to, before reformatting archives into new physical pieces.
Who is Leo Maher, would you like to introduce yourself?
I am a British designer currently based in the Netherlands. Before going to the Design Academy Eindhoven, I studied 3D Design at Kingston School of Art in London. Having a furniture-making background, I understood design's participation in politics and narrative building when I went to the Design Academy. The scene in the Netherlands has a unique position in this, originating from 'Droog Design in the early 90s, motivating the essentiality for design to speak from the emotional and symbolic. As a means to generate discussion and change. Here, I understood what it meant to make something, what material culture is, and our position and relevance.
Design beholds the power to shape paradigms and bend perceptions. It can be a potent socio-political tool.
How would you define your art practice?
My practice is a balance of research and making. The work responds to the study through which archives of alternative narratives are produced, and physical pieces attempt to artifact these same narratives through symbol and code. My works often try to recreate the narratives of the lost, rediscovering and materializing the legacy of the forgotten or erased through physical pieces. It focuses on narratives that have both been materialized and later erased or overwritten and some that have never transcended the realm of spoken word and myth for a complex array of politics and reasoning. We must be willing to understand history as an ancient institution whose product is a 'powerful myth' rather than an intrinsic fact and to look at material culture as a representation of this history. We must acknowledge the gaps and prejudice within this 'powerful myth' and look to complete and bridge the voids.
Kimberly Crenshaw notes [on intersectionality] that "...discrimination can happen based on several different factors simultaneously. We need to have a language and an ability to see it to address it." Design can both be that language and be the medium to create the discourse needed to change and address. Design beholds the power to shape paradigms and bend perceptions. It can be a potent socio-political tool. I often respect one tool or material as an equivalent to the next, honoring the intersection where narratives, materials, and techniques come together to form conglomerate objects.
Are you a designer believing that objects have emotional power?
It's integral that design 'operates from the symbolic register.' That design cannot simply pursue trends and fashion. That part of the designer's role is to un-build, probe, and question the source of the 'hype,' the 'trend,' and the 'popular,' both now and historically. Our past material cultures and contexts have framed and programmed how we see the world, resulting in what is registered when we perceive an image. The ornament can speak a language of communication that is rich, ancient, and interconnected. My understanding of material culture is that it says more about symbols and code than objective materiality.
What are the challenging and exciting aspects of working with different materials in your work?
The challenge in the physical production of my works is mainly in the combination of various materials. It's crucial to understand where the stresses travel and come into conflict throughout the elements. Stress works like lightning in this sense- it can cause a lot of damage, and the best way to reduce this risk is to anticipate and control the flow of pressure. We install surge protectors to reduce the impact of the lighting. These intelligent installations allow force and matter to align positively. The same thing happens between material elements in the works. The works aren't site-built installations; they must move, be created, and transported. It's part of the duty of making to give the object the promise of survival. When we make, we channel our voices and the voices of others into physical work. There's a responsibility in the virtue of that: what does it say if the hands of the maker don't take care to consider the longevity of that translation? Sometimes these lessons have been learned the hard way, but they're at the center of every work.
I often think about the production before I sleep when my mind's becoming free of all other rogue thoughts. This space is unique in its ability to visualize and tessellate imaginary shapes in an area. It's like mapping constellations.
What is your production process? Are you closer to analog or digital techniques?
I rarely make maquettes in the studio; before starting a piece, I'm almost always roughly 3D-modelling it digitally in Blender. Doing so allows me to visualize better the final proportions of the works and the realistic dimensionality of the connections. This stage ensures the image I've built in my head over the process is rational and real- that it's not woven in fantasy and blind desire to pursue.
In the age of the sustainable waste reductionist, we must discard as little as possible. Being prepared to go through this process brings me comfort and confidence. Works aren't being forgotten and tossed aside halfway through due to ill contemplation. I often think about the production before I sleep when my mind's becoming free of all other rogue thoughts. This space is unique in its ability to visualize and tessellate imaginary shapes in an area. It's like mapping constellations.
Regarding the analog and the digital: Sometimes I use 3D-printing molds to cast concrete or ceramic in, preparing the alignment for plastic-printed elements. Considering shrinkage and tolerances between materials can often be complex, but within this challenge, I find a lot of excitement in the making. In this way, the digital techniques work with the analog to ensure harmony in connecting the elements. The notions that these varying formats conjure often denote the narrative that the piece beholds. Traditional techniques and materials often represent more ancient narratives, and contemporary digital processes represent more modern voices. Excavated terracotta often nods to the Greco-Roman period, and bottle-green tilework to the Victorian, for instance. 3D-printed elements can be connected to a specific moment. This idea is a consistent practice in the discovery and analysis of artifacts of material culture. It's relevant not only to innovation but to trends and fashion. It tells us a lot about time and people.
What do you do to stay inspired? Who are the names you follow with curiosity in this field or from different disciplines?
The recent 'Anti-Chairs' show from Emma Scully Gallery reflected some things I'm most passionate about. Interdisciplinary designers were invited to "design objects as political catalysis, not material essentials," challenging the chair as a traditional archetype within a design historically defined by a select profile of famed gatekeepers. It was prized on the essentiality of "the designer's role in sculpting patterns of behavior in society." 'Fashioning Masculinities' at the V&A moved me to tears. It stemmed a broader societal discussion around masculinity and gave relevance to so many contemporary conversations. Questioning uniform and dress as a means to protect the gender binary, illuminated design as a tool to provide scope and medium to this ancient discussion. Reflecting on power and display, it touched on reality and powerful myths. From a more technical perspective, a few artists whose work drives and inspires me; are Misha Kahn, Katie Stout, Jessie Reaves, Lionel Jadot, Kostas Lambridis, Messagewand, Mark Limbrissi... There's a quality to this inter-materiality that reflects the time we're living in. The age of superabundance, over-saturation, complex inter-relations, and inter-connectivity; speaks in so many volumes reflected through equal amounts of physical matter. It's like so many sources of energy gravitated in a harmonious collision.
Are you excited about the future? What are your plans?
I'm increasingly invigorated by attention from the disciple in turning our heads away from the hegemonic within the design. Away from a design history that reflects and reverberates the legacies of select famed gatekeepers; to depatriarchise design. This outworn formatting has left many narratives and voices unheard and unnoticed. In a growth towards an inclusive design sector, an attentiveness to these narratives is of critical importance. It's an immense pleasure to watch work from artists and designers that respond to these ideas not only flourish within the sphere, but alter what it means to participate.
I'm currently working on an extensive research project it looks to document queer narratives, both historical and contemporary- often using research methods uncanny to those of the traditional 'historical method.' It works to counter queer erasure and understand more about governing forces throughout history that have accounted for and resulted in paradigms of oppression and prejudice concerning the 'other' and the 'queer.' Eventually, it will be produced into a publication where a series of physical works draw on various narrative elements and histories.