Light Alchemy

Earlier this year Jaguar initiated a competition at the Royal College of Art. The brief was relatively simple but extremely open-ended: create an installation that exhibited Jaguar’s illustrious past whilst projecting a vision for the future through design and materials.

The winning presentation would be made a reality and shown as the headline exhibit at this year's Clerkenwell Design Week before moving to other venues such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Material science meets optic experimentation

Touch and sight, materials and light. The senses of ‘feel’ and ‘see’ are almost entirely responsible for how we perceive things. Sound, taste and scent are also important but are called into action less often. Jaguar’s installation at this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week is not only more abstract than the clay C-X16 model sportscar exhibited last year but is also more poignant and certainly more indicative of the brand. Break Jaguar’s philosophy down to its component parts and you’re left with supple lines that are beautiful in their simplicity and the use of fine natural materials. Light Alchemy, the work of two final year students at the Royal College of Art, aims to capture this heritage whilst exploring future design processes that will move Jaguar away from the more prescribed days of ‘wood plus leather equals luxury’.

At its heart Light Alchemy is a five-and-a-half-metre sculpture made from glass-reinforced plastic coated in a versatile blended copper/resin finish. Neatly circumventing the need for an enormous kiln or electrolytic bath, the copper is painted on and what makes the installation so eye-catching is the way Ewan Gallimore’s (MA Vehicle Design) titillating sketch work has been brought to life by Claire Miller’s (MA Textiles) inventive treatment of materials. Rather than the installation being the centre of its environment – in this case Clerkenwell’s Farmiloe Building – the sculpture’s surroundings are central to understanding it. Natural light floods in from a large aperture in the roof whilst the Victorian warehouse’s elevated walkways and deep floors mean Light Alchemy can be seen from almost any angle. The sculpture itself is open, like a seashell or seed husk, and can be looked ‘into’ and ‘through’ just as much as it can be looked ‘at’.

The sculpture features exaggerated forms in the style of automotive sketchs: lofty haunches, massive wheels and large proportions in general.

“Part of our inspiration came from artists who designed installations based on light and emitting light,” Gallimore says, and the use of copper is a result of its acutely lustrous quality, picking up light and reflecting it in relatively dark environments. Alongside Walter de Maria’s metallic sculptures the pair cite James Turrell’s work – the American artist recognized for the Stone Age Skyspace installation amongst other optic creations – as a stimulus and whilst in the computer-aided design (CAD) stage of the project actually removed any parts of the body that were not reflecting light. The result is subtle but concentrates the car’s elemental form. The parts you see are the important ones and the absence of ‘filler’ bodywork makes what’s left all the more striking. An urgent, forward-leaning stance with elevated rear haunches references the agile D-Type and elegant XK120, but blown up and exaggerated in the style of countless automotive sketches. It’s almost a caricature, and Gallimore says his chief aim was that sculpture should look like a three-dimensional sketch.

Miller’s work is more subtle in its execution but no less impressive. Embracing trompe-l’œil techniques, Light Alchemy looks to deceive at every opportunity. Many materials aren’t evident on the finished piece, but whilst experimenting with samples, heavily textured bodywork was treated with gloss, giving a wet appearance to dry materials whilst bronze that was cast off a leather imprint in the foundry was virtually indistinguishable from a real leather counterpart. That is until it’s picked up, at least, at which point the vast difference is weight gives the game away. Another sample that played on this deceit was a copper-electroplated wire mesh: the weight is an illusion but the quality feel and beautiful appearance are not. Surely there’s an application for this kind of trickery in production cars, where heavy, luxurious materials can be accommodated for without a weight penalty, increasing all round efficiency no end?

Claire Miller studies textiles whilst Ewan Gallimore is course for a career in vehicle design. The installation reflects both disciplines together and exclusive of each other.

Far from being inert, copper forms often pretty patinas as it ages and slowly oxidizes. After the sculpture was buffed to a shine (that’s 30 hours of hand-polishing), Miller set about accelerating the oxidization process using acids and manipulating where and to what extent the patinas formed. With their respective courses to complete at the RCA it was impossible for both to be with the sculpture all the time. The charming solution was to leave small instructions and codes detailing various treatments for each part of the metal all over the bodywork for Jaguar’s team to complete. This was undoubtedly easier said than done, considering Miller’s desire for organic transitions between the different surface textures.

Jaguar’s brief was to present the future whilst incorporating the past. It sounds like a cliché but if a marque is lucky enough to have a history – particularly a history like Jaguar’s – it would be foolish not to play on it to some extent. Jaguar also has a slightly aged brand image that it’s slowly shifting. The reinvention of classic, organic materials that are synonymous with luxury is clever and resourceful whilst the realization of a classically beautiful but contemporarily proportioned car whose form is implied by the way it reacts with light is frankly magnificent. The selection of material and the subsequent manipulation it undergoes is also unique. Jaguar would do well to keep tabs on Miller and Gallimore.


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