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  • Installation view of 'The Fading City', James Rigler, 2013. Image © Philip Sayer, courtesy of Marsden Woo Gallery

From Lego to Lutyens

James Rigler tells Teleri Lloyd-Jones why an Ikea bookcase is more relevant than a hand-made pot

What did you make as a child?

I think an overdose of Lego is to blame for most of the artists and designers that I know. In primary school I made buildings out of cardboard. There was a quarry building, warehouses and offices and then I could play in the gravely edge of the playground with my trucks. It was pretty serious, historically accurate, quite geeky.

Were you a budding architect?

I was going to be an architect. I deferred before architecture to do a foundation in art. When I came to my first year of architecture at the Bartlett at UCL, I missed making stuff. I got all the way there and it was the most painful shock of my life. The discovery that what I thought was ‘doing architecture’, wasn’t actually what was ‘doing architecture’.

Short Bench, James Rigler, 2015. Photo: Philip Sayer, courtesy of Marsden Woo Gallery

So what happened?

My old art teachers recommended I go to the materials BA at Brighton. It was process and material led from welding and mould-making to making joints in wood. It was learning a toolbox really. You had to focus in the second year on two materials so I chose ceramics and metal. I’m so grateful for that course.

Who’s work were you interested in?

Richard Deacon. What I like about his work is that if you saw it in a different context you might not notice it – his extraordinary laminated sculptures that if you saw in a shipyard you might think were part of that world. It fascinates me that objects can be one thing and another at the same time.

After, Richard Deacon, 1998. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Your work can look so polished it’s hard to tell it’s hand-made.

I like that. For me, being skilful offers me the chance to make objects that exist in the same realm as the other 99.9 per cent of the mass-produced objects around us.

I love the idea that when you encounter an object you’re not sure what the thing is: Where’s the art? What’s the skill?

How does that fit within ceramics?

Richard Slee is my favourite ceramist. I share a studio with Dawn Youll and I think you can see Slee’s influence on both of us. But in a funny way, I’ve never really been into ceramics. Sometimes I think ‘wow what an amazing thrower’ but it’s rare that I think ‘that’s going to inspire me’. But I do get that from sculpture, architecture or furniture. If I’m making objects that reflect life around me, it feels odd to make something that’s obviously hand-made. Tupperware, margarine tubs and old takeaway boxes are what people have in their houses, not pots. The Ikea Billy bookcase is relevant to how we live now. A hand-made pot? I’m not so sure.

Ping Pong, Richard Slee, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist

Talk to me about Ikea…

Ikea is amazing! It’s like fast food. I love how beautifully considered they are to put together, the thought process is so minimalist to make it cheap and efficient. They’re very close to being signs instead of things – like, they filter a trend for 1960s Scandinavian teak furniture and challenge themselves to make the essence of that in a flat pack that’s cheap and still desirable. It’s clever. Also, I love the strangeness of the stores.

Is architecture still important for you?

Always, yes. There’s a Lutyens house called Castle Drogo in Dartmoor. It’s amazing, a castle that’s part sham, part real. Commissioned by an American in the 1910s. I like the idea of this quite post-modern mix of functional rooms and others done for effect. Lutyens plays games; it’s a witty, funny building with motifs thrown together in a surreal way. You can see his joy in making the most ‘castle-y’ castle you can make. And I often return to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. 

For your new project, you’re moving away from ceramics?

I haven’t left clay for good, but this new work is made in cast concrete. It’s inspired by a visit to a crypt at St Sernin in Toulouse. I stumbled on some reliquaries, gold-plated wooden boxes made to look like the buildings of the time, like dolls’ houses. Also I’m surrounded by tower blocks of Glasgow that are being pulled down at a rate of knots. I’m intrigued by the values that led them to be built, that idealism and where those ideas went.

So connecting those things, the overlap of the grand and mundane, the idea of your Gran’s china and a saint’s finger being not so different. I’m making a Brutalist towerblock concrete cupboard and chests of drawers. We’ll see if it works!

Small Cupboard (Reliquary 1), James Rigler, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist

Lyonesse by James Rigler is at Marsden Woo Gallery, London EC2, 9 September to 10 October