Emma Love meets Make:Shift speaker Mark Burrows
The B of the Bang sculpture commemorating the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester wasn’t one of Thomas Heatherwick’s more successful projects, but for Mark Burrows, it was a revelation. ‘I thought it was breathtakingly ambitious and I fell in love with the idea of working at a place brave enough to do such amazing things,’ he recalls of the 56-metre high steel structure, now dismantled, which looked like a ‘steel porcupine’ with 180 spikes. Having graduated from a Sculpture Fine Art degree at Brighton University, Burrows was working at a sculpture fabrication company in Shoreditch and sent Heatherwick’s studio his CV. One day in 2007, he got a call back.
He came into the workshop to complete a team of four charged with driving model-making forward (today he is a project designer, managing the team of 12 makers). His first product was the metal Spun chair, which involved making Plasticine prototypes to find the ideal profile for a rotationally symmetrical piece of furniture where the seat also functions as a backrest. ‘The workshop plays a very important part in the studio, because it’s where you make discoveries you couldn’t with a book or computer. Your theories stay theories until you get hands-on and prove them,’ he explains. ‘It’s where very basic questions are answered. If you pigment concrete, will it turn a disgusting colour? How will a curvy wall feel when you push a table against it?’
The workshop plays a supportive role, offering expertise on specific projects, making finely crafted models (‘like a render of an image but in the round’) and mock-ups, but it’s also a place for pushing materials and processes. ‘The way we design is very open, with massive room for experimentation. Thomas gives us nebulous titles to go off and research – you end up exploring many avenues.’
As a project where the workshop played a pivotal role, Burrows cites the low-cost 2009 studios for 16 start-ups at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, with specially developed, weatherproof steel cladding the thickness of cooking foil. ‘It was conceived through thousands of tests on folding stainless steel into specific shapes in the workshop. We also trained the construction team and went along to build all the units on-site,’ he says.
Particularly challenging was the Double Rolling Bridge commissioned by the London City Bridge Trust for the Lord Mayor’s Show in 2009. The studio decided to build a seven metre-long mechanical version of a retractable bridge. ‘We had a very solid three-month deadline to design and build a 1:15 scale mechanical steel and aluminium model to explore the engineering concept. It had to be robust enough for the back of a float being dragged through London by a tractor, as it was wound up and down with kids dancing alongside, on a day that poured with rain. It was a huge challenge for me to pull all the threads together,’ says Burrows. The joy of his job, he concludes, is that ‘Thomas sees no boundaries in what the workshop can accomplish, and the idea of making across the studio is fundamental.’