The TH Interview: Environmental Artist Julienne Dolphin Wilding

Julienne Dolphin Wilding is a British environmental artist who is as well known for her beautifully dramatic furniture as she is for her impressive sculptural installations. Her work gained recognition in the 1980s and 90s when a group of designers dedicated to 'truth to materials' and a more sustainable approach to design were linked together under the title of 'the new spirit'. Her reputation has continued to grow as a creator of unique pieces mostly made from reclaimed wood and other natural materials. I recently caught up with Julienne in Barcelona to chat with her about her work, the politics of environmental art and her enduring fascination with wood.I asked Julienne what were the most influential factors that formed her sustainable approach to design. She said that her West Indian background was an important part of her understanding of sustainability. She saw an amazing pride in the way her family relations saved pennies and yet kept up appearances by reusing everything - every little scrap was put to good use in someway or other. The way they mended and remade things to such a high standard meant that there was no question of something looking recycled. Limited budgets also played a large part in her work as a set designer in the theatre where it was necessary to understand how to dismantle sets and rework them into something completely new for each production. Lack of funding continued to be a mitigating factor in her work as a mature student at Middlesex Polytechnic. Her biggest question then was what materials could she get for free. At this point Julienne discovered British Telecom telegraph poles! She found out that when the poles were damaged they were taken to a scrap yard and left there. So one day she turned up at the yard and offered to take these telegraph poles off their hands, the only problem was how to transport them. In the end she bought the yard's old van and left with it stacked full of pine wood poles.

So how does Julienne acquire all her materials nowadays — is it still a case of what she can get for free?
It is not so much a case of what she can get for free, but more that there is such a surplus of unused and unwanted material. This is a question of finding ways to use it all. She once got so much leftover yew from a veneer factory that she was able to make a whole room out of it and still have some left over! This way of acquiring unwanted material has become a theme in Julienne's work and with her 'truth to materials' approach the natural form of the wood often dictates the forms of her dramatic furniture. With the telegraph poles she wanted to take advantage of their huge length and so learnt how to split the wood along its natural seams so she didn't have to chop it up into small pieces. The proportions of the poles naturally dictated monumental pieces of furniture. Hence the enormous Gulliver Chairs which garnered much attention when they were first exhibited. As for her signature yew wood the knots and difficult grain patterns that make it impossible to get veneer out of it become focus points in her chairs. Another series called Love Seats uses storm felled branches to make the back and legs of the chairs, but are hardly changed in their form by their journey from waste to furniture.

I asked Julienne when she first became aware that her work formed a part of a larger environmental movement that was growing and gaining momentum in the design world? She says that it was two episodes that brought her attention to this. One was being included in 'The Recycling Show' at the Crafts Council in 1997, where her worked was exhibited alongside that of other well known designers such as Michael Marriott, Jane Atfield and JAM Furniture. It was an eclectic mixture of product design, but as a whole the exhibition showed a new sustainable approach to design. Julienne also counts tutoring on the Kingston University Design Degree as being a catalyst, where she encountered lots of briefs being given to the students based around eco- principals and realised that her work related directly to this and began to see it all in a new light.

So how does the title of Environmental Artist affect people's perception of Julienne and her work?
Putting the word environmental in front of the word artist has several effects she says: The first being that it immediately separates her from the traditional perception of the artist as someone who creates conceptually abstract art for arts sake, or as decoration. 'Environmental' puts a political slant on the work and gives the impression that the work must be 'of use' in some way. Julienne feels strongly that art should be challenging and educational. It is important to her that she separates herself from the very competitive and commercial world of artists and gallery owners where more emphasis is put on the 'cult' of the artist than the work itself. Julienne also thinks that the term 'environmental artist' also functions to put people at ease because they can sense that it is something tangible and not completely abstract. At the same time it peeks interest because people are not really sure what it means and they want to find out.

What are the most important parts of Julienne's work as an environmental artist? One of the important factors of her 'truth to materials' approach to furniture design and sculpture is that it creates an educational process. It allows people to appreciate the integral qualities of the materials, but without letting them see exactly how it was done. For example her Core Sample 'Matrix Revealed' in Thetford Forest is an 11m high column of the earth that lies beneath the forest floor. She say it creates a wonderful suspension of disbelief as people believe that the entire sculpture was extracted from the ground ready formed. In fact it is a painstaking reconstruction, which was created layer by layer in Julienne's studio and then transported to the site. But the important thing is not how it was made, but that it functions as a visually arresting sculpture and as an educational tool, showing people the geology of the earth beneath our feet.

On a smaller scale we love Julienne's wooden puzzle chair which demands close interaction with the material. It can be built up or taken apart at will, but the wooden pieces have to be picked up, handled and studied to see how they fit back together again. Similarly with her branch puzzles which ask for an even more intimate connection with the wood, as the grain has to be studied in detail to see how the pieces fit together.

Another very important part being an environmental artist, for Julienne, is the longevity of her work. This is not because she wants to secure her name in the pantheon of great art, but because she wants people to form relationships with the pieces. She wants them to be treasured and appreciated and passed down the generations. Part of her love of wood is because it ages so well. When Mothercare wanted to produce her Tuffet baby chair in plastic she said no because wood gains character as it ages, but plastic just gets scratched and over time looks worse and worse. The Tuffet is specifically designed so that when the child grows out of it, it can be reconstructed as a toy. Julienne says very succinctly: "if your product ever reaches landfill then it has totally failed." We couldn't agree more. ::Julienne Dolphin Wilding
[Leonora & Petz]

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