Masters at work
Interview Josh Sims
Two experts of their craft, furniture designer Matthew Elton and his father, the sculptor, caster and patinist Andy Elton, sit down to discuss their shared love of material, making and
Matthew Elton is the furniture designer and maker behind Tendeter, producing bespoke furniture for many commercial and private clients – ranging from Zaha Hadid and Stella McCartney to Liberty and various other partners – he has now established a new studio, Studio Hygger, working again with many different materials, from concrete to metal. He also oversees the design and production management for larger scale projects. Working principally in wood, but with a broad knowledge a wide range of materials, Elton combines highly skilled craftsmanship with evolving methods and practices, remaining true to the highest standards of British manufacturing. He graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins in 2001 and set up his first workshop at 21.
His father is Andy Elton, the sculptor and bronze caster. A graduate of the Chelsea School of Art, Elton senior worked as an assistant to Brian Wall (working in painted steel), Manish Kadishman (wood and glass) and Barry Flanagan, before launching his own career in bronze. In 1974 he co-founded A&A Sculpture Casting, which became the UK’s largest art foundry, and continues to operate a foundry within Capsico, the pioneering business he established for metal patination on a large scale.
Here, father and son sit down over a whisky or two to talk about their work, materials, two generations of learning – and how home impacts on work …
and vice versa.
Matthew Elton: Working with timber is actually far from where I began. I used to spend time in the foundry with Dad, working with bronze, when I was eight. I’d always been good at making stuff. And pissed people off because I was young and could do it without really working at it.
Andy Elton: Matt has learnt everything from me – and taken it further. He worked on building sites with me too, mixing cement until the foreman came along, pointed at him and said ‘What the f— is that?’. What you learned was by osmosis, wasn’t it? You’d be at the foundry with Barry Flanagan making wax models.
ME: I always liked the idea of making something like furniture though, which has to fit in a space, fit you, work ergonomically. Dad, as a sculptor, always had a feeling towards making an object that offered pleasure. I did try metal. I once made a table that was self-correcting, so it didn’t wobble.
AE: Of course, all the café owners said, ‘Yeah, but we can put a beermat under the ones we have’. As for me, I haven’t ever really left my art base behind. I can’t recall though whether the patination work started out with me offering it or someone asking me to do it. You create a need and fulfill it. There was a spell of three years when I did no patination work because architecture had moved away from metal. Now they use it all the time. The building industry is really all about fashions.
ME: Yeah, when you’re working commercially with different materials it doesn’t really matter if you have 50 years of experience – it’s all about what you can do now. I’ve worked with retailers that, for all their talk of supporting makers, would drop you as soon as you didn’t make them money. It can be hard.
AE: I think I’m more anarchic than you.
ME: Well you are 70. You don’t give a s— any more! There has been this idea that’s come through that you don’t need to understand a material to work with it. But you really do. You need to really understand brick to lay bricks well.
AE: Yes, I meet a lot of engineers and architects and actually find their ignorance rude. They want it one way and that’s it. You can manipulate metal to give wonderful effects and colours, and all architects want is black. It’s very frustrating. I had one big client who said he’s been waiting all his life to patinate a building. He really got it. And then he went and died! You really want these architects to just understand how things are made. But typically they don’t understand what they’re looking at. They don’t see the nuance. It has an impact. The problem then is that things that could be beautiful aren’t. You get them asking for metal to be lacquered, without grasping what happens to lacquer – it breaks down. If you refuse to listen to experience then that’s the same thing
ME: The fact is that if you’re working with materials you can learn forever. And the joy of materials can be addictive, but I’m less prepared than Dad to wait for someone to come along and ask for what I want to do. If I’m instigating a piece of work, it’s what I want to do. You learn fast that way.
AE: The only way you can master a material is to work with it. Young people expect success to come very quickly. And the problem now is that there’s little respect for the older man or woman – for their knowledge. My first experience of patination was watching a man turn a bronze green using chemicals undefined. It was amazing. Now I’m finding there’s a new life in working as a sculptor again – and actually all the patination work we do now comes out of the art world. It’s taking all of the unique formulas we use, which are kept in a safe in case something happens to me, and putting them on buildings. I like that Japanese idea that you don’t make any serious work until you’re over 60. So I’m 10 years overdue…
ME: Do you ever get the fear that you’ll never make another piece of art?
ME: I do. I get those moments of panic that I’ll never make anything again.
AE: I’m now working on casting a piece of bronze that’s impossible to cast. It’s the only way to put it. And that’s for my own pleasure – it’s a challenge to myself to see what can be done with bronze. Nobody is putting any pressure on me. It’s just me and the material. And the truth is I don’t want anyone else to share in that. One problem I’ve had is ceasing to want to share how anything is done with anyone.
ME: He’s taking casting to a whole new level. There’s not one millimetre wrong. It’s pure. Me, I like a material for what it does. I’m not a ‘woody’ – I can’t get especially excited about grain, for example, because the grain hasn’t been in your control. It’s natural and it’s beautiful, but you can’t honestly sell it as yours. It’s the design that has to be worked on. It’s what you do with the materials at hand.