At first glance, the glassy rectangular blocks that crown Tom Palmer’s solid bronze Arca treasure boxes appear like perfectly cut ice or shimmering quartz.
They are, in fact, an unusual crystalline acrylic, riven with inclusions of precious metals, palladium and platinum, that give them a twinkling glacial appearance. This element of intrigue is a common thread throughout the British designer’s work; the parts that make you question, “how did he do that?”
Based in the Sussex countryside in a former farm building that now serves as his studio, Palmer describes himself as a functional artist. But, perhaps he should also add illusionist to his title. His pieces are experimental in nature and involve pushing and manipulating materials into unrecognisable guises. In his hands, panels of hand-carved wood look like leaves or feathers, polished black jesmonite takes on the appearance of snakeskin, while cast tinted resins resemble a human iris.
“I really enjoy that element of mystery,” says Palmer. “It keeps you interested, creates surprise when you touch it and makes you question how it’s been done. It also has the advantage of being difficult to copy,” he smiles.
Self-taught, Palmer started out his career making chandeliers, with a brief stint as a furniture restorer before establishing his own studio in 2014. His varied background has equipped him with a curious and adventurous spirit that draws him to recreate natural phenomena, in materials that are often profoundly unnatural and industrial. This experimental way of working frequently sees him walking the fine line between success and failure.
“Working with different materials is what keeps me excited,” he says. “I would hate to be only using one material forever, because it would shut off so much.”
Speaking about his Arca treasure box duo, he says: “The idea of a treasure box is something I’d wanted to work on for a while. I’d also developed this technique for capturing in acrylic the natural flawed beauty of rock crystal, and how it holds and throws the light around.”
Inspired by the stone blocks employed by Italian architect Carlo Scarpa, as well as the idea of medieval reliquaries, and Roman and Egyptian alabaster containers, Palmer combined these elements to spectacular effect. The user’s treasured possessions are stored in the patinated sand-cast bronze bases; their monolithic forms and heavy weight make lifting the lids an almost ceremonial process.
Working with an open brief, but a limited time scale, Palmer teamed up with a specialist industrial resin casting company in Argyll, Scotland, and a small foundry in Hastings, England. The latter, he says, is more accustomed to making parts for engines and railings than it is limited-edition design pieces – a fact he particularly enjoys.
“I like the fact that the bronze is sand cast as each one comes out a bit differently,” he says of the ancient technique. In contrast, creating the rock-like acrylic was a much more scientific process. The technique was tricky to perfect, so Palmer found himself asking if the technician’s could make the process “go wrong”.
“Normally when you’re casting acrylic you don’t want any cracks or flaws. In this instance, we had to push it more and more to crack and fracture the material in order to create these flaws inside it,” he explains. “It’s actually really hard because acrylic almost wants to keep itself perfect; it self heals.”
The issue was solved by inserting pieces of palladium and platinum into the fractures to prevent them from being smoothed over. This had the added bonus effect of reflecting the light like a natural crystal.
“I really love working with plastics and acrylics, but obviously there’s a real environmental cost,” he says. “I need to use these materials in as responsible a way as possible so that they will be treasured and last for generations. The factory in Argyll uses a zero-waste process, where any waste can be reprocessed and turned back into virgin acrylic.”
“It’s an incredible material actually,” he continues. “In the 1920s and 1930s, when the early plastics first arrived, people were making jewellery out of them and using them like a precious stone, so I wanted to find a way back to that.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Palmer has already started experimenting with creating vases using the acrylic, and is also thinking about how he could scale the pieces up to make a collection of monolithic furniture. In the meantime, he is continuing to work with the resin casting company on other techniques for different spellbinding effects, such as suspending pigment and carbon inside acrylic. His passion and enthusiasm is contagious and we will be watching with interest to see what magic he creates next.
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