“Sugar Bush”

15 08 2012

This project began as an investigation into how materials react to long exposure to a harsh outdoor environment; how they distort and acquire patina over time. I wondered how I could create a design that embraced these changes rather than resisting them. I wanted to make something that would emerge organically over a long period, with an outcome that was calculated but not exactly known.

I took the protia flower (known as ‘sugar bush’ in South Africa on account of its sweet centre) as my starting point, and constructed a few small-scale prototypes using strips of MDF and a light bulb. I soaked the MDF in water and watched the glass bulb gradually splay out the wooden petals like an opening flower.

For the full-scale version, I decided on strips of well-seasoned cedar (reclaimed from a disused pergola) for the enveloping petals. Cedar has a naturally high oil content and will last untreated for many years but, if subjected to a steady pressure, it will inevitably bend when it’s wet. After much careful design work at the drawing board, I cut over 300 thin strips of wood in four different lengths, proportioned according to the golden ratio, and assembled them in six layers around a circular base. The strips were left rough sawn on the outside, but planed smooth on the inside.

For the central bulb I cut a circular piece of ordinary window glass and slumped it in the kiln to form a dome. The glass softens at 712˚C and droops in free air into a natural parabola shape. The glass was then annealed at 540˚C for five hours and allowed to cool down very slowly. The whole process took 33 hours. I cut off the rim and sprayed the interior surface of the glass a transparent red. I made a heavy tapered wooden base, inset it with 200 led lights and covered them with a two-way mirror, which allows the lights to shine out at night, and presents a perfectly reflective surface during the day.

At last, liberally waxed, the sealed central assembly is carefully inserted into the framework of petals. The idea is that the weight (approximately 40Kg) of the glass interior will slowly distort the wooden petals, sinking lower as it splays them out to reveal more and more of the red bud inside – a process that should continue over many years. At the same time, the petals will slowly turn a silvery grey and perhaps twist, as rain and sun take their effects. As with a real flower, water is drawn through rather than rejected, and becomes an essential part of the process by which the piece will gradually change and evolve in response to its environment.

For the time being, the petals are tightly drawn in, inviting you to peer inside which, perhaps unexpectedly, immediately presents you with the agreeably spicy aroma of cedar. For now it’s not giving itself away at a single glance but, over time, it should slowly open up and transform into – well, who knows what exactly? It’s an experiment, and I’ll be watching what happens to it over the coming years with interest.

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