IT’S A WELDER’S WORLD
Words& interview: Goetz Werner
Designer, engineer, metal worker, and sculptor extraordinaire Benedict Radcliffe has welded his name onto the design map with his unique artistic visions that were initially centred around his life-size wireframe designs of cars. But over the years the 38-year old London resident has worked across a wide spectrum of design disciplines, creating a vast array of different objects from cars and bicycles to furniture and sculptural pieces, as well as working on more architecture-based projects like designing skate bowls.
Benedict, how are you, what are you up to at the moment?
The project I’m working on at the moment is that car out in my workshop. It’s a ‘Mazda 323S’, very popular around the world, done up by countless young men, normally pretty badly with some 17, 18’’ wheels on them and they all look a bit weird. That one out there I’m working on extending it, so front bumper and back bumper kind of Porsche-fied if you like and the wheel arches extended as wide as possible. It’s got 4x4 steel wheels on it, and it’s playing around with bodywork, it’s playing around with car design and it’s a bit of a joke because it’s inspired by the Porsche Cayenne. It’s a pre-runner to the 4-door Porsche. The guy that designed it was a Porsche engineer and so I’m just experimenting with bodywork, experimenting with form. It’s basically the car that I would have liked to have gone to raves with when I was 19, because it could fit 5 people in there. It’s got four doors and is a great car.
Was this commissioned by someone, or is it your own project?
It’s my own project and it’s going to be an edition of 10. You can pick the cars up quite cheaply and I’m going to do the body kit, mould it, fibreglass it and then make a limited edition of 10. I’ve got a company called ‘Very Heavy Products Limited’ and I want to do more products. At the moment there’s the car, the Mazda, there is some wireframe furniture and there is also some skate related stuff. So look out for ‘Very Heavy Products’ - heavy as in heavy but also heavy as in the street word, kind of a bit of fun really. So the next thing is modular concrete skate blocks, essentially so that you can build your own skate bowl. It’s using the guys that make the concrete blocks that stop people from going into other people’s properties basically. I was speaking to this company and it just means that people will essentially be able to build a bowl - a ‘Lozenges’ shaped bowl a bit like my Quaker Street bowl – fairly quickly with modular bits. It’s going to be fun. I mean the tricky thing when you build a wooden bowl for example is having to get the curves right. A halfpipe is fairly straight forward, but the curve is really tricky. I don’t particularly like skating on concrete, but this is just a quick way to make a 5-foot or 7.5-foot high nice and easy transition, and coming in modular bits it can probably be made in a day.
It sounds like you’re working on quite a few different projects…
Yeah, a lot of different projects. I’m also about to make a Ferrari F40, another iconic car. I know the technique but there are always going to be hurdles on the way that you don’t know about. These projects are funded by projects like the ‘London Taxi’ in Heathrow, which was a big and well-known commission to get. Loads of people see it and I keep on getting emails from Singapore and all over the world and people ask me about my stocking trade, my trademark wireframe cars, which is the thing that just keeps on giving. It just means that I can do other projects that I want to do.
Your first work of note was one of those full size 3D wireframe cars. I think it was a Subaru Impreza, which you exhibited in Glasgow, the place where you also studied. How much did that help to open doors for you and set you on the creative path you’d later take?
Yes, the first one I did was the Subaru Impreza and that was in Glasgow in 2005. It’s my favourite car ever, just a bit of a mental family saloon on steroids and it sat outside the little hotel where I had my show. That opened quite a few doors and then I came down to London after that and set up my studio. The one after that was the Lamborghini, which was really fun. I started that with Ben Wilson and we did a pedal-powered wireframe car and then Ben took the chassis and I carried on with the wireframe. I exhibited it in Mayfair and recently sold it to a guy in Berlin. He then sold it in February in Paris for €96,000. He quadrupled his money basically. He was a really nice bloke, but a bit of a speculative businessman in a very nice sense of the word. He had a bit of money, liked my work, bought the car and it went into his foyer in Berlin until he sold it.
The last one, the bright yellow JCB digger was also your biggest wireframe job to date, right?
Yeah, that’s really carrying on the idea of the wireframe. I mean that was a 6-month project - it was insane. I worked with a company down in Brighton and we worked on it together and it was super-tech, a real challenge.
How does the creative and manufacturing process work when you build a wireframe car?
I’m starting off with blueprints. I stick the blueprints on my wall, plan on my large, 8-ft x 16-ft totally flat table. I have the plans on that and I essentially extrude up using all the information on my walls, the plans and the elevations. It’s quite hard work and it’s also standard metal work. If you can weld and if you can do drawings and re-drawings and you are tenacious enough basically, that’s how I do it really. There’s a lot of bending, a lot of working from drawings and trying to make these curves. The tricky ones are the complex curves, so yeah those are two-three month projects and they are quite complex. It’s a bit of a drag for the first two months and then the fun starts coming in the last two or three weeks, when things start taking shape. You can start making design decisions from stuff that you have already known and then there’s other stuff that’s new to you and that makes the whole thing slightly more sophisticated. I mean if it’s easy, then something is wrong.
Do you have any other wireframe projects planned?
I’m doing a series of small classics, a Mark1 Golf, a BMW M3, a Volkswagen Transporter, a Lancia Delta, a 205 GTI, so I’m doing small versions of these with skateboard wheels. Again they are something that you can put into the office and again they are good fun. I was never particularly into figures as in plastic Japanese-type figures. A lot of my friends were and they’d collect them and have them in their living rooms. I was more into cars but then I definitely wasn’t into the weird model cars that people have in their living rooms. I don’t know, but this is fun because it’s using skateboard wheels and my technique and it moves and it’s see-through and transparent.
For a lot of these wireframe cars you use really bright colours like the fluoro orange you used for the Lamborghini ‘Koenig’ or the bright yellow that you used for the JCB digger. What is it that attracts you to those bright colours?
The neon colours come from wanting to make my work stand out in an urban, grey environment. It just really has to pop out. Again with the fluorescent bikes, they looked so great 5 or 6 years ago when fixed gears were hip. It was playing around with the two circles – wheels – and the two triangles and trying to get them to really stand out against the asphalt and tarmac basically. I’m really into these bright colours – my own motorbike, the Ninja, is bright green – and I like the 80s and the 90s and so those bright colours make sense. For it to work, it either has to be white, so when it gets photographed at night, it just pops with the flash of the camera, or it needs to have a bright colour that stands out during the day. I mean fluorescent orange is one of my favourite colours because it’s always worked and I have never looked back since basically. But I might try some more greens and yellows.
The ‘Public Clip Art’ project you did during the London Olympics was one of the few projects you have done that was about making a political statement, right?
Yeah, I guess it was. But I also wanted my two assistants to get good at welding, filing and grinding. I gave them the drawings and they produced Anna Kabaeva, who was this incredible gymnast. I mean I’m really into dance and I’m into our human bodies, how people do these incredible things on skateboards and stuff, so it was about really celebrating the human body. But then there also was Tommie Smith with his classic ‘Black Power’ salute. He never really ran again after that. I guess those were two overt, slightly political statements because at the time the Olympics were going on, so I put those on my roof. I mean they were slightly political, Smith because of the iconic ‘Black Power’ salute and Ana Kabaeva was going out with Putin at the time, so it was an easy way of making a bit of a statement and they look pretty as well.
One of the car projects that looked really interesting was the Dalston Jazz Car, where you joined together two Volkswagen Golfs. What was the idea behind this project?
With the Golfs, they were £500 each and I just worked out how to put them together, loads of body filler and some jigging and getting a guy that was good at doing interiors. When it was done, it was playing really loud drum&bass music. It kind of took me back to when I was younger because we used to get stoned in cars and shut all the windows. But it was also architectural because you were facing each other and it was a really nice meeting place.
That passion for cars, is that something that stems from your childhood?
Absolutely. My passion comes from my father and my father’s friends who I was lucky enough to go to race tracks with or who’d take me to their garages. So yeah, it’s absolutely inspired by my father and his mates basically.
You have also worked on a lot of bicycle projects and the one bicycle project I really liked was the design of those different WOW bikes, where you collaborated with the likes of singer Paloma Faith, industrial designer Ron Arad and footwear designer Patrick Cox. How did you get to do that project?
It was one of those jobs that comes along through chatting in the pub and I got to meet some interesting people like Ron Arad and Patrick Cox, the shoe designer. I mean Patrick Cox shoes were what you had to wear in the raves when you were 16, 17. These were ‘the’ shoes to have. I mean he’s not so big these days but it was interesting to meet him. So yeah it was an interesting project to work on with these different people and produce these bikes with my friend Ted James of ’14 Bike Company’.”
What was the brief for that project, I mean did you pretty much have a ‘carte blanche’?
Yes, it was pretty much ‘carte blanche’. Ted gave me his slightly iconic ESB frames – Extra Strong Bikes – so I took his frames and adjusted them with a step-through for the girls and the point of that was that I thought it was more appropriate to have all the bikes look the same. It was just easier to see how they’d been customized rather than using all different styles of bikes, so there was a continuity with it. So I met Ron Arad and his right-hand man Marcus and that guy was a maverick really. He just did the classic sketch on a napkin and then he went on to make the wheels. Patrick Cox was really involved and it was a good project to work on. We used the best stuff we could possibly use, the best cranks, the best seats, so all the stuff was really well made and the components were ‘Thomson’ stems, ‘Pull’ brakes, so it was all high quality.
You also used battery-powered photoluminescence strings weaved through the frame of your own bike design….
Yeah, I was so busy producing these bikes, I got a friend of mine in Glasgow to produce my bike for me. He drilled the frames and then he threaded these photoluminescence strings through the frame. It was a very loose concept and it was based on the grid of New York, but in the end it just looked a bit like Spaghetti laced through the frame. The guy who was in the video for this was doing some fun stuff on the fixed gear bike like 180s and wheelies and when I watched the video I was just thinking ‘How did that frame stay in one piece?’. I mean it was drilled so many times, so that’s testament to Ted’s bikes. Despite all of the drilling to feed all these electroluminescence strings through, it stayed in one piece.
The other bike project that I really liked was that weird stretched ‘Super Cub’ moped you did…
That was for ‘Comme des Garcons’, their guerrilla store in Glasgow. They asked me to produce some artwork with Jim Lambie, who is a very famous Turner-nominated artist. I thought it would be interesting to use something connected to the space. It was an old wedding limousine shop. Jim Lambie took a white Daimler and put his Paisley pattern all over it in vinyl. Next door to it was a motorcycle breakers and it’s where I used to get my bits and bops for old motorbikes. They had an old Honda 90 in there and it was about stretching it because I knew they needed a seat like a bench. So I made a space frame, used body filler and my Scottish fabricator extraordinaire genius helped me to extend the side panels and that’s how the ‘Super Cub’ was born.
Tell me about your connection to skateboarding, I mean are you a skater yourself? I’m asking because of the skate projects you have worked on like the Quaker Street bowl…
I kind of came back to skateboarding. I started when I was maybe 10, 12 and by 14, 15 I went on to mountain bikes and motocross. We made the Quaker Street bowl with recycled wood from a building site around the corner. All I wanted to do is getting the straight, flat materials curved and I’d read about those wooden bowls in California. They are quite a rare thing because they are quite techy, so anyway I made it with two of my mates. It was one of those things that kept on going and it turned out really well and as a result I got back into skating. It’s really more about skating transitions, I mean some of the street stuff people are doing nowadays is insane, so it’s all about old man transitions.
And how did you end up art directing the European Brian Anderson skate shoe launch for Nike?
Nike came to my bowl. When I finished it I spread the word, all the boys from the Supreme shop in London came down, Seth, Jagger, the Palace guys had their Christmas party there and they all loved it and then one of the Nike guys came down and they hired the bowl for an Eric Koston do and as a result of Eric Koston coming down I got the job to do the Brian Anderson job in my new gallery. I guess I got noticed being able to build bowls and build skate ramps competently and securely, so that’s how the Brian Anderson thing happened. But yeah, that bowl project was a really nice project. It was serious fun! We had skate sessions in there, we had performances in there, we had fashion shows in there, it was wicked.
A lot of your projects, whether it’s cars, bicycles, skate-related projects – they are all about movement. Is that something you have always been drawn to?
It seems to be, absolutely. I just remember the freedom that a bike gives you when you are 12 or 13. You can go further away from home. And it’s the same with when I got my driving licence at 17 and drove down to Spain and then the motorbikes I have. Movement is just a wonderful feeling. I haven’t really thought about it that much but there is a definite thing about movement and wheels are involved a lot. But it’s also about surfaces and the form of things and looking at the Mazda I’m starting, these complex curves and forms are all important. It’s sculptural stuff but also about trying to make nice and elegant shapes and round curves. There is something really pleasing about it. I’m about to get into fibre-glassing now, which I have never done before, so it’s exciting. I’m still experimenting with the wireframe cars and try to push how oblique I can bend stuff and what angles I can do but it’s always about trying to experiment with new techniques.
Is it sometimes difficult to work with these big corporate brands? I mean do they tell you what to do, or can you do what you want?
Pretty much. That’s how I ideally like to work. One of the most frustrating things working for companies like that, you have to sometimes compromise which is incredibly frustrating. I like to do projects that I’d have liked to have done anyway but these companies are paying for it, so it’s a bit of a balance really.
Do you constantly use new materials?
Yes, I try to. I really like working with people who are professionals at their craft, anything like going to a foundry, seeing how Denim makers make jeans, just working with real craftsmen is a real pleasure. I mean for me it’s all about attention to detail, hours spent on smoothing it all down and making it pretty. I really am a bit of a perfectionist but I also like to re-use materials. I mean this floor in my studio was all wood from the Quaker Street bowl and I couldn’t bear to throw it away. Why throw it away when you can make something nice out of it? All this consumerism - I mean I’m part of it - at times it’s disgusting. It’s not about being really pro-green, but at times you should re-or up cycle and be clever about how you produce stuff and use materials.
You have worked on a wide range of different design, sculptural, and architectural projects, and you were involved with the ‘Nike Kicks ‘N’ Canvas’ sneaker art project, but have you ever designed your own trainers?
No, I haven’t done any trainers. I would like to. I mean looking at Tinker Hatfield, who did all the iconic trainers, the Jordans, the Air Maxs, he was – as I am – influenced by architecture, cars, boats, fashion, so it’s a wide range of things that I’m interested in. Not that I’m comparing myself to Tinker Hatfield at all, but these are my influences. I’d also like to work for ‘Akrapovic’, which make exhausts for motor bikes and Ferraris. They are an interesting company and it would be interesting to do a wireframe showing their exhaust system. It would also be lovely for a car company like Toyota to say ‘Look, here is our car, do something fun with it’.