19 Jan Q&A with Will Yates-Johnson, Designer of Night and Day bench for the Science Museum
In 2017, Diespeker was proud to be instrumental in the creation of a bench designed by Will Yates-Johnson for London’s renowned Science Museum. Here we chat to Will about the project.
Hi Will. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My father is a dedicated shed-workshop guru, and I’ve always been a disciple of designing and making, despite a detour to study architecture at Nottingham, where I missed not only the tactile but also the fast, human-scale results that can be achieved through design. Moving down to London, I returned to my first passion and found work producing furniture for a micro-industry called Unto This Last, and subsequently worked for four years for Canadian industrial designer Philippe Malouin. Following this I returned to study, completing an MA in Design Products at the RCA. Since graduating I’ve been fortunate enough to run my own studio and currently work primarily on private commissions, producing anything from small-scale sculptures to large installations.
How did you get the commission for the Science Museum?
I was invited to submit a proposal in competition for the redesign of the museum’s famous Foucault’s Pendulum, which has been oscillating down a three-story stairway atrium since the 1920s. The former configuration had the pendulum just skimming the floor level above a simple rotating dial, whose purpose was to show the pendulum’s progress as it swung about, demonstrating the earth’s rotation in space.
The challenge was to open up the floor area and make it available for visitors to gather or relax. Therefore, I proposed raising the entire pendulum and dial above head height. Now visitors can walk underneath a newly designed, cutting-edge digital dial and look up, observing the heavy, 20-metre long pendulum swing and for a moment wonder at our planet, and hence us with it, spinning inexorably around its poles.
Though not in the original brief, clearing the floor area revealed an opportunity to create a seat monumental enough to fit the grand scale of the museum, and designed so that visitors might comfortably observe the experiment. The height of the pendulum resulted in a bench with a high, steeply-angled back – one that you almost lean back into. It’s a surprisingly supportive and relaxing position!
Why did you choose conglomerate as a material?
The bench had the potential to become a permanent fixture in the museum, so I wanted not only its scale but also its materiality to express this solid purpose. It became immediately clear that stone, especially marble or conglomerate, would be able to withstand decades of constant use. In my practice I am obsessed by effortless chaos; that is, random and unique visual effects which are created almost as a byproduct of a manufacturing process. Terrazzo and other conglomerates produce this complex aesthetic beautifully.
What brought you to Diespeker?
I came across Diespeker during my time working for Philippe Malouin. We were designing a series of retail spaces for the clothing brand Orlebar Brown and wanted to incorporate exquisitely detailed terrazzo floors, walls and other details. We found the experience of working with Diespeker on two of those interiors extremely satisfying, and I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to work with them again – little did I know that it would take five years!
Did you visit the factory?
Fortunately, my studio is situated just the other side of Burgess Park from the factory, so I was able to visit regularly, discussing the project in person with John and developing the production methodology with the various technicians who would be charged with making the bench. I’m a science and geology nut, so the factory is an Aladdin’s cave, and I loved investigating the various materials and processes on the ground.
Any challenges along the way?
Plenty! The deadline was tight, putting extreme pressure on the production team to complete the project on time and to everybody’s high standards. The integration of 212 slivers of solid brass into the bench’s seat and back, a key design element which abstractly showed the rotation of the earth over 24 hours, was achieved by slicing the conglomerate into thin strips, then meticulously reassembling and gluing these sections together with the brass infills, before grinding back and polishing to a high shine. This process was unimaginably complicated and labour intensive.
However, this was nothing compared to the scale and weight of the bench. Once assembled, it weighed 600kg and had a length of over 2.4 metres. For installation in the museum to be achieved, Diespeker had to draft in specialist lifting equipment as well as a team of ten men, to transport and move the bench in one piece. The install was rigorously planned and, in the event, remarkably smooth – the bench landing in its final position in immaculate condition.
How did you find working with Diespeker?
It’s no exaggeration to say that this project was a labour of love, propelled by the passions of the individuals involved. The aim of creating a bench both monumental in scale and solidity, produced to an exceptionally high quality of detail and finish, and in the time allotted, looked like a Herculean task. However, the team at Diespeker, under John’s enthusiastic determination, achieved the impossible. The feeling that I’ve taken from this experience is of a company who prioritises relationships, trust and collaboration – values I gladly share.
What has been the reaction to your bench?
The reaction from visitors and the museum has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve never observed it unused and, so far, eight months after install, it has withstood the punishing everyday wear and tear and is on track to cope excellently with the museum’s three and a half million annual visitors. Every time I visit and catch the brass glinting in the light and sit against the cool marble, I can’t help a huge grin spreading across my face.
Photography, Paul Plews, install photography Will Yates-Johnson.