Gilles de Brock on hand building a CNC to print graphic glazes on ceramic tiles in a highly original design story

What happens when a trained graphic designer takes on the role of engineer and electrician, both of which he knows “nothing” about?

14 September 2020

Gilles de Brock may call himself a graphic designer but to us, he is also a ceramicist, rug maker, engineer, electrician, technician and, in a term potentially encapsulating all of these; an artist. When we last spoke to Gilles – currently based between Antwerp and Amsterdam – the multi-disciplinary creative talked us through his recent experiments, pulling apart the design process which saw useless skills becoming a part of his practice. Back in October of last year, we spoke to him about a machine he had built and programmed to print acrylic paint on paper and textiles.

With time, the project became more about the automation of the design process. As he put it last year: “Understanding how to build your own printer became a metaphor for taking back the production process into your own practice and democratising the tools of automation.” As the interview came to a close, Gilles revealed he was hoping to develop the printer into a five head system that could print on ceramic tiles. And now, having achieved this, he’s back on It’s Nice That to tell us all about it.

While Gilles is still very much a graphic designer in the classical sense where he serves clients and creates graphics, boundaries (whether they are conceptual or technical) are no limitation to him. The CNC (computer numerical control) ceramic printer he’s spent the last two years building, is “a modern interpretation of an old craft with an odd aesthetic that blends a hand made look with mathematical machine precision,” he tells us. As you can imagine, the development process has had its frustrations and joys as Gilles is, after all, a graphic designer attempting to understand the highly complex art of ceramic glazing – not to mention CNC creation.

GalleryCeramic tile compositions (Copyright © Gilles de Brock, 2020)

“Even when a graphic designer would like to make ceramic tiles, building a machine that prints them is usually not the conventional step to take,” he adds on the matter. He wanted to create the authenticity and depth of a ceramic glaze but translated into a graphic form. Something he’s achieved remarkably with his ceramic tile compositions which embody both the physicality of ceramics and the order of graphic design at the same time. Colour has always been an integral aspect of Gilles’ practice, and injecting the vivacity of a ceramic glaze into his work has long been an interest, too.

Prior to this experiment, Gilles played with the the rich, fabric-dyed colours in rugs (as well as rug design) to achieve similar results. “I’m always drawn to techniques that allow colour to be dyed that way which is why I wanted to make carpets and dye the wool myself to begin with,” he says. Delving into the chemical world of oxides, colour mixing, staining and so on, Gilles’ ceramic tile compositions are an impressive culmination of years of colour assessment and technical trialing.

When it came to developing the CNC, “the most frustrating times” occurred as many a bug cropped up in the systems, Gilles admits, “I knew nothing about.” Looking back now, he knows the different between “a solenoid closing and a crashing processor,” but back then, issues such as these are much harder when “you have no idea what questions to ask or even where to ask them.” With reflection he adds, “It’s hard for me to imagine now there was a time where I had no basic skills in engineering and electronics given they are such basic necessitates in my practice currently.”

GalleryCeramic tile compositions (Copyright © Gilles de Brock, 2020)

Eventually however, the machine finally started to work and Gilles could sit back and marvel at his creation. Importantly, the machine’s output (as with most of Gilles’ work) is dictated by the medium. “The visual style can always be brought back to the limitations of the medium,” he explains, “I really enjoy having a tool dictate an aesthetic to me.” He doesn’t seem to think of “limitation” as a restraint, but more like a liberation which “chips away at the vast possibilities usually presented by a blank canvas.” That being said, it meant it was often difficult for Gilles to discern whether a certain quirk of the machine was a bug or in fact, a feature.

Once he was happy with the working technicalities of the machine, Gilles could finally approach his creation as a designer rather than an engineer. Curating the tiles in a myriad of different compositions to tell a different story each time, the resulting works are a highly original set of designs reminiscent of both digital and analogue processes in equal measure. The machine produces one centimetre thick lines which translates to around 70 to 100 pixels per print; a low resolution image in digital terms. “The resolution being that low really forces you to rethink how you approach a design as pretty much everything I made before doesn’t work in that size,” adds Gilles.

So that, in a nut shell, is a short rundown of what Gilles’ been up to recently. To top things off, his ceramic tile compositions have recently been exhibited at Amsterdam’s art show Unfair “which is something [he] never expected to be doing” as a trained graphic designer. Though they work just as well in an art context, for Gilles, the primary intention for these compositions was as an “applied design for interior” of sorts and who knows, in the future, we could see these wonderful specimens filling the walls of restaurants of hotels. As for now, the ever-busy Gilles has a handful of exciting new ventures on the cards including an exhibition at Portland’s Fisk Gallery, a show at Gallery my Monkey in France and an even bigger one at Le Signs come 2022. If that wasn’t enough to look forward to, he’s also collaborating with his favourite Risograph printers, the Seoul-based Corners, in a new publication featuring the ceramic tiles.

GalleryCeramic tile compositions (Copyright © Gilles de Brock, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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