James Shaw reimagines our relationship with materials by translating waste into desirable objects
“In a time where waste is everywhere, I think that trying to find ways to use it and make something desirable out of it is a worthwhile thing to do,” says the London-based designer.
- Lucy Bourton
- 12 November 2021
Designer James Shaw first began working with waste as a student looking to further his work – with the added benefit of saving some funds. “I would always begin by combing the streets for discarded furniture or visiting scrap yards because that’s where I could get materials for free,” he tells It’s Nice That, reflecting on those first steps of embedding sustainability into his product design practice. “Then onwards from that, after I graduated from the RCA and set up on my own, I was getting waste plastic donated at a tonne at a time so it just made sense as a young maker.”
But environmentalism in design has always been a factor in his mind. For instance, James’ family is one the designer describes as hippyish, “with a lot of focus on composting and vegetable growing,” he says. “My parents were quite engaged in the environmental movement my whole life really, so the idea of using waste was something I connect with.”
Today this has grown into a practice that takes thrown away objects, largely plastic-like materials, and translates them into unique imaginings of everyday objects. A product by James – a candle holder, chair, stool or even a drinks trolley – often holds the same traditional structure but is enveloped in a softer recycled shell. Parts of the maker’s experience, the way the material has been deconstructed down and moulded up again, is obvious, too. “I guess I feel that, in a basic way, one of the things design does is make things more desirable,” he adds. “In a time where waste is everywhere, I think that trying to find ways to use it and make something desirable out of it is a worthwhile thing to do.”
Sourcing the materials for his practice comes from a variety of outlets. Sometimes it might involve James heading out to speak to various recycling plants, but often companies get in contact with a specific material they need to deal with. Not everything is usable of course, due to many materials being toxic if reused in another context. However, a recent example is James’ work created while on a residency with the Plastic Art Fair in collaboration with MerTerre, an organisation collecting waste around the Marseille coastline.
The first time the designer had experimented with ocean plastic in particular, “it was so interesting to get to know the material and see how it behaves,” he tells us. “I was surprised by how differently it comes out from the plastic I normally use. The output is a lot more ‘organic’ and rough, which I think is partially because it’s so hard to separate different types of plastic, but also because of the minerals and materials the plastic would have absorbed while it was floating around.” The narrative ocean plastic provides in a reusable context allowed James to discover then “the value, or character of sea plastic,” he describes. In turn, it even posed the question “of whether it could be particular to a place, or have a sort of ‘terroir’,” James continues. “I think this could be really interesting in terms of trying to create a value for this problematic waste product, which could create incentives to clear it up.”
As a practitioner with his studio for the past seven years, and working in the wider design industry for just over a decade, James’ work has been exhibited globally and is held in the permanent collections of MoMA, the V&A through to The Design Museum in Ghent and The Museum of London. The reaction, however, he admits, is “very marmite, some people absolutely hate it and some people really love it.” Its materiality isn’t totally obvious for instance, often leading people to assume it’s ceramic rather than plastic. However they feel, or whatever the questions James’ work poses, the designer leaves up to the viewer. “I would hope that it might encourage people to think about materials in a slightly different way,” he concludes. “I’m really interested in disrupting the things which we use on a daily basis, which is what interests me about door handles, cutlery, or even, toilet roll holders…”
Response & Responsibility – Cop26
During the next two weeks, over 120 world leaders are meeting in Glasgow to agree on the actions needed to pull the earth back from the brink of a climate catastrophe. The most important conference of our lifetime, in response, we are exploring creative responses to the climate crisis throughout the duration of Cop26.
James Shaw: Candle Holder (Copyright © James Shaw, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.