According to James Walsh, a designer living in Sydney, just because a manufacturing process has stood the test of time doesn’t mean it’s immune to manipulation. It’s this theory that led to his design Blocks – which has been chosen as a finalist entry in the 2018 Mercedes-Benz Design Award.

For the competition, Walsh designed a range of vases, bowls and water pitchers that challenge the traditional process of slip casting. Blocks is a family of objects all stemming from the same dynamic mould. Made from either ceramics or glass, each is interrelated but able to stand alone both practically and aesthetically. Patterns can be switched around, shifted, twisted and stacked in different configurations.

There’s a noticeable Roman influence to the architecture of Blocks; the pieces have stately columns and exquisitely rendered curves, lending a timelessness to the design. They’re the kinds of objects you might imagine being unearthed fully intact by archaeologists in centuries to come, especially given the quality and durability of the material used. Walsh says his design may be the first object entered into the competition that is not specifically furniture. “I’m not sure if that gives me an edge or throws me under the bus,” he says.

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Walsh studied fine arts before moving to a diploma in product design and eventfully getting into industrial design at RMIT. Last year he moved from Melbourne to Sydney to take up a job at leading design house Vert, where he works on products such as glassware, electronics and wearables.

The award finalists were determined by the mentors – Richard Munao (managing director, Cult); Adele Winteridge (founding director, Foolscap Studio); André Dutkowski (senior product manager, Mercedes-Benz); Katya Wachtel (editorial director, Broadsheet); and Tom Fereday (the 2017 Mercedes-Benz Design Award winner) – who judged the entries blind. Each entry was identified with a number, not a name, and judged on how adequately it answered the brief.

“I can imagine using these beautiful objects in my house and love the solid, almost brutalist nature of its aesthetic,” says Adele Winteridge of Walsh’s entry. “The presentation and the narrative of the product have been well thought out and executed beautifully.”

We spoke to Walsh about the experience of reaching the finalist stage of the 2018 Mercedes-Benz Design Award.

Broadsheet: What’s the inspiration behind your design?
James Walsh: The inspiration came from exploring how forms could be manipulated through the age-old process of slip casting. The process is typically used for bowls and vases and the mould is simplified to increase the speed of production. For my project I increased the complexity of the mould by creating more divisions, which can then be twisted, shifted and flipped to piece together a wide range of configurations. I wanted to challenge the permanency of the moulding process and do so with a range of objects where the shifts in the mould are easily identifiable.

BS: What was your earliest experience with design?
JW: Ever since I can remember my brother and I would be drawing and making things as kids. One of my earliest designs was in high school when we had to make a scaled-down guitar. I decided to make a replica of Eddie Van Halen’s Stratocaster. The guitar was hand-carved out of some scrap timber then hand-painted with red and white stripes.

BS: What was a memorable formative experience in your design training or career?
JW: I spent a semester studying industrial design at University of Technology in Eindhoven, Netherlands, in 2015. I met people who were equally as passionate as I am, and we regularly critiqued each other’s work. These open conversations were able to bring out a wider scope of feedback, which is something I think needs to be encouraged to achieve a higher quality of work. It’s something I try to do as much as possible when working on a new project.

BS: How does your design enhance a space?
JW: Individually this product is an exciting object that demonstrates a simple twist on a traditional process. As a range this product creates a dialogue within the living space because each object – water pitcher, vase, bowl – reflects the others’ details with its own function.

BS: How have you incorporated sustainability into your design?
JW: By highlighting a material (ceramics) that is of high quality and long-lasting. Also by using a dynamic mould that allows me to create a range of different forms and configurations without the need for additional mould materials. With the same material that would create a simple vase I have redesigned the process to be diverse enough to create over 20 forms.

BS: What would it mean to you to win the Mercedes-Benz Design Award 2018?
JW: Just being a finalist gives me affirmation that my own aesthetic is appreciated by others. Winning the award and being distributed by Cult would also put me at a standard among some of Australia’s most influential designers and would kick-start a new product range for me.

Meet our other finalists Zachary Hanna and Tom Hewitt. The winner of the Mercedes-Benz Design Award presented by Broadsheet will be announced at The Cult Design Showroom in Sydney on Thursday February 28.