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Arts: A lateral thinker in the material world

Sam Aloof is a designer whose obsessions are raw materials - paper, cardboard, leather - and perfection.
There are moments when the risky idea that there are such things as ideal forms undergoes a mysterious flash-over and becomes nothing less than the truth. You touch, or hear, or look at something and it is not only delightful and engrossing, but is in some way perfect - as if it could not exist in any other form. The opening chords of Marvin Gaye's "Heard it Through the Grapevine"; the colour and feel of a conker in the hand; the script of Some Like it Hot.

And maybe, just maybe, a strangely beautiful deconstructivist leather- and-plywood handbag that hangs from two lengths of nylon fishing line in the gallery of Brighton University's art department.

The creator of that bag is a nervy, profoundly caffeinated 23-year-old designer called Sam Aloof, who has just graduated with a first - which will not change his condition in the slightest. It is easy to predict that his career will be characterised by an almost desperate, insomniac obsession with raw materials and with perfection.

This obsession went public two weeks ago at the Young Designers exhibition in London. The bag caused a major stir, winning two awards and jerking its creator into sharp focus. Within days Donna Karan had earmarked one to take back to New York, and Aloof had been asked to contribute to Sotheby's Antiques of the Future show, along with established talents such as Thomas Heatherwick. He has also been asked to design a range of innovative rubber baggage for Dalsouple. He is feeling the first shock wave of consultancy requests.

I learnt of Sam Aloof's obsession by accident. The nature of his quest - and therefore his talent - sprang into sharp and delicate relief on an otherwise shambolic evening some months ago. I chanced upon him, in the company of the textile designer Michelle Kostyrka, at the Brighton Arts Club late one night. Around midnight, in our midden of empty bottles, he said: "I've got something to show you", and added: "You might be interested."

He produced, from a buff envelope, what appeared to be a small and unremarkable sheet of white paper. He handed it to me and I examined it. There was obviously something to notice. After about a minute, I saw that the paper had been almost imperceptibly inscribed with precisely set-out straight lines and curves. There was also a single, minute slit in it.

When he saw that I'd twigged it, Aloof took the paper back and, within 30 seconds, had presto-ed it into an intriguing shape: two opposing sides bowed out, the other two were concave; and there was a tiny tab that slotted into a cut at the angle of two of the sides. It was surprisingly sturdy. I was looking at a miniature "designer" container. The form of it seemed perfect, almost archetypal - but of what?

Of corrugated cardboard, as it turned out. For that particular shape was the result of endless experimentation with various grades of corrugated board, supplied by GF Smith. The trigger was Aloof's desire to deliver a mid-year project that made use of a recycled material to create distinctive packaging.

A series of prototype containers using "micro-flute card" resulted; and the key moment - the birth of the luscious but structurally effective form that can also be seen in the shape of his leather and plywood handbag - came when Aloof realised that the containers might be combined en masse. He discovered, with a kind of mounting wonder, that they could be stacked in a variety of interlocking ways.

"What's mind-blowing is that it was unconsidered," he said. "I had thought of structure, but not to that degree. I feel slightly naive. It's kind of humbling - you really do feel that there's something else going on in the design process."

In his case, that something is compulsive investigation: a flat filled with work pieces; endless hands-on experimentation; eddies of wood dust; and conversations that loop endlessly back to design problems. "That's the key to any successful design," he said. "Know the material - cutting it up, thrashing it around. I love understanding materials. It's not about doing it on a fold-program on a computer, because that's all to do with people wanting things faster and faster.

"It's about providing touch, articulation, involvement - the hand contact, the tactility thing," he explained. "It means nothing to look at a piece of GF Smith corrugated board. You have to get hold of it; you should get hold of it."

Aloof's bottom line is a desire to get away from any form that "presents" as a two-dimensional shape. He is drawn to forms that can't be drawn easily; shapes that are dictated by the physical properties of the material - "saving myself the agony of coming up with a form because the material's come up with it". The corrugated board containers, he emphasised, started as "just a floppy piece of paper".

His other navigations - he's like a sailor who has a perfectly good compass but insists that it isn't adequate - have taken him into areas that were previously unknown. The results of his experiments have included chairs made of narrow, L-shaped slats of MDF, and a fascinating, but still undeveloped, print-making process using of Indian ink, "crappy paper rescued from the bins", and progressively photocopied enlargements.

The creation of the handbag - it's already tempting to refer to it, fait accompli, as "the Aloof" - was no different. He knew nothing about leather and very little about plywood apart from the obligatory fascination with chairs by Philippe Starck and Jasper Morrison.

"The thing is this transformation from 2-D to 3-D, the articulation," he explained. "With the bag, I was trying to break people's perception of leather. I wanted to produce something really modern."

It was no great trick for Aloof to realise that the highly effective and practical packaging forms he had developed in corrugated board would translate to 1.5mm thick cowhide - grade 2 shoulder, to be precise; he couldn't afford the top grade.

But the handbag is not just a pretty shape, a bijou item. There is reasoning behind its rhyme. It holds its distinctive form precisely because of the ultra-thin birch plywood layer stitched into its interior.

"The ply is the secret," he said. "The interdependence of materials - one can't work without the other." The detailing is both exquisite and simple: the slightly bowed underside of the hand-moulded cherry wood handles; the four tiny stainless steel tubes - orthodontic tubes, as it happens - that fix the handle to the leather-and-metal junctions.

There's more. The bag is demountable; all the user has to do to render it flat (perhaps before packing it into a Louis Vuitton travelling case, bound for Mustique) is to remove two Clevis pins, which are rather like stubby hairpins.

For Aloof it is a kind of perfection, rather than perfection itself. "I'm obsessed with perfection," he admitted. "I couldn't use a material if I compromised the strength of that material. What I have found in my projects is that, to make something simple-looking, it's a huge process of refinement. But there's been just enough to trigger off the final forms.

"I very rarely remain with one form throughout a project. It evolves quite drastically. The joy is that... it's kind of scary."

A few days after our original "revelation" encounter in the arts club, I called on Aloof to pick up a book on butterflies, which I needed as source material. He presented me with a set of paper "forms" - souvenirs that he'd painstakingly cut out and inscribed earlier that morning. Later, as I was leaving his flat, I noticed a case of pinned butterflies fixed to the wall in his hall, and remarked on them.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Beautiful. Perfect."