Design: Stretching the limits

The word `rubber' usually elicits a snigger, but designers and artists are starting to take the material seriously. Lesley Gillilan talks to design pioneer Jozefien Gronheid, and finds out how rubber has put bounce into her work

WHEN DUTCH designer Jozefien Gronheid offered to send me samples of her latest Molecule collection, I expected something a little more substantial. There would be vases, she said, and bracelets. Yet here I am, fumbling with a package smaller than a shoe box and as light as a balloon. And what do I find inside? Four squashed tubes of slithery rubber and a funny smell. Does the word "vases", I wonder, mean something quite different in Holland?

"Molecule 2014 is a prototype only," apologises Jozefien in her accompanying note. But, yes, it is a vase, and it's a bracelet, too (once you've cut out the base). The wide, stretchy armlet looks vaguely tribal, though it would probably also conform to the dress-code of a fetish club.

This, of course, is the classic response. Rubber is funny. Rubber is weird. You can raise a laugh or an eyebrow just by saying the word. At night it's kinky, but by day it's banal: the stuff of inner tubes and safety plugs, rubber gloves and wellies, rubber bands and just plain rubbers.

In fashion design terms, it's hard to find the middle ground between the black latex body-suit and the rubber swimming cap. And in furnishing design, it barely has any precedence. Has anyone ever made a rubber vase before?

For Jozefien rubber is not a joke, but "absolutely essential" to the unique Gronheid aesthetic. She has produced, among other things, a rubber footstool, a rubber lounge chair with a velvety latex skin, a series of wall hangings in which a film of fine rubber is stretched over a simple wooden relief, and a range of pendant lamps - seamless sleeves of heat- resistant gossamer latex pulled into extraordinary taut shapes over skeletal steel frames.

In rubber manufacturing circles, Jozefien is regarded as a design pioneer, treading new and difficult ground, breaking down prejudices and "crossing the borders of technology". When she started experimenting with the material six years ago, she was virtually alone in her field. Now, other designers are discovering the joys of rubber, as is demonstrated by a diverse collection of inter-national rubber products (including Jozefien's) showing at the 100% Design exhibition next weekend.

The collection is drawn from the many ideas submitted by entrants to this year's "100% Rubber" design competition sponsored by Dalsouple, specialists in coloured rubber flooring (beloved of architects and seen in airport terminals everywhere).

The idea behind the competition, explains Julie Mellor of Dalsouple, was to "encourage a more contemporary creative approach to using rubber in product design". Launched at 100% Design in 1997, the competition invited designers of all levels and persuasions to "let their talents run wild and feel free to have some fun". And the Dalsouple team were astonished by the response - over 200 entries, at least half of which were submitted by professional designers, some of whom were already in the process of developing or manufacturing rubbery products.

This year, the response has been even greater: 300 entries and a higher percentage of credible ideas: Dubliner, Chris Boyle's high-tension rubber- band shelving units; a protective neck guard designed for hairdressing; the "Airsaddle" inflatable bicycle saddle cover; Deborah Edwards' excitingly rubbery silver jewellery and Isabel Dodd's "gorgeous" velvety fabric printed with Neoprene.

Conceptual entries (models, drawings, computer graphics) include the American-conceived "SuburbaFlex" rubber house ("it's soft, it's colourful ... it's easy to clean"); a Road Rage steering wheel (featuring squeezy bits to help ease tension), and the "Tub Telly", a waterproof television for viewing afloat. Inevitably, there are lots of silly jokes (the rubber cheque book, for example), but the competition has proved refreshingly free of fetishism. In fact, what 100% Rubber demonstrates is a clear recognition of the material's many essential qualities: bouncy, stretchy, non-static, waterproof, non-slip, textured and so on.

"I love the elasticity and the tension in the material," enthuses Jozefien Gronheid. She loves, too, its tactile qualities, its fluidity ("you can mould it like clay or plaster") and its infinite potential for creating flowing, organically sculptural forms. Another persuasive argument for its use is environmental, since it is a totally natural material.

Over a third of the world's rubber comes from Malaysia, though it's indigenous home is Brazil (hence the rubber tree's name: Hevea brasilliensis). It is cultivated in tropical plantations and collected using low-tech farming techniques that have changed little since 1820, when an Englishman, Thomas Hancock, founded the rubber industry by inventing a processing technique that turned an unmanageably sticky sap into a useful material.

The first "Mackintosh" waterproof was made in 1823 and the uses of the material have proliferated ever since. The vast spectrum of modern uses ranges from playground surfaces to prosthetic effects for stage-make up.

Rubber, or what we know as rubber, comes in numerous forms. Natural latex is the real thing (and is favoured by 100% Design entrants), but to provide tyre-standard durability, latex has to be blended with a variety of chemicals (chiefly sulphur and zinc) to produce "vulcanised" rubber. Flooring like Dalsouple's, which has to be tough, durable, and fire retardant, is a compound of latex and petrochemical by-products.

Synthetics, however, reduce latex's natural stretch, or "extensibility", and though latex is attractively eco-friendly, it degrades in sunlight and perishes with age. It oxidises, it smells, and pigments weaken its structure. Rubber is remarkable, but it does have limitations.

According to Ian Thorpe, Managing Director of the Slough Rubber Company (and the man behind the inflatable bicycle saddle), one of the toughest limitations to face the rubber industry is its image. His company specialises in dipping techniques and produces a range of un-sexy goods such as industrial tubing and surgical gloves. There is little, says Ian Thorpe, to rival Britain's rubber manufacturing expertise anywhere else in Europe. And though Slough Rubber may not sound like a name to be reckoned with, he claims to have designers from all over Europe knocking on the door - including Jozefien Gronheid.

Jozefien is there because the company is one of the few prepared to take on the challenge of developing and modifying techniques to make her design concepts a reality. She could not have produced her pendant lamps without an adaptation of the technology that went into creating Slough Rubber's heat-resistant "live-line" gloves (made for electricians). She could not have applied iridescent pigments to her latex vases without the years of pioneering work that have gone into expanding the limited colour range available.

Textile designer Isabel Dodd has also benefited from Slough Rubber's technical support. She screen-prints Neoprene onto microfibres, velvets and cottons to create a richly textural and elasticated 3D surface. "Rubber is a complex material, you have to get to know it," she says, adding that early experiments were fraught with problems. But the factory does not have the time or the resources to solve the design problems of all-comers. And most of its competitors are too overly-industrial to bother with niche- market products.

"It's an exciting time for rubber design," says Robert Scott, one of the industry's top "latex technologists". "But the material still needs a lot of development and there is a severe skills' shortage within the industry. If we had more technologists prepared to get together with designers, the rubber product industry would take off like a rocket."

The truth of this statement is borne out by what Dalsouple refer to as "an extraordinary trend" among designers using rubber floor tiles to add colour and texture to pieces of furniture. Glaswegian design company Shorthouse, for example, produce a series of "Cecily" cabinets; semi-circular mobile cupboards, mounted on castors and clad in textured metallic and coloured rubber Dalsouple "tread-plate" tiles. The Martinsell chair and sofa by furniture designer Rachel Hutchinson are made of white ripple sycamore clad in Dalsouple red rubber, and El Ultimo Grito's simple "mind the gap" coffee table features a sheet rubber top with a loop in the centre for magazine storage. Having won a Blueprint 100% Design award last year, it goes into production (by Punt Mobles) this month.

Such efforts seem almost perfunctory compared to Jozefien Gronheid's trailblazing efforts with latex technology. But, although she claims that "on the whole, people see my work first, then they notice it's made of rubber", she admits she can't shake off rubber's associations with the absurd. When she first handed out her rubber business card at a trade exhibition, people started bending and stroking them. "They were playing with them like babies. It was bizarre," she says.

I have admit to having a similarly childish fascination for one of my Gronheid prototype vases. It sits on my desk; a strangely alien thing in pale pearlised latex, six inches high, surprisingly stable - even when full of water and flowers - and irresistably squidgy. Not only does it demand to be touched, but I'm beginning to think it's found itself a home.

Dalsouple's 100% Rubber exhibition is at 100% Design, Earls Court Two, Warwick Road, London SW5 on Sunday 26th September, 08709 040050. Jozefien Gronheid: Mission, 0171 792 4633. Isabel Dodd: Ray Harris, 0171 221 8052. Rachel Hutchinson, 01672 562936. El Ultimo Grito, 0171 732 6614. Short- house Design, 0141 552 6903. Dalsouple, 01984 667233

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