How to Make It

Time Sensitive

Wava Carpenter

London-based studio Glithero revives bygone photographic techniques to capture lyrically fleeting moments in the making

We’re attracted to obsolete processes,” Sarah van Gameren tells me in a recent phone call. “Older, slower, obsolete processes tend to have a simple framework. And we like simple frameworks, because they are easy to understand. As designers, it is our duty to not only communicate but also be understood.”

Together with her partner Tim Simpson, van Gameren formed Glithero in London in 2008, after the two designers graduated from the Ron Arad-era Design Products course at the Royal College of Art. Like many of their fellow alums—Martino Gamper, Raw Edges, Peter Marigold, to name a few—Glithero takes a hands-on, process-driven approach to create objects and installations that tell compelling stories. And Glithero’s stories almost always center on becoming.

As abstract as this time-dependent concept may seem at first, Glithero posits it to be, in fact, a fertile pathway toward delivering design characterized by an exceptional degree of concrete relatability. The studio aims at, as Van Gameren explains, “capturing how things come to be, the moment when the idea of a thing is no longer just an idea, when it becomes a reality.” A design that embodies a demonstration of its own making, in van Gameren’s telling, helps viewers to “understand it and feel more connected to it.” She and Simpson want no part of generating more generic, disposable stuff, something the world is already too full of. Instead, they envision a kind of 3D poetry that enriches the everyday and holds value over time.

From the beginning, Glithero invested time in ferreting out and developing unconventional yet uncomplicated ways of making that might be employed to preserve “moments of becoming” in 3D form. Thinking about how the element of time might be a vital component of the production processes they seek, they followed a trail of research into the history of photography and various bygone photographic techniques. Early on they came across the work of Anna Atkins, a 19th-century English botanist and photographer, considered the first to publish a book illustrated with photographic images and, according to some, the first woman to create a photograph of any kind. Atkins pioneered the use of cyanography to archive botanical specimens for scientific study.

Before more robust photographic tools were widely available, cyanographic techniques represented the cutting edge of image making: photosensitive chemicals are applied to paper (or fabric), which then becomes a medium for duplicating images as traced copies—hence the term blueprint. Alternatively, as Atkins did with algae and fern specimens, the light-responsive paper is used to create original images of 3D objects that are laid atop and exposed to ultraviolet light over time until a permanent, shadow-like 2D representation emerges.

Left: British Algae Cyanotype Impressions by Anna Atkins, 1843. Right: Blueware Vase by Glithero, 2009. Photo © Petr Krejčí

In Atkins’s cyanographic books of botanical specimens, Glithero found a potent antecedent. The slow, deliberate process of using photosensitive chemicals to freeze a moment in time resonated with the duo’s distinct brand of design thinking, as did the wistful, contemplative aesthetic that results from it—especially when paired with botanical subject matter, an enduring symbol of life’s fleeting nature, and all the more so when viewed with through 21st-century eyes. “It's a way of working that just suits us,” van Gameren tells me, adding, “There’s so much potential because it’s logical but also homeless; it lost its context as culture changed over time.”

The duo further felt an affinity for the intense care and attention to detail that Atkins so clearly devoted to the making of her hand-bound books, a model of the quality they sought through their own committed, studied, hand-on approach. “Every book she made was completely different, each one-of-a-kind, often incorporating specimens from her own meticulously grown and catalogued garden,” van Gameren says. “What she did was a custom process all her own, and she really put 100% effort into getting it just right.”

In 2009, Glithero launched their Blueware Vases, a collection of ceramics that are coated in photosensitive chemicals, overlaid with sprigs of dried herbs, and rotated under UV light until the exposed ceramic surfaces turn vivid blue; where the sprigs are applied, a life-like white shadow remains. Blueware turned out to be a studio-defining project that gave rise to many more. Ever since, Glithero has continued to invent new ways to design works of handcraft that elegantly exploit both the physical traits and affective connotations of time, light, and preserved plant life.

Following on the Blueware Vases, Glithero created Blueware Tiles, Blueware Lampshades, and related commissioned projects that employed cyanographic techniques. The collection overall was well received internationally, and examples were picked up first by Nilufar and later by Gallery FUMI. In the next evolution, Glithero developed their Silverware Vases (2012), made in collaboration with skilled craftspeople in Jingdezhen, China. Like their predecessors, these larger, more refined, hand-turned porcelain vases undergo a time-intensive photographic process. But under the influence of a particular spectrum of light, the silver salts inherent in the material react, and the exposed ceramic surfaces turn to deep satin black instead of blue. In addition, the more intricately detailed botanical markings are formed from seaweed that the designers forage from the English channel rather than wildflowers from London greenspaces.

Botanical specimens and a photographic veil from Glithero's herbarium. Photo © Juuke Schoorl

Over the years, Glithero has amassed a sizable archive of pressed plants and flowers, especially wild-growing, London-area weeds, which van Gameren laments are “sometimes referred to as plants in the wrong place.” The duo sets out every spring to pluck them from public spaces, even cracks in the sidewalks, “taking great care to remove the complete specimen from root to tip, warts and all.” Every specimen is documented before being composed and pressed on herbarium paper for posterity. In a more immediate time frame, the herbarium is used to create the “photographic veils” that become templates for the sgraffitoed patterns on the studio’s Botanical Tiles Collection (2018), available in wide range of custom colors and designs and made to order by highly skilled craftspeople in the Netherlands.

Green Botanical Rug by Glithero. Photo © Petr Krejčí

The latest Glithero project that can trace its roots to the work of Anna Atkins is the Botanical Rugs Collection (2019). The connection may be less apparent than it was in earlier collections, but it’s most definitely there. The floral patterns are drawn from the studio’s herbarium, which was inspired by Atkins in the first place. More subtly, the gradient background colors of the carpets reference hues found in Atkins’s books. While the rugs are primarily hand knotted in wool and linen, strategically placed silk yarns react to ambient light and change appearance according to one’s position and point of view.

Tim Simpson and Sarah van Gameren of Glithero. Photo © Petr Krejčí

Before the call ends, van Gameren notes: “Plants have a relationship with photography. The flower is something that becomes and goes away in a moment. And photography is a collection of moments. We’re fans of being in the moment, so we try to create moments. Success is when people don’t feel removed and find relevance in our work.”

I ask what they’re working now, at a time when the world is moving more slowly and events have been canceled, and she answers: “We have found it to be a really creative time. While working on a newly commissioned Silverware piece, we realized we had time to experiment. And we always wanted to find a way to capture the gestures of our hands in the process. One day in the dark room, we started throwing the treated vases back and forth to each other like basketballs—and we did it! The new collection will launch at FUMI in September.” ◆


Glithero is represented by Gallery FUMI in London