Along with McDermott’s detailed explanation of her recent Coralscapes exhibition at Object Gallery in Sydney, she discusses her design work from concept to installation and product development.

I started out with a real product designer’s approach to lighting, very much about the object itself – detailing, form, materials etc. My latest work is as much about the experience of viewing the light or being in it’s presence. Lights are more than just objects – the med-ium of light itself can reach out beyond the physical limitations of its container. 

Having said that, I am still fussy about product detailing though – can’t help myself! Lights by their nature are fiddly products and demand good resolution of detail, the correct material choice and an awareness of the practical demands (lamp maintenance, cleaning, installation) as well as the poetic side.

Light itself inspires my work. In Australia we have such an abundance of light all year around (how I missed it when I lived in England). I am constantly seeing the way light interacts with forms, textures, colours etc and I keep seeing endless possibilities.

I like materials and technologies – I am always looking for ways to create certain effects. I have worked with embossed textiles (such as in Coralscapes and some of my earlier work) but I also enjoy working with fibre optics – a very under utilised technology though not without it’s challenges.

I am also enjoying learning about the pure medium of lighting itself. For Coralscapes, I worked with Rob Easton (who usually works in event/theatrical lighting) and when we came to the final gelling (applying colours) of the individual lights and the programming for the dimming cycles of Coralscapes it was very exciting. For the first time I finally saw what had been in my mind for a long time.

The unique aspect of light as a medium is that you can change the level of intensity – or even the colour – as the viewer is actually standing there watching, by using chase sequences and colour wheels. I like to think of it as speeding up the natural course of the sun as it moves across the sky.

I have used a synthetic textile for a while and developed a technique for embossing textures onto it. The textile is not particularly malleable so lends itself to simple geometric forms such as cylinders, squares and screens. Latterly, using fibre optic and a heat treatment I have developed, I have been able to get more flowing organic shapes.

The whole Coralscapes project came about as a result of an Australia Council grant for new work. I wanted to place myself in an aquatic environment – and after a great deal of research decided on the Lizard Island research station which provides facilities for marine biologists to study the northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

Every day I went out with the researchers on their boats and snorkeled with an underwater camera (my trusty Olympus with special housing) taking as many images as I could.

I was fortunate enough to have trips at all times of the day – including dawn (spectacular low level lighting) and late afternoon. I was also there for a full coral spawn, which was a once in a lifetime experience even for a marine biologist. The swim through the inky black water at night towards the reef was a bit spooky though!

For Coralscapes, I wanted the viewer to enter the installation and to be immersed in the experience. When you are swimming towards the reef you pass through the bluest of water and the shapes of the reef emerge from the distance. This I abstracted into a series of “water” lights, which you pass to enter the main part of the exhibition.

I designed the shape of the installation to feel like it is wrapped around the viewer. It was a balancing act to get the flowing organic plan but not make it too claustrophobic. There was a slight echo of Monet’s Water Lily cycle in the Orangerie Museum – the way he aimed to encircle the viewer in the sensation of water.

With the coral screens I was partially inspired by traditional Japanese screens. I am interested in the way they combine architecture, interior fitting and fine art. I am trying to blur those boundaries, so you are left wondering ‘Is Coralscapes a giant product which you walk into, or a piece of architecture?’

The main part of the Coralscapes exhibition is the six large-scale screens (1.6m x 1m) which each represents a different species or genus of coral. Each textile screen is mounted on clear polycarbonate and then backlit with several lights, which dim in a cycle. As one set of lights dim another set brightens. We mounted the lights at different angles to also create different effects.

To achieve the success with the background sound effects, I worked with a sound artist Damian Sawyers. He has some original tracks, which had a type of sound I felt was right.

His music suited the pulsing nature of the installation but was not intrusive. I found a scientist who had recorded the sounds of the reef (fish snapping etc) and Damian layered some of these sounds just to add some unexpected qualities to the track.

I like working in the installation milieu, though as an industrial designer you are always agonising about the tiny details as well as the overall effect.

I have huge libraries of digital images I have taken and other references. I have been very strongly influenced by the natural environment up until now. I keep thinking I must move on but new ideas keep presenting themselves.

Even when I do something like the Bling Bling lights, which are all about slick machined materials and intricate jewellery, they still have a feeling of nature about them. I don’t seem to be able to escape it.

Photography and model making are my main ways of working. I tend to use an image and start making small mock-up models either to scale or full size, incorporating a lightsource as soon as possible. With the embossed texture I make lots of small test pieces, emboss small samples of textile and shine lights at different angles through the resulting texture.

The large scale pieces are embossed at a factory so when I come to make the large scale final pieces (as in Coralscapes) I have usually tested the pattern quite extensively so the industrial process goes smoothly and the textile comes off the mould cleanly.

It is a rather painstaking process. I wish I could do it more efficiently. Though with Coralscapes, three of the moulds for the textures were actually CNC machined. The company that did the machining had only done fairly simple outlines before so it was a huge job getting that level of complexity happening.

It meant lots of phone calls and patience on all sides. Dealing with sub-contractors and suppliers is a very important part of any designer’s work.

My practice is veering towards site specific installation type work at the moment, mainly driven by clients – so I am learning about the building industry. However, I still plan to stay involved with mass manufactured product as well, I couldn’t do this type of work without my industrial design background.

I have worked in the design of domestic appliances medical and commercial equipment, furniture and other areas of product design over the years both here and in the UK.

Nothing beats the experience of the hard slog of getting a product out there to teach someone about design. Working with different materials, technologies and in a variety of industries provides you with the know-how and confidence to make it happen.

When you are standing in the middle of a busy factory and they are all looking to you to call the shots on a process it helps to have some experience.   

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