How does one deliberate on materials, treating and submitting them to forms that portray pleasingly contrarian miens? Can objects in marble look as light as pillowcases, or glass mirrors seem as heavy as stone sculptures or steel tables appear as slender and soft as sheets of spread fabric?
Mastering thinking and making in equal measure, Belgian designer, furniture maker, and craftsman Ben Storms is on a quest to push the established limits, ideals, and boundaries of materials, questioning the conventional notions attached to them. Ascribing strength and natural beauty to raw materials, Storms employs state-of-the-art techniques to transform them into captivating shapes and product designs that ‘defy expectations,’ embodying sensuality, intrigue, and surprise.
“In my practice as a designer, I push materials to their boundaries, often questioning common notions. Does marble always have to look heavy? Can steel look soft? By creating shapes that verge on the impossible, I confuse the viewers, make them lose their balance briefly, and stimulate them to look at familiar materials with a fresh eye… In my design process, I always start from raw materials. I like to work with solid materials that have been used for centuries, such as marble or steel. After all, I am the son of a stonemason. I love these materials for their natural beauty and strength,” Storms iterates.
Focusing on the materiality as much as the results that ensue, Storms’ modern craftsmanship assays ‘transformational techniques’ that are paradoxical—for instance, the designer employs both centuries-old practices such as the laborious sanding and polishing of marble, as much as the ultramodern techniques of 3D scanning or CNC milling to create his sculptural pieces. “It is in this meeting of extremes that my works are nestled,” Storms reveals.
His award-winning In Vein table design and mirror embody simplicity, mobility, and efficiency, subverting the archetypical piece of furniture design by crowning it with a sleek marble top. The trestle table challenges material associations of marble’s weight and solidity, by making it look featherlight. Here, the contemporary designer employed a hydro-forming technique, where a stainless steel sheet was shaped into an organic form utilising water pressure, crafting an element that supports the ultra-thin marble top layer while strengthening the table. “This design pushes the boundaries of the material: it might be the lightest marble trestle table ever made,” Storms maintains. The marble tabletop can be turned and placed against a wall, to double up as a mirroring sculptural object.
The In Hale coffee table is monumental in its form and presence, made of a massive marble piece that seems afloat atop a metal cushion. Storms developed the idea for this furniture while studying a piece of leftover marble—"The pieces of marble, carefully selected in quarries all over Europe, are left to show their natural beauty, only polished where needed but kept rough and unpolished on the lower side,” the Belgian furniture designer explains. For the precious marble table, Storms then created a three-dimensional cushion by inflating sheet metal, which in its final form gives the impression of defying gravity.
In conjunction, Storms employs the same technique of blowing up metal sheets for the Ex Hale marble table, following the processes first used for his In Vein and In Hale tables. This marble table design apes the shape of an enormous cushion here as well, following a transformation of materials. “The resulting cushion shape is then scanned in 3D, after which a CNC machine mills the same shape from a block of marble. Ex Hale plays with our common notions of materiality: the hard stone looks soft instead, an impression that is further enhanced by the delicate surface treatment,” the product designer elaborates. The names of the In Hale and Ex Hale objects simply refer to Storms’ blowing technique employed while shaping the pieces out of metal.
Playing with the preconceptions of observers yet again is the ‘Twins Mirror,’ which takes on an unexpected shape of steel in the form of an abstract sculpture—the polished finishing of the marble here distorts the common notions of these materials’ appearances. These two identically shaped, wall-mounted, and inflated mirrors (one in stainless steel and the other in Noir de Mazy marble) look more like art pieces than functional products, owing to their form and material demeanour. Storms explains further, “As early as the 18th century, artists interpreted nature by ‘flattering’ the surroundings using a Claude glass, or ‘miroir noir’: a device that helped abstract the depicted landscape by reflecting a reduced and simplified interpretation of reality. The Twins Mirror can be seen as a contemporary take on this idea, giving room to a twisted, distorted version of reality.”
“The process of inflating sheet metal into a three-dimensional shape creates a specific and recognisable form language that reinforces the material structurally while giving it a lightweight look. The marble mirror is an exact copy of the steel mirror: after inflating the steel, it is 3D scanned and CNC-milled in Noir de Mazy, an exquisite Belgian marble known for its deep black. After machining, the marble is sanded and polished by hand, a process that takes days,” he continues.
Thinking in terms of materials, the product designer based out of Antwerp, Belgium has continued to master his craft as a stonemason, sculptor, and woodworker, often combining traditional techniques with high-tech processes associated with contemporary designs, to create his distinct, sculptural, and delightfully contemporary oeuvre. He is also part of the Brut Collective, a dynamic group of five emerging Belgian designers who value the significance of collaboration and collective involvement within the contemporary and international design landscape, focusing on the architectural, sculptural, and emotional potential of design.
In conversation with STIR, Storms articulates his experimental journey navigating the demanding design landscape, and what it takes to ideate and deliver unique, sensible, and abstracted sculptural designs that ‘verge on the impossible.’
Jincy Iype: Ben, would you like to begin by telling us about your journey in design till date?
Ben Storms: My design journey began with the creation of the In Vein table/ mirror, which features a lightweight marble tabletop which can be positioned vertically against a wall, to double up as a mirror. In Vein marked the culmination of a 1-year long design course that I undertook in my hometown of Mechelen. This project served as the launch pad for my design studio, enjoying ‘instant success,’ meaning, it granted me access to numerous national and a few international fairs and exhibitions. However, it took some time for sales to gain momentum due to the cost associated with the materials and techniques used. This was approximately a decade ago.
During that period, I started conversations with various galleries, with one of my early collaborations being with L'Eclaireur in Paris. Subsequently, I signed a contract with a prominent player in the collectible design market, though, regrettably, this endeavour did not take off as expected. Nonetheless, these experiences increasingly directed me towards the realm of sculptural design.
Simultaneously, I decided to sell my pieces directly to clients, opting not to engage in further collaborations during that time. This approach granted me a certain level of independence. Today, I continue to sell directly, but I have also established partnerships with a select few galleries including Garde in L.A., 88th Gallery in London, and Objet d'Art in Tokyo.
In Vein remains an integral part of my collection to this day, and all subsequent pieces in my portfolio maintain a connection to it. Whether through the choice of materials, techniques, or design approaches, you can trace a continuous thread linking one piece to another.
Jincy: So, they become an extended design family of sorts. That is oddly comforting. In the same vein, what does it mean to ‘think in terms of materials’? What common notions are you questioning through your family of designs?
Ben: To begin, a significant portion of my designs takes shape within the workshop environment. Typically, the process commences with an initial idea or concept. Subsequently, we embark on the practical creation of a prototype—a process that is often riddled with experimentation. In these moments, unexpected occurrences and unanticipated material behaviour frequently arise, yielding intriguing outcomes. It's precisely within these instances of unpredictability that I draw inspiration. While prototyping a single new work, I often discover inspiration for several other pieces during this experimental phase.
I think we could instead interpret or re-read this sentence as 'thinking in terms of materials and techniques.' I find it captivating to explore various techniques in combination with specific materials to understand how they interact.
A fundamental aspect of my practice is the deliberate use of methods that remain somewhat beyond my complete control. For instance, when I apply force to shape a metal surface against a rugged piece of marble, forcing the metal to adapt to the shape of the stone and provide support for a table, it introduces an element of balance. This approach, essentially a subtle 'trick,' often results in the creation of objects characterised by equilibrium, beauty, and an element of surprise. Even I am unable to predict how the shape of the metal will come out, which makes each piece fittingly unique.
I believe my work plays with the features, limits, and expectations, of a certain material and the common techniques that are interlinked with that material. Often, I will try to go against what one would expect, perhaps to look for the limits of a material or technique.
Jincy: Relatedly, what are some of your favourite materials to work with, and how do you give them shapes that ‘verge on the impossible’?
Ben: I wouldn't say I have an affinity towards a single material, but I do have a profound appreciation towards working with marble and metal. Over the past two years, I’ve made a few pieces in casted glass, a material/ technique that blows my mind because it keeps many secrets from me.
As for the phrase 'verge on the impossible,' while it does appear in my previous texts, I believe it may be a bit too grandiose for characterising my practice (laughs). However, it could indeed describe my work In Vein, a table that features a 4 mm-thin marble slab supported by only two trestles and can be carried by two individuals. With this work, I tried to go against all characteristics one thinks of when thinking of marble as a design material.
Jincy: You also mention—“By creating shapes that verge on the impossible, I confuse the viewers, make them lose their balance briefly, and stimulate them to look at familiar materials with a fresh eye.” Why is this central to your practice as a product and furniture designer?
Ben: I believe that as creators, we naturally seek to capture the viewer's attention. It's essential to pique their interest. I find that the allure of the unexpected is a compelling force in my work.
For instance, take a 1-ton piece of marble seemingly resting on a delicate metal pillow, or consider the illusion of a blown shape within the black marble of my 'Twins Mirror,' similar to the marble wall pieces that appear as if they've been sculpted by the forces of air, akin to their metal counterparts.
Jincy: Who or what are some of your perpetual design inspirations?
Ben: In the beginning of my practice, I was looking more toward arts than design, Giuseppe Penone’s work is very attractive to me: one of his works was directly inspired to make a mirroring bench called In Vert, that hangs between the trunks of two living trees. The tree trunks were supposed to grow around the bench, becoming one with it. Similarly, Ron Arad’s work has been inspiring for sure. Today, the work by Vincenzo De Cotiis is just incredible.
Jincy: What is your vision for your practice? What is NEXT for you?
Ben: Good question… But I wish I had the answer. My practice and my journey feels like a rollercoaster since day one. Although, I wish I had a plan. I think the reality is more organic, for me at least. I don’t feel that I can shape this journey entirely. At the moment, the studio is growing and this is a different focus, but it is necessary. I am looking forward to produce new work on a regular basis, and I’d like to keep working within the field of art and design, with a bigger focus on the sculptural aspect of my work.