Park benches that dot the landscape of urban natural spaces scarcely ever step outside the self-imposed perimeters of functionality. Ensconced in the lap of greens, this largely insipid piece of furniture is a potential bridge between people and the nature that envelopes them and a yearned-for opportunity to immerse in stillness in an increasingly fast-paced world. Taking advantage of these untapped locales, Design Exhibition Scotland presents its new project Sitting Pretty, which showcases experimental park bench designs partaking in a temporary exhibition at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. Five new benches created by Scotland-based designers - Rekha Maker, C.A Walac, Andy Campbell (Dress for the Weather) and Stefanie Cheong, Chris Dobson and James Rigler - will be installed from 9 July until 15 October, 2022, encouraging wellbeing, community values, and reflections on human relationships.
What began as an open call with over 60 submissions, culminated in a troupe of five benches that channel everything a public bench can offer, from the joy of sitting outside to the chance to pause for thought or relish a view. “Designed to reflect the sumptuous palette of the Marble Hall inside the house, I've worked to create a piece of luxury for everyone outside,” says Rekha Barry, architect and founder of Rekha Maker, about her bench VISTA. “There are two amazing views here so it was important that the benches looked in both directions, towards the house and the Japanese gardens,” she points out.
Apart from the narrative they establish with people, the designs also relate to Mount Stuart's architectural materials, landscape and the traditional historical design methods that have been adopted on the Isle of Bute. Locally sourced wood and quarried sandstone, recycled plastic, marbled jesmonite, ceramics and scrap metal compose the earthy material palette. Barry’s multifunctional bench amalgamates places to sit and surfaces to place picnics and books, moreover, is also accessible by wheelchair users. Responding to the desire for community-making, the Scottish architect wittingly makes the sitting and the table areas face each other to instigate interactions.
“Free rest, free view, free life,” cross-disciplinary artist and designer C.A. Walac articulates her design. “It will catch a bit of our weight, for minutes or hours, so we can feel lighter. Just for a moment,” she adds. Walac re-cuts, reshapes, recomposes, and recontextualizes debris gathered from around her Glasgow studio using a sculptor's eye and designer's thinking. The sustainable design, form and function of ‘Bending your knees without falling’ evolved organically during assembly. Shapeshifting as a 360° abstract sculpture, the design’s joy and unexpected beauty resides in its randomness.
The collaboration between Andy Campbell of Dress for the Weather and Stefanie Cheong inquires about the juxtaposition of geological material rooted in the past with the ubiquitous contaminant of the Anthropocene: plastic. The consequence was a bench design with a base of sandstone and an inlaid plastic seat made of recycled plastic waste. Exhibiting a monolithic piece of Devonian sandstone which dates back 400 million years, it brings together Dress for the Weather’s interest in meshing ecology and construction and Stefanie Cheong’s exploration of rock formation. “We were inspired to design a bench that disrupts classical ideals of the pleasure garden and the carefully cultivated, well-ordered landscapes often seen within the grounds of stately houses,” the designers explain.
Local traditions were the muse for architect Chris Dobson, who implants local traditional design in brutalist concrete bus shelters found on the Isle of Lewis with his design dubbed Monolith 2022. The structure is a warm embrace to the visitors of Mount Stuart to enjoy the landscape in any weather condition.
For ceramic artist James Rigler, who presented the only indoor bench as part of Sitting Pretty, Gothic arches and marble columns of Mount Stuart’s Marble Hall inspired the theatrical Passing Bench, 2022. “I liked the idea of furniture that speaks the same decorative language as Mount Stuart, yet doesn’t quite fit,” Rigler says. “The imitative materials, exaggerated colours and comic form produce a seductive but unsettling presence,” he adds.
This project strengthens Mount Stuart’s long tradition of commissioning site-specific installations with designs that structure ground users in the natural landscape inspiring reflections on human relationship with nature and each other. In the words of Susanna Beaumont, Director Design Exhibition Scotland, “Benches offer the possibility that somebody can sit next to you creating a kind of hospitality of the outdoors. A bench is a piece of sculpture and then you sit on it and it’s a functional object.”