Dominic Wilcox on playful creativity – Cool Hunting

Cajsa Carlson catches up with the English artist at this year's Design Indaba for an inside look at his open-minded approach.
"Field" from 2009 was an installation of 700 eco-friendly shoes whose laces rose up into the air like growing tendrils.
"Field" from 2009 was an installation of 700 eco-friendly shoes whose laces rose up into the air like growing tendrils.

At last month’s Design Indaba 2015 conference in Cape Town, British artist Dominic Wilcox’s humorous, engaging talk drew the most laughter, as well as audible expressions of awe and wonder. After his time on stage, the crowd's enthusiasm didn't wane; his book signing sessions were filled to capacity. Wilcox, who is from Sunderland in the northeast of England, has amassed a portfolio that spans a wide range of intriguing works. Among the most fascinating are his wonderful watch domes, which are also among his own favorites. Wilcox wondered if the hands on a watch would be able to support small sculptures, and set out to test the idea. The finished products are a prime example of the playfulness that runs throughout his work. They include watch sculptures that feature a man standing cross-armed, refusing to shake another’s hand (hour after hour) and a child hiding behind a tree, another child moving in front of it as the hands spin round.

Many of the artist’s works have a humorous slant and subvert everyday items, turning them into something unexpected. “I’ve discovered that having a playful approach is very helpful to finding ideas,” Wilcox tells CH. “When you find that out, you do it again. I think everyone should have a playful approach, particularly in the first stages of creativity. No matter what the area is, it’s far better to keep the ideas open; don’t close them down. Sometimes there’s a temptation to think, 'What does it do? How do we sell that?' That closes the idea down. I try to keep it open and push it as far as possible. It’s about playfulness, open-mindedness and taking risks, the freedom to make mistakes, whatever they are."

This way of working has led to truly fun, unusual pieces. For example, the Finger Nose Stylus is a device attached to your nose that lets you scroll on your phone while in the bath. Like most of his art, it’s made from whatever materials were most suitable for the project – in this case: a stylus, clay and elastic. Wilcox doesn’t specialize in any one material or technique, instead letting the idea decide. “A lot of my work is based on everyday things and it’s very rare for me to do something in luxury materials," he says. But that doesn’t mean his works aren’t beautiful. For last year's London Design Festival, Wilcox created a driverless car prototype for Dezeen and Mini Frontiers. The concept envisioned how in the year 2059, roads will be so safe that cars can be made of glass. The resulting piece is a stunning car made from stained glass, with a bed inside its cathedral-like exterior. “I’d love to make something visually stunning, but I’m also interested in the concept side. The car is a marriage of the two; there’s a strong idea behind it and a logic – the future is super safe, so why not have a glass car? Some people might think it’s ridiculous, but why not?”

What’s ultimately so fascinating about Wilcox's whimsical, awe-inspiring artworks is the way in which they compel the viewer to see ordinary things in a new light. Among his creations are coat hooks made from paintbrushes, and he has made “binaudios” that allow the listener to hear the sounds of specific places in a city through aural binoculars. “The base object – the brush, the car, the shoe – is a great starting point, because everybody knows what they are, and that’s one of the reasons why I do everyday things: because we already understand what we’re talking about. There’s a shared understanding and then I can twist that; I can change that into something surprising and inventive, hopefully. I think my work is relatable through the everyday," Wilcox explains.

Not all of Wilcox’s many ideas become full-fledged art pieces; some live only in his sketchbook. Many of these paper-bound ideas were collected in his book “Variations on Normal,” which published last year. The tome features ideas like a dual-use coffin/work desk “for those who work hard all their lives and then die” and side signage rings designed to bring more attention to your engagement ring, stating, "Wow, Look, Amazing." At the moment, he’s in the sketchbook-phase concerning a concept related to disabilities. After he was contacted by a disabled person who was interested in one of Wilcox’s ideas, the project began to take shape. “From the absurd and challenging ideas, this is an example of something that comes of that, in terms of helping people with disabilities, so I’m quite happy," Wilcox concludes.

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Watch the Talk with Dominic Wilcox