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Naturally False

Els Woldhek has developed a collection of furniture and jewellery made from copper plating in which the material and technique is completely left to its own devices.

By Katie Dominy / 15-07-2010

Dutch designer Els Woldhek - working under the studio name Whatels - has just graduated from London’s Royal College of Art’s (RCA) Masters Design Products course with a collection entitled Naturally False. Woldhek’s pieces are built up from thin sticks of veneered wood that become bound together through a copper plating technique; the growth of fine copper wires into strong joints that form around and through the wood. 

Design.nl asked Woldhek how she first became interested in the copper plating process. “The first time I found copper plating was for my bachelor graduation at the Design Academy Eindhoven when I was researching industrial metal techniques and went to visit a electro-plating factory. There I found the beauty of the copper plating process. At the Royal College of Art I then continued with the process, as I found that I could make my own large plating tank. Which enabled me to play with other materials and possibilities.”

For her masters graduation project, Woldhek has now combined copper plating with wood veneer. Both materials are normally seen as surface decorative finishes, but here they become literally ‘self-supporting.’ Woldhek explains, “This growth (of the copper) is a natural effect that occurs when the technique is left to its own devices. The eventual structures are created by thin deformed shapes and surfaces made from veneer strengthened and shaped by the copper plating. Each structure and surface is unique.”

As for the technical details, “Copper plating is a process based on electricity. The process takes place in a copper sulphate acid solution. In this solution hangs a copper bar called the ‘anode’ and the product to be plated called the ‘cathode.’ The anode becomes the positive pole in the system, the cathode the negative. A small current of about one volt is then run through the system. This then makes the anode release its copper into the solution, in which the negative pole (the product) attracts it. On the product the copper settles down and forms a layer. Where the copper in the solution can reach the cathode more easily the copper build up goes faster and the layer grows thicker. This is how the natural looking growth shapes itself.

The collection initially comprised a series of structures for shelving and two lamps, eventually extending into jewellery. “As I was working on the shelving structures and lamps it became apparent that the process and the material result in itself caries a lot of beauty and fascination. Thus the step to making them into jewellery became quit simple. The jewellery also functions as a bit of a bridge, as the process and materials are more comprehensible on a small scale. When looking at the result in more detail, it is easier to see and understand what has taken place during the electro-plating process.”

How does Woldhek plan to take this project further? “The next step in this project will be to see if it is possible to set up my own plating tank outside of the college so I can continue on with the process. This will then go onto two routes, one will stay very research based, the other will be all about working on the pieces I have done up until now; playing with the design of the shelves and lamps and finding the balance between design and material freedom.”

“Another step I would love to take, is to work on in collaboration with industry; finding ways how this approach to the process could fit into a more industrial landscape and seeing what new designs and opportunities would come out of that.”

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