Listen to the conversation between Rosanna and Bronze Age.

Based on the water in Cape Town’s Silo District, Bronze Age Studio is a site of great skill and expertise – a studio that continues to expand and evolve in many different directions. Established by Sculptor, Otto du Plessis, in 1997, Bronze Age specialised as an art foundry, serving the needs of the artists and sculptors who wished to use that most classic of sculptural media – bronze.

The foundry recast itself with a broader remit in 2005 with the arrival of Charles Haupt, developing the studio to include architectural and design applications. An Industrial Designer by training, Haupt had spent two years working in a London art foundry before commencing his collaboration with du Plessis. “[Together] we started what is now known as Bronze Age Studio, working on the one side with art, sculpture and artistic installations, all the way across to working with architects and interior designers, and making products and furniture.”

Translating ideas into bronze is at the core of Bronze Age Studio, whether those ideas originate from within the studio or from its many varied commissions. Their own work blends fine art sculpture with high-fidelity design and functionality; Haupt notes that, “Our studio is a great amalgamation of these two worlds … A lot of the work that we do taps into both sides: it is very hand-crafted and we spend a lot of time on finishing [the pieces], but then there’s the opposite side where we use a lot of modern fabrication technologies.”

“It’s a complete mix of two worlds – we are neither one nor the other, often it’s a little bit of both”

The studio casts bronze using two methods: lost wax casting, a “very traditional sculpture-casting technique”, and it’s more modern equivalent – sand casting. The definition and clarity of the final piece in bronze depends greatly on the skill, precision and care of the maker. Bronze casting requires both time and expertise, as the piece changes form and material many times over throughout the process. “That’s one of the amazing things about casting in bronze – this liquid metal goes through all these transformations and all these different processes to eventually come back to whatever the author – the artist or designer – had originally envisioned.”

Inevitably, the complexity and longevity of the process forges an intimate bond between the maker and the artwork – traces of which remain in the object, which is imbued with a great sense of artistry and meaning. The experience of bronze is somewhat unique – as Haupt notes, “It’s amazing to see this liquid metal come out of a furnace, and it’s 1200-degrees and there are sparks flying … It’s very primal, it’s almost an emotional experience. Even for me, having seen it for so many years, I still like to go watch and experience it.”

The studio’s own designs are deeply rooted in the natural world, whether that be a detailed reproduction of an animal skeleton, or more abstract interpretations of organic forms. The ‘Num Nums’ series of table bases and stands takes its name from the spiky-stemmed, glossy-leafed Num Num plant, a prickly shrub that is native to South Africa. Cast in bronze, the plant’s thorns are enlarged to epic proportions, branching out in every direction – and yet the tangle of sharp spikes does not evoke a sense of foreboding or danger, in fact, it has a certain delicacy and poise. Designed with the lightest of touches, the thorny structure rests lightly on the ground, as if the dense bronze was completely weightless.

“Both Otto and I take a lot of inspiration from nature”

Haupt’s own interest in natural forms has led him towards technology, using parametric modelling in his work in order to, “simulate natural growth systems.” Despite their digital origins, his ‘Tropism’ series feels entirely organic, taking cues from the microscopic structure of a leaf, perhaps, or the concentric pattern from the cross-section of a tree. With a lace-like appearance, some designs have a mathematical regularity, whilst others are more free-form. The bronze stencil creates an interplay between positive and negative space, and so the tables cast intricate shadows underneath their surface, like the dappled light that appears beneath the canopy.

Some of the ideas that are explored at Bronze Age Studio continue in their latest venture – a sister brand called NØDE. Offering a small range of products: currently, a stool, a bench and a side table, NØDE explores the possibilities of aluminium with the same dedication and attention-to-detail with which they have approached bronze. Over the years, Du Plessis and Haupt have developed many innovative finishes, which the studio created in bronze before adapting them for brass and copper – and now, with NØDE, they turn their attention to aluminium.

“We did a lot of experimentation, looking at the surface finishing in terms of texture that we were doing in bronze, and playing around with those techniques on aluminium. We made a library of samples and once we saw what the texture looked like with the anodised aluminium, we knew that it was what we should focus on.”

The process of anodizing aluminium not only strengthens the material, it makes it possible to introduce colour into the surface, achieving a palette of rich and vivid tones. Haupt explains that, “When you are looking at [coloured] anodised aluminium, what you’re seeing is the reflection of the aluminium below the inked surface, and that’s why you get these really vibrant amazing colours. It’s not a coating that’s put over the aluminium, the colour actually becomes part of the surface itself.”

NØDE’s designs and processes have been led entirely by their choice of material, as anodized aluminium requires very specific handling and assembly. “We had to almost work backwards [at NØDE] because you can’t weld anodized aluminium, so we had to ask ourselves how we could connect all the different parts together so that we can use the anodised aluminium.” The solution was to incorporate mechanical fasteners, which have been integrated into the pieces in an understated and pleasing way.

“We worked from the inside out, where the details are the really important thing”

With wildly divergent aesthetics, Bronze Age Studio and NØDE both share a fascination for the potential and possibilities of a single material. Since the beginning of their collaboration, the founders have produced a series of bronze vessels that blur the boundary between fine art and functional design, and although they are made to the same specifications, each bowl features a
unique textured and patinated outer surface, meaning that, “there is never a carbon copy, each is an individual artistic piece.”

Bronze Age Studio’s vessels perfectly embody the duality that is at the heart of the studio – a physical manifestation of an ongoing conversation. Charles Haupt and Otto du Plessis bring their own histories, interests and perspectives to the table – one pulling in one direction and the other in another, with the studio existing in the space between.

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