Sinéad Cooke re-purposes waste plastic and combines it with silver in her work, creating striking pieces of jewellery that challenge our perceptions of what is precious. Meanwhile Margherita Potenza has created her latest jewellery collection after being inspired by wax, producing pieces that capture the delicate fluidity of hot wax.
Tell us the story behind you and your business. How did you become interested in design?
Margherita: I’ve always been interested in drawing and materials. My mother used to work as a costume designer for the opera, and I used to spend a lot of time in the workshop after school. I would roam around the studios, play with fabric offcuts and steal all sorts of plastic beads, fake stones, metal studs… The combination of these two attractions got me to an undergraduate course in Applied Arts in Milan, and from there I made my way into goldsmithing and jewellery design.
Sinéad: I have been interested in making things all my life. I was around nine when I made my first necklace and jewellery has been a part of my life ever since.
Where did you study and what was the most useful thing you learnt from / best things about your course?
Margherita: I did my Master at the Royal College of Art’s Jewellery and Metal department. It’s a course I really looked up to as most of my favourite jewellery designers graduated from there. Looking back I think the best thing about it is the freedom you are given, both conceptually and practically, and the absence of hierarchy that brings students and tutors together on the same intellectual level. The best lesson I learnt while at RCA is to be curious, to be adventurous and to not be scared to bring my work to unexpected places.
Sinéad: After a number of years working in the commercial jewellery trade I decided to return to education to earn my degree in design. I studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, and during my time there was encouraged to explore alternative materials and push myself to work in ways that were new to me. I remember one tutor saying to me, “We know you can do this, and that you will do it very well, show us something new, something you have never done before.” As a result I began looking for a material I had no previous knowledge of. Right from the beginning the first alternative material that came to mind was plastic. It is everywhere and used in many aspects of our lives.
What inspired you to start your business?
Margherita: I started my business so I could bring together a number of projects that would not fit in other contexts. If one aspect of my practice is quite abstract and distant from the realm of jewellery, another is still very tightly connected to making, and I wanted to make room for it. So setting up my business was a way to create a space where I could bring together the limited editions of objects, the bespoken pieces and the design collaborations I had created separately so far. I think of it more as of a studio where different making projects can fit rather than solely a jewellery brand.
Sinéad: The decision to start making work and putting it out there, in other words to start a business, just seemed like the natural next step after college. I want to make the kind of work that is interesting and challenges me. I also wanted to be in charge, so the only way to do all of that is to be your own boss.
Give us an insight into your thought process to design your work – where does your inspiration come from?
Margherita: My inspirations usually come from direct impressions of people and places, so I like to walk or cycle around by myself and look around. Other great sources of inspiration are my friends and the people whose work I respect: a good conversation can turn my world upside down. This is also why my work is often based on collaborations: I like to get inspiring people involved with my projects.
Sinéad: With my jewellery the inspiration came directly from the material. While I knew I wanted to work with plastic, I also didn’t want to produce pieces that would be considered cheap or disposable. As a result of taking time to consider how I felt about the material the meaning of material choices became increasingly important to the work. I was actually making a cup of tea, thinking about a project, and started to look more closely at the plastic bottle the milk was in. I emptied the bottle, washed it and began cutting it up. I’ve been working with plastic milk bottles ever since!
What materials, methods and tools do you use to make your products? / What one technique, material or tool could you not live without?
Margherita: From working with a very wide range of materials – from found wood to fabric to porcelain – I recently have focused my interest in lost wax, a traditional technique through which a wax carving is cast into metal. But otherwise I believe that a designer shouldn’t be tied to a specific kind of making: the nature of a project dictates the use of a certain material, not the other way round. The tools I never part myself from are my notebook and a roller pen – not a ball pen, they’re no good for drawing!
Sinéad: My work is a combination of traditional goldsmith skills and my own particular method of working with waste plastic. Recently I have been trying out resin to add to the metal and plastic. Resin is a material I have never worked with before and I am interested to see what I can achieve with it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? / What piece of advice would you give to this year’s graduates?
Margherita: The best piece of advice I was ever given came from Daniel Clarke, a jewellery artist who I met during my time at RCA, where he was a visiting lecturer. What he taught me is to always ask ‘Why?’. Why do I make what I make? Why do I want to do what I do? I would give the same advice to this year’s graduates: always ask yourself why, keep asking until you get the most honest, heartfelt answer.
Sinéad: The best advice I have been given is not to be afraid to fail. If you never try you’ll never know. And I think that is the same thing I would say to anyone thinking about starting. Just give it a go, see what happens. What’s the worst that could happen?
What have you designed that you’re most proud of? / What project are you most excited about at the moment?
Margherita: A design I am still very proud of is one of the first pieces of jewellery I ever made, a chain corset with brass medals. It covers the torso, the shoulder and the hips, so it’s quite a statement piece. I made it at a time when I had almost no knowledge about jewellery and am really proud of how I took up the challenge. The project I am most excited about at the moment is actually secret, I cannot talk about it as it has not been exhibited yet and we want to keep it for us until it’s produced… all I can say is that it is a piece of bathroom furniture, it was conceived in collaboration with the artist Daniele de Carolis and it’s being developed with the support of Fonderia Battaglia, an historical foundry in Milan
Where do you want to be One Year On from now?
Margherita: One year on from now I want to be in my own studio working on my next jewellery edition, a set of pieces about flower language that has been tingling my mind for over five months now.
Sinéad: I hope that in a year from now I will continue to be doing what I am doing now, making new work, trying new things, still interested in exploring ideas. I hope I can do all those things and earn a modest living along the way.