Dezeen Magazine

Inflatable sculpture by Steve Messam

Steve Messam creates site-specific inflatable sculptures for Clerkenwell Design Week

British artist Steve Messam has created four inflatable sculptures with spiky and bulbous protrusions that intend to "reimagine the architecture" of their locations at Clerkenwell Design Week.

The project comprises four temporary sculptures erected in different locations across Clerkenwell – a London neighbourhood that is known as a design hub, and the location of the annual Clerkenwell Design Week, which opens today.

Gateway is a six-metre-high sculpture made from a bright blue hand-sewn textile. Characterised by its 27 spikes, the artwork was inserted into the archway of St John's Gate, a medieval gatehouse built in 1504.

Blue Steve Messam-designed inflatable sculpture
Gateway is a spiky inflatable sculpture created by Steve Messam

"I transform or reimagine the architecture," said Messam, explaining his design process.

"In that way, the sites are part of the work, as is the wider environment," the artist told Dezeen.

"By temporarily changing the familiar we get to reevaluate it and look at the building with fresh eyes and how it sits in its wider environment."

Inflatable sculpture inserted into archway of medieval gatehouse in Clerkenwell
The sculpture has been inserted into the archway of a medieval gatehouse in Clerkenwell

"There's also a conversation going on between the solidity of the building and the fragility of what is essentially fabric and air," he added.

The three other sculptures that form the project are rounded inflatables with bulging protrusions. These have been attached to existing London phone boxes – recognisable public utilities that are widely considered to be synonymous with the city.

Red phone box covered with inflatable sculpture featuring protrusions
Messam also wrapped three phone boxes in inflatables

Two of these sculptures, created from red textiles, are attached to K2 phone boxes, which are traditional red kiosks designed by British architect Giles Gilbert Scott in 1924.

The sculptures are located on Clerkenwell Road and outside the neighbourhood's St James's Church, respectively.

The other phone box sculpture is similarly shaped but was designed in a pink hue, and wraps a black K6 kiosk – no longer in use – on Cowcross Street. The K6 phone box model was designed by Scott in 1936 to mark the coronation of King George V.

"The red phone box is an icon of the British street and Clerkenwell was among the first places to receive the first standard kiosk design – the K2 box," explained Messam.

"Clerkenwell is the best place to see this rare early version. The K6 box on Cowcross Street looks at the conundrum of this design legacy – when the phone box is such a key part of the landscape character, what do we do when they have no practical purpose?" considered the artist.

Phone box inflatable sculpture in Clerkenwell
Two of these phone boxes feature red inflatables, while the third is wrapped in a pink sculpture

Messam said that the aim of his project is to highlight Clerkenwell's rich history of design.

"The pieces are just there for three days, but I hope that while they are there the wider vista is transformed so that once they are gone the memory of their existence lasts and becomes part of the historical narrative of this corner of London."

The artist also considered the versatility of inflatable textiles.

"I've been working with textiles for over 20 years in my installations," he reflected.

"Inflatables are an interesting way to use them. You can make things at a scale that would be impractical in other materials for temporary pieces," added Messam.

"They are also a soft touch on their location. I like finding ways to fill a space or wrap it in such a way that there are no fixings into the fabric of the building and using inflated structures is a great way to do that."

Pink inflatable sculpture with bulbous protrusions
The pink inflatable covers a black K6 kiosk, which is no longer in use

Messam used 3D design tool Sketchup to create the sculptures.

The County Durham-based artist previously installed a weight-bearing bridge across a stream in the Lake District using 20,000 sheets of bright red paper. Studio Dennis Vanderbroeck also designed a Guinness World Record-breaking inflatable sculpture informed by ancient statues, which created the centrepiece for fashion brand Diesel's Spring Summer 2023 show at Milan Fashion Week.

Clerkenwell Design Week takes place in London from 23 to 25 May 2023. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.