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A Maker’s Story: Margit Wittig on playing with patina – and finding the perfect amount of imperfection

The act of creation is an intrinsically exploratory process, says the sculptor and designer, whose flat in London is the site of some of her most exciting experiments – not least when it comes to finding the right finish for her pieces. “The possibilities are endless,” she says – and therein lies the joy

Grace McCloud
Ellen Hancock
Harry Cave
A Maker’s Story: Margit Wittig on playing with patina – and finding the perfect amount of imperfection

Working from home takes on a whole new meaning at Margit Wittig’s place. We’re in her apartment – an advert for the airy loveliness of lateral living, found within a handsome red-brick mansion block in Earl’s Court – where the artist has sprawled the tools of her trade across the elegant teak dining table. And the kitchen island. And most of her daughter’s bedroom. “I’m always making something,” she says, surrounded by sketchbooks, tins of verdigris wax and paintbrushes. Such a statement is frankly needless; everywhere you look in this space you’ll see the fruits of Margit’s labours: chandeliers, room dividers, half-finished lamp bases, candlesticks made of towered and dimpled “pearls”. Even the large abstract paintings on the walls are hers. “That way, I know the colours will go.”

Life has always been a creative endeavour for Margit. She was born in Germany to an artist mother, one of three siblings. “To keep us occupied, my mum got us to make things.” Every year come Christmastime, each member of the family was tasked with casting their own tree ornament using melted wax and silicone moulds made by Margit’s mother. From November onwards, the children would be busy knocking on neighbours’ doors, asking for unwanted candle stubs that could be transformed into angels and stars. “My mother was very keen on patina, so we’d then be given some gold powder to make them shine,” says Margit, her own eyes gleaming at the memory. “I suppose that’s when I got the bug.”

Margit’s obsession would, however, lie dormant for a while. She was working as a physiotherapist with two small children when, two decades ago, she retrained as a portrait sculptor. Ever productive, she soon found her flat was positively overflowing with portraits. “I realised it had to stop!” She laughs. “I loved making them, but I soon felt an urge to produce properly useful things. That’s when I made my first floor lamp.”

In the years since, Margit has dedicated herself to many more, as well as the occasional piece of furniture. She models in clay and casts in resin or jesmonite, which are lighter, cheaper and better for experimenting on with paint and wax than bronze. The portraits are still there – sculptural, Giacometti-esque profiles – but now they’re stacked in totemic arrangements, or strung aloft with gentle doves, half-moons and pearlescent orbs. And, always, they are burnished with gold, verdigris or some other eyeshadow-like shimmer, for Margit has inherited her mother’s fascination with patina, she explains. “The possibilities are endless,” she enthuses. Looking around at the myriad Margit creations crowded around us – endless explorations of colour, light and texture – we’re inclined to agree.

“It’s funny, looking back at the switch I made from physiotherapy to portraiture. While of course I didn’t see it then, there is a connection there. It now makes sense to me. Working so closely with the human body as a physio gave me a very good sense of proportion and understanding of anatomy. I know how muscles are connected under the skin, which makes modelling the human form easier. While I no longer model portraits from life, I still draw on that knowledge every day.

“All the actual making of my pieces takes place in a studio. I use clay to explore different shapes, which will eventually become the building blocks of my designs. I couldn’t do that at home! It’s far too messy, as is the casting, which is all done for me by my wonderful sculpting tutor, Tim. He does it on his houseboat in Barking. But applying the patination – which is my favourite part of the process – and the assembly of my lights and other things takes place here.

“There is so much play involved in those stages, so much trial and error, which is intrinsic to making by hand. Take one of my pearls – the round shapes I use for my candlesticks – for instance. They’re never smooth; the surface of each is uneven and textured, full of the marks left by me when I sculpt the mould. This means that when I add the wax or paint I’m using for patina, some will always be left behind in more concentrated patches. I’ll add some, rub it off, add some more… And on and on. And then suddenly it will feel ready. I love the moment when I realise there’s the perfect amount of imperfection in what I’ve done.

“My work is largely done on commission. Sometimes that means I’ve got carte blanche to create something I think my clients would like; sometimes I have to follow quite strict instructions. While that’s another kind of magic, I enjoy that sort of work for different reasons. It forces me to do things that I would never think of myself – use different colour combinations for instance. It can be an eye-opening experience.

“I do quite a bit of painting too. Unlike my lights, which often start life on the page of a sketchbook, my paintings are unplanned – they’re explorations of colour more than anything. I find painting is a far more emotional process, too. If you’re not in the right mood, you can’t do it. Building a lamp, you have to be much more methodical as there are so many steps involved – and while I say I like imperfections, I don’t like imperfections when it comes to how straight the hole is going through one of the cast elements, for instance. That leads to a very wobbly-looking lamp indeed! Things do need to be right – the proportions, the colour combinations and the balance of the elements all need to work. Sometimes, even though I’ll have a sketch to work from, I end up needing to swap things around until it’s successful. That’s all part of the process.

“I know most people come to me for my lighting designs, but as a maker I don’t especially feel confined to just doing that; I paint, I sculpt, I make furniture. I’ve just unwrapped a resin stool/side table I’ve designed, for instance, which has much more surface area to play with. I’m currently working on some designs for Fine Cell Work, the company that educates and employs those in prison to hand-stitch. I’ve taken some of the more recognisable motifs from my pieces and have translated them into embroidered designs, which is very exciting.

“The most useful thing I’ve learned since I started all this – the best piece of advice I can pass on – is the importance of finding some space, of taking a step back. Sometimes, I’ll be building a lamp base and something won’t be working and I won’t be able to work out why. In those moments, I take five minutes – concentrate on something else, take the dog for a walk, make a cup of tea. Inevitably, the knot has loosened when I return to it. Suddenly, it all becomes clear.”

Further reading

Margit Wittig

Margit on Instagram

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