Designer Kyle Bean's smart, humorous sculptures are bringing a new dimension to the world of illustration
Have you seen the chicken made out of eggs? The stick insects made out of matchsticks? Or maybe the weapons made from jelly? These witty models are the creations of British designer Kyle Bean, whose innovative work straddles the boundaries between sculpture, product design and illustration – all with a hefty dollop of humour on top. “I enjoy making visual puns,” he says. “I create analogies, using different materials to highlight a message or meaning.”
What’s unusual about Bean’s work is that although he builds physical sculptures, it’s usually commissioned in a communicative design context – rather than fine art or product design. He’s created his one-off pieces for editorial briefs, print advertising and promotional material, with clients including CUT magazine, the Design Museum, Wallpaper* magazine, Diesel, Selfridges and indeed Computer Arts.
Given the crossovers in his work, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that Bean’s original interests lie in both product and communicative design. “Throughout school I was torn between which to study at university,” he admits. “Eventually I chose the illustration course at Brighton University because it was very concept-based, and there was a wide variety of work on display at open day. But although I spent a lot of time on the course improving my drawing skills, I always felt more at home making physical objects and communicating my ideas in a more tactile way.”
He continues: “It’s funny looking back on it now, because I realise that the interests I had in product design are still very much a part of my work today, despite the fact that the majority of it tends to be commissioned in an illustration or set design context.”
When it came to his final degree show in 2009, Bean took advantage of the opportunity to marry up his interests and establish the unique style that has become his trademark. “I became very interested in the juxtaposition of handcraft and technology, and decided to explore the evolution of technology through my project,” he recalls.
One result of this was ‘Mobile Evolution’, a Russian doll-style model crafted from card, depicting how mobile phones have decreased in size from 1985 to 2009. Each mobile phone splits apart in the middle so that smaller models can fit inside. “This piece became the basis for much of the work that I have created since,” he says. “I’ll often start off with an observation, then place it in a new context through something handcrafted or assembled.”
To keep his ideas fresh, Bean puts a lot of effort into creating personal work in his spare time – which, in turn, often leads to more commissions. One such project is ‘What Came First?’ – a chicken sculpture made entirely from eggshells. Bean shaped the pieces of shell using a Dremel multi-tool and applied them to a papier-mâché base. “It’s a slightly ironic piece that plays on the famous conundrum of the chicken and the egg,” he smiles. “For me, this was a chance to use an unconventional material to show something funny and witty that people would instantly get by glancing at it.”
Bean received a number of commissions off the back of this project, including his Soft Guerrilla series for CUT magazine, which features grenades made out of jelly and a knife crafted from a feather. “The brief was to illustrate an article about guerrilla gardening with some guerrilla warfare-inspired weapons made out of harmless materials,” he explains. “I spent some time thinking about what would be amusing materials to construct these objects from, and looking at soft things that could perhaps form part of a weapon. After coming across a piece of grenade-shaped toy packaging, I decided to use that as a mould for jelly, and I also stuck ice lollies together to create a block of dynamite and made a knife blade from a feather,” he adds.
He has also worked on some large-scale projects, including a window display for high-end department store Selfridges. The project came about after the chain invited artists to pitch ideas: “I was inspired by the law of conversion of mass – matter cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed,” he says. “In each window I showed one object and transformed it in some way, displaying it in two different states, each one hung from either side of a giant set of scales.”
Objects to make the final display included 1,000 aluminium cans compacted into a small cube, with another 1,000 cans arranged, in a grid, into a giant cube on the same scales; and a wedding cake with all of its ingredients hung like a mobile on the other side. Selfridges provided engineers and prop designers to help with the technical aspects, while Bean art-directed the project.
Making his sculptures for commercial purposes does occasionally pose practical difficulties for Bean: “It’s tricky sometimes to explain to clients that handmade objects don’t have an Edit>Undo button,” he confesses. “There have been one or two times when a last-minute Photoshop job has had to be applied to the image. Working this way means that things need to be fairly well planned out first.”
There have also been times when Bean has been forced to take on an assistant to help him complete his projects. “This usually happens when there’s not enough time on projects,” he continues. “I sometimes struggle with space, but I don’t feel I can justify getting a studio, as most of my work is still small enough to be carried out at my desk.”
Bean’s seemingly endless imagination isn’t content with settling on sculptures and he’s keen to move into different fields in the future. “I’m actually working on a stop-frame TV commercial at the moment,” he reveals. “My role involves designing the look of the entire advert and how all the handcrafted elements work together, and it’s really given me a taste for working on more moving-image pieces.” He’s also keen to take his work out of the illustration realm by exhibiting his models. He smiles: “I’d love to use this as chance to show some more personal work and display a mixture of 3D pieces and prints.”
Bean’s love of visual puns is evident in Stick Insects – a striking collection of insects made entirely from matches
What Came First?
‘What Came First?’ is a play on the old chicken-and-egg conundrum. This self-initiated piece won Bean new work
Two images from the Soft Guerrilla series. “I had wanted to work with the photographer Sam Hofman for some time,” reveals Bean