A visit to Camilla Barnard’s wonderfully quirky East London studio

Knock on Wood

By Nick Compton

Camilla Barnard, the young British sculptor, maker, and multi-dimensional cartoonist, should be frenzied. There should be fear and panic in her eyes. It is early April, and in just days, like thousands of other creatives of many stripes, Barnard will be exhibiting at the mother of all design fairs, Salone del Mobile in Milan. But in her studio, amongst her deliberately-a-bit-badly-drawn-on-dead-wood drills, boom-boxes, studio lights, smart phones, and toasters (toast included, of course), Barnard is all quiet calm.

On the walls are her expertly badly drawn drawings; approximations of everyday familiar objects made odd and unfamiliar. There are bad jokes; what she calls, and everyone will recognize as, “Dad humor.” This is what Barnard does—makes your world a strange, disorienting, but still rather charming, childish cartoon place where nothing does what you expect it to. Or anything much at all.

Barnard is taking Italian wooden things to Milan: wooden pasta that you can't eat, wooden coffee makers that don't make coffee. And she will paint them live in front of whoever wants to hang around and watch.

She likes adding a performance element to her work. For her I've got wood - what do you want me to do with it? outing at last September’s London Design Festival, she installed a slightly wonky, game show style spinning wheel on her stand. Around the wheel were the names of a range of household objects and gadgetry. Astoundingly, she promised to carve and paint a version of whatever object was picked by the wheel in under an hour.

Barnard was showing as part of a Designersblock event, as she will in Milan. Exhibition organizers, curators, and patrons, Designersblock took Barnard under their wing in early 2012, six months after she had graduated from Brighton University with a degree in Materials Practice.

It was, she says, a real maker’s course, working with wood, metal, ceramics, and plastic. She started producing her 3D illustrations for her degree show. For a few months, she sat around thinking about where and how else she might make a living, unclear how she might profit from her cartoon carvings. But Designersblock saw potential and offered her a space at one of their UK exhibitions. Designersblock also offered Barnard studio space at their HQ; which for all the world looks like a rather badly-drawn, semi-derelict Victorian pub in Hoxton in East London. (The building is actually owned by the nearby Geffrye Museum, dedicated to charting 400 years of stylistic shifts in British interiors.)

It’s a bit Beano, a bit Wallace and Gromit, a little bit David Shrigley.

an illustration for Designersblock © Baker & Evans for L'AB/Pamono

It was an appearance at the Designersblock event at last year’s Salone del Mobile that really got things moving for her, though. She was soon commissioned by the US store Anthropologie to produce props for a window display. Paul Smith then asked her to do similar and she made cameras that didn't shoot and record players that didn’t play.

Barnard is now looking to go bigger with her work, and, thus, for the kind of “crazy commissions” that would allow this. She would like to build a full-scale model of a Spitfire, the legendary fighter plane with which Winston Churchill's ‘few repelled the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. (By her own admission, Barnard's preoccupations and humor, "terrible puns and wordplay" as she says, are peculiarly British. It’s a bit Beano, a bit Wallace and Gromit, a little bit David Shrigley.)

She is also experimenting with electro-conductive ink, which allows her to add functionality to her designs but not in the way you would expect. A wooden light switch that doesn't actually switch can still turn on a light. She wants to build a grand piano that would play recordings of the right note when its immovable wooden ivories where tickled. She is also experimenting with anamorphic drawings that spring to life when viewed through a smart phone's camera. For now, though, she has a batch of more-than-a-bit-wrong rigatoni to be getting on with.


  • Text by

    • Nick Compton

      Nick Compton

      Nick is a writer and editor based in London. He is also Senior Contributing Editor at Wallpaper*, where he was previously Features Director for nine years.
  • Images by

    • Baker & Evans

      Baker & Evans

      Daniel Evans and Brendan Baker are a London-based photographic duo. They  began working together in 2011, their final year of university. They've since gone on to shoot for the likes of Wallpaper*, Dazed&Confused, and Topshop, among others.