Interview with Paul Van Stone

British sculptor Paul Van Stone and Folk’s Cathal McAteer have a friendship that goes back a long time. They first met years ago when they both had a working space at the Great Western Studios in London.Paul’s wonderful marble heads have been a firm feature in all Folk shops but for the recent opening of the Soho store he also created – in collaboration with Cathal – some stools, tables and bases for lamps. A while ago, we visited him in his outdoor studio in Kilburn to talk about his work, background and ongoing collaborations with Folk.

Great place! How long have you been here?

I took the lease on this building six years ago. I only wanted the car park, so I got the building divided up into sixteen studio’s, which means I’m also a landlord to all these artists now. But it’s a completely non-profit kind of thing. It’s a lovely way to do it. We all came from Great Western Studios, so we all knew each other.

You studied sculpture at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. Why sculpture?

I like making things. Even as a kid I loved messing around and putting things together. I love the physical and mental relationship with an objects. It’s a way of working out ideas, frustrations and for making sense of things. I don’t want to blow it up too much though; I guess I just love making things.

What fascinates you so much about marble?

You could work with it for a lifetime and there will always be something else and I love that. You kind of get stuck trying to get some sort of control. I think I’m very much an artist who works with a material rather than imposing something on it. It’s a cliché but I like the relationship, to discover things as I go along. There are all these different types as well, this palette of colours from these materials from all over the world, from India, Italy and Portugal. It’s a material that has got such wonderful qualities to it. But when you go to a place like Italy it’s a bit like wood; even the guttering is made out of marble! Because it’s just there. But in the process of quarrying it, of cutting it up, getting it on a lorry, it becomes this expensive thing.

Didn’t you work in some of the quarry’s yourself?

Yes, when I left the Royal College in 1991, I went to work for a quarry in Italy. The Carrara marble is probably the most exported marble in the world. I worked in India as well, and was in Jaipur for about 6 months. After coming from an English art school - where it’s all about the individual – it was great going into a workshop like that. There would be a system through the workshop where everyone would only carve certain things. Basically, the more detailed stuff would be carved by someone higher up the technical chain. If you were lower down, you would just be cutting out the shape. They make things that have a tradition; it looks a certain way, has a certain size. It’s a set prescript but within it you get these individual nuances. I quite like that structure even if it’s not the way I work. But it was great to work next to people like that. Not just for the banter but also to pick up technical things.

When you buy a block, can you tell from the outside what the colours and details are going to be like?

You can to a degree. A natural material is frightening and it’s also expensive. But after twenty odd years of buying bits around the world you build up some knowledge; of looking at a material, of throwing water over it, looking at the colour, talking to the quarry men about when they’re quarrying it and how it breaks, how strong they think it is. From all these kind of conversations you build up knowledge. But I also think it’s in your gut. When you walk into a quarry you already get a feeling. For me they are like magical sweetshops and it’s almost always quite immediate which sweets stand out. I must say I’m not very calculating and obviously it leads to mistakes but for me that’s part of it, that’s the beginning of a piece of work.

Apart from Italy and India you also buy marble in Portugal?

Yes, they have these beautiful creamy, pinky marbles. Some of the stools for Folk have been made out of this. The colours are very human and the people are so lovely to deal with. Albert in Portugal is such a lovely man. He knows I’m not going to spend vast amounts of money but I have been buying bits off him for 17 years. So he roughly knows the type of stone I’m looking for and he will put things aside. I found myself in a quarry once standing next to a man from China and he was buying 100 thousand tons of marble. I was looking to probably buy about 22. So building relationships and people taking you seriously and giving you time is really important.

Who would you say you were influenced by?

I think my references come from all over the place. From Zaha Hadid to Henry Moore. Hadid’s work is incredibly sculptural. She understands volume and scale. I worked part-time for Anish Kapoor for 5 years. He had an enormous effect on me and I can still feel that time. I had to leave working for him to progress. But it was a wonderful time; I was putting the technical abilities together and the creative directions but he is also a master at working out how to move forward financially. I think that’s fascinating; business is very creative as well. It’s how artists deal with those challenges.

How do you describe your own work?

It’s quite classical. But then the heads for Folk are quite brutish. I think if you scrape an eye, a nose and a mouth from a bit of stone, you’ve gone back millennia. It’s our original way of making things. Stone is this thing that has been here for millions and millions of years and you’re a part of its life and then it will carry on. I like the mix of how it was used before and how I relate to that pot of different references; to make my own of it and make sense of it.

 What’s it like collaborating with Cathal?

What’s been so wonderful about knowing Cathal, is that he’s very good at coming alongside as a friend and understanding the best bits of you. And taking that from you, but in a very positive way. I love the fact that these designs have a practical as well as an aesthetic purpose. He’s always playing with those two things; with the clothes, the furniture and the lighting as well everything else he does. There is a quality to everything he touches. The onyx table in the new Soho shop was definitely a marrying of what we did (the heads are more me) and I love the way that turned out. It has kept the rawness of the onyx and then it has this processed piece of wood – I think it's African – which is sandwiched between this block of onyx. That table to me is a really good combination of some of the things we have worked on for the last few years. So yeah, it has been great working with him.

Is it different making things that have to be functional as well?

I have always made things that can have a practical use. I like objects that can be that, whether it’s a table or a bench but it can be this extraordinary piece of material. Some artists wouldn’t like their work being sat on, but I actually have no problem with that at all, I quite like the idea of it! I once saw a sculpture of a cow in a temple in India which apparently had been touched for over a thousand years and this polish of human touch was just extraordinary. You felt that history of touch. I like it when things have a history after you.

When you work on something for a long time is it hard to then let it go?

It’s only hard to let it go when it’s not ready to go. There are some sculptures and when I see one of them back I wished I had worked on it longer. Obviously there has to be a finish point, you can’t just carry on. But I couldn’t just stockpile my work, I think selling it and someone owning it, is really important. It’s part of the whole process. It’s wonderful when you’ve made something, you’ve poured everything into it and then someone sees that and loves it and then buys it. There is absolutely nothing better than when you get those two things come together!