In conversation with Sophie Rowley

Playing with the idea of illusions and perceptions of materials were the basis of Sophie Rowley’s graduate collection, Material Illusions. Sophie manages to repurpose common materials such as denim, paper, styrofoam and unusual cuts of glass and manipulate them so that they take on the appearance natural forms (in the words of Rowley, “[They] become more accepting towards an engineered ‘nature’.”  By pushing these materials through a series of processes, they have the ability to be redefined as a new kind of material. The project’s main aim is to question our current relationship with  materiality in a time when industry is dominated by increasingly man-made realities. You can currently find her working as part of the Studio TOOGOOD team but I wanted to delve further into Sophie’s mind…



Sophie, can you tell me a little bit about you and your practice?

Coming from a fashion and textile background I have over the past years expanded my knowledge by stepping into more material and product based designs.

Therefore, in my work I am mostly interested in a multidisciplinary approach to projects concerning materials, textiles, products, research and fashion – Where these disciplines inform each other, design becomes interesting to me and can lead to innovation.

The experimentation with the material itself is key to my work and characterises the design process. Hence why I often start with the material and allow the application of it and its form to develop afterwards. A diverse background and the requirement of a broad set of skills from very different crafts and disciplines allow me to merge and crossover design ‘rules’ and to apply materials and techniques in unexpected ways.

Your Graduate Collection, Material Illusions, focused heavily on experimentation of materials seeing you use denim , marble and unusual  cuts of glass to produce a set of stunning objects, where did this project evolve from ?

The starting point for the project was the idea to create illusions through materiality, by re-engineering waste.

I had therefore collected a series of mundane everyday materials and was experimenting with these to explore alternative properties – I have always had an interest in very ephemeral overlooked materials. With these materials I went to all the workshops we had and started applying several different processes to them. I had a lot of failures but also a lot of surprising results. It trained me to think of materials and processes in a very broad way.

Then, I set myself a parameter for the success of my experimentation which was that the material, in its new stage, would simulate a natural material (eg. wood or stone) so that the original material would not be recognisable any more.


Sophie Rowley Materials + Closeup


Working with Illusions and playing with objects which aren’t what you think seems to be an emerging trend amongst  young designers, what do you think is the driving force behind this movement?

It appears to me that today, we seem to be expecting more from materials – we want them to speak, to offer us an experience, to surprise us, to play with our perceptions. There seems to be a general shift in value, where we can appreciate an experience embedded into the design over simply nice designs. Illusions have a strong power:  distorting reality and taking the control of our minds. My project Material Illusions was all about tricking the viewer and making him believe that the materials I created were of natural origin.

So it became almost a game, where you had to look very closely to understand the materials.  I like to engage viewers by playing with the preconceptions we have towards materials and the expectations towards their properties and their usage. I was asking, what is false? What is reality? What is fake? What is natural? It allows us to see longtime value in these ephemeral materials.


Your background began in fashion but after completing The Materials Future MA, your work seems to include a variety of forms and materials. What would you say has been the biggest learning curve from completing your Masters?

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Engaging with the different machines and tools and learning a variety of new processes was very interesting for me.

But also the research side of the MA, trend analysis, consumer behaviour, design theory, sustainability, scenario building, … I was tapping into completely new fields.  It was not about creating beautiful objects but also about having meaning and reasoning behind what we design.


BAHIA – DENIM stool + close up

What has been the most surprising and intriguing material you have ever worked with ?

The most surprising material for me was the blue foam. I had managed to get it to a bubbly, plasticky blue piece of material.

I then put it in the sandblaster and sanded it. When I took it out it looked so natural, like a blue coral. I was very surprised by that unexpected transformation.

A lot of the materials you use are manmade and accessible,  however your reworking of them assigns them with an almost natural quality, is this crossover a conscious decision?

As I mentioned before the natural aesthetic became a self set parameter for the success of my sampling. To begin with my sampling had been very intuitibe and there was no structure in what I was making. I then realised that when taking the ‘failed’ material experiments out, the samples I was left with all fitted together very harmoniously. They all looked very natural materials such as stones, corals, shells, …

I then continued to achieve these nature-like aesthetics with other materials.Often it was about replicating processes that we can see in nature such as the layering of materials, which you can see in the earth’s sediments.

KAIBAB Sponge bowls + A range of Materials

I know you are currently working as Part of the Studio TooGood team. How does working as part of a collective differ from your own independent practice?

It is totally different. I love working in a team, and it is great since we all come from different backgrounds and everyone is an expert in their field. So we are constantly asking each other about different materials, processes, artists/designers, … The other day, my colleague built me a machine out of a chair that can speed up the production process. That was very impressive!

Finally What does the future hold for Sophie Rowley ?

For now I am very happy to design in a studio, I am learning a lot!

However there are many projects that I want to explore. I would like to do some more three-dimensional surface experimentations and I am sure that I will continue with some of the materials from my Material Illusions project. It will be good to revisit it with fresh eyes!



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