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An Artist Who Builds Mechanical Lamps in a Cavernous Workshop

By Mier Foo

Frank Buchwald in his studio in Berlin, Germany, next to his work space covered with lathes, welders, and hand tools.
 
Courtesy of MB&F
Frank Buchwald in his studio in Berlin, Germany, next to his work space covered with lathes, welders, and hand tools.

Frank Buchwald has always been drawn to mechanical objects. As a child accompanying his father on business trips abroad, it was the remnants of an industrial past he discovered along the way — steelworks, shipyards and steam engines — that held his attention and terraformed the landscape of his mind. Intrigued by their raw and uncompromising functionality, his artwork now pays homage to the machines which were once the backdrop of his childhood.

The Berlin-based artist works out of a large, capacious studio located in an old-time industrial building, replete with bricks, large windows, dark staircases, antique electric switches, and visible scars from World War II a phantasmagoric projection of the world from which Buchwald draws his inspiration. In other words, an ideal environment for an artist who delights in divergent stimulations.

“My work has to be open, capable of being quickly modified: any detail can change with one stroke at any given time. It's an evolutionary process in motion,” he explains. Although a principle in his art is a deep respect for the function-dictates-form design implicit in such machines, his craft melds mechanical rigour with artistic flair in a way which transcends their practical purpose.

Courtesy of MB&FOne of the artist’s comprehensive sketches of his latest creation for MB&F’s M.A.D.Gallery, the Nixie Machine III.
One of the artist’s comprehensive sketches of his latest creation for MB&F’s M.A.D.Gallery, the Nixie Machine III.
Courtesy of MB&FBuchwald’s Nixie Machine III, the third and final iteration of his Nixie Machine series.
Buchwald’s Nixie Machine III, the third and final iteration of his Nixie Machine series.

It was in this spirit that Buchwald embarked on his Machine Lights series, a collection of majestic hand-crafted lamps featuring an almost anatomical form thanks to their alien-like, four-footed bases and quasi-corporeal symmetry. Describing his creations, Buchwald says, “The attentive observer will not fail to notice that the Machine Lights live from a source other than the hand of man. Although I have worked for over ten years on them, I don’t really regard them as my own work: they are beings in their own nature.”

Initially showcased at the inauguration of the first M.A.D.Gallery in Geneva, the collection was an immediate success and marked the beginning of Buchwald’s long-standing collaboration with MB&F. It comes as no surprise then when MB&F founder Maximilian Büsser offered Buchwald the opportunity to build an electronic timepiece with extremely rare Nixie tubes, he jumped at the chance. Thus began a period of immense fecundity in which the ‘Nixie Machine’ was born.

Courtesy of MB&FThe walls of Buchwald’s workshop are covered with sketches of his machine lights.
The walls of Buchwald’s workshop are covered with sketches of his machine lights.

The latest iteration of this series, the Nixie Machine III, represents the next stage of evolution in Buchwald’s work. Each detail has been meticulously handcrafted: from the design and construction of the clock to the six Nixie tubes fabricated specially by Dalibor Farny. Made of solid stainless steel, the electronic heart of the Nixie Machine III takes on an unprecedented approach to telling time: at the machine’s core are wi-fi enabled electronics, allowing the user full autonomous control and emancipation from manual setup. The qualities of the sublime made manifest in his work evokes a powerful, but subversive concept: beauty is harsh. As Buchwald himself attests, “Qualities of violence or brute force are not suppressed but rather lain bare as essential characteristics of the machine lights.” Buchwald’s futuristic timepieces defy definition, but if anyone can convince us of this dictum, it’s him. 

Below, Buchwald fills up T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.

What is your day like?

I am most creative in the morning. That is why I get up early. If the weather allows it, I cycle through the Berlin City Park to my workshop. Normally, all my local colleagues have lunch together in the backyard of our historic industrial building. That’s always inspiring. Back at my home office, I plan the next day, write e-mails, make sketches. And when it’s summer, and if the day goes particularly well, I still have time for a drink at the beer garden.

Courtesy of MB&FA sketch of Buchwald’s earlier work: the “Type 1” machine light.
A sketch of Buchwald’s earlier work: the “Type 1” machine light.

How do you know when you’re finished with a work?

An artist does not progress with too much self-satisfaction in his own development. I‘m never really happy with my work and that‘s probably the biggest challenge in my art. This is inherent in the nature of this work. 

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

My first art pieces were drawings which I made after my studies. These attracted several publishers who commissioned me for numerous books illustrations in utopian novels.

What’s the first work you ever sold, and for how much?

For a single illustration, I got just 800 in the former German Mark currency. Not much for 10 days of work. But I was satisfied.

Courtesy of MB&FThe “Machine Light XL1” is an upsized version of Buchwald’s “Type 1” design.
The “Machine Light XL1” is an upsized version of Buchwald’s “Type 1” design.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

The design and development of a new model can happen in one of two ways. Of course, there are the magic moments where a picture just presents itself before my eyes, so clear and simple that hardly any modifications are needed to implement the idea. This is something special and rare. It’s strange: usually, the best designs come from that unknown and subconscious place. 

What is the weirdest object in your studio?

It is the workshop itself. My studio is located in an old-time industrial building — bricks, large windows, dark staircases, antique electric switches and wiring, bullet holes from World War II and half the building was blasted away. The entrance is stuffed with steel bars and metal plates.

The heart of my studio is made up of tables covered with welders, hand tools and lathes. Old dark walls are covered with sketches and photos. Rusty pieces of early prototypes, gas masks and other strange things collected from travels and flea markets creating an inspiring atmosphere. Hard to believe that in this cavern, raw steel will be transformed into meticulously manufactured art pieces.

Courtesy of MB&FBuchwald’s workshop — that looks part studio, part laboratory — is located in a building that was once ravaged during World War II.
Buchwald’s workshop — that looks part studio, part laboratory — is located in a building that was once ravaged during World War II.

What music do you play when you’re making art?

Electronic music inspires me. “Deep Dark Progressive House” for example, which fits perfectly to visions of machines. 

Is there a novel or film you always come back to?

I’m a big movie fan and there are so many great movies. I like the cool aesthetic of Kubrick’s “2001” and the theme of artificial intelligence, or the dystopian vision of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”

What are you currently reading?

At the moment I’m reading “Travel Journal” of Michel de Montaigne, his 17-month trip in 1580 from France to Rome, through Germany, Austria, Switzerland. Montaigne, a French country gentleman, recorded his observations on rural customs, antiquities, conversations and thus became a citizen of the world. It’s an exciting view into the past. Recommendable. 

M.B. WegnerFrank Buchwald.
Frank Buchwald.

How many assistants do you have?

Depending on the quantity and complexity of orders I occasionally enlist two to three freelancers.

What’s your favourite artwork by someone else?

There are so many interesting artists. But one of my favourite artists is the Austrian artist Bruno Gironcoli. His monumental surrealistic sculptures of man and machine metamorphoses are incredibly fascinating.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

Procrastinating can be a good thing. For me, it offers the possibility to do things I spontaneously feel like doing. For example, to sit on the bike and go for a ride to Berlin’s lakes and enjoy the nature. It clears my mind and reinvigorates my creativity.