Manchester-based craftsman Liam Hopkins discusses the power of design, changing creative direction and why he had to strike out on his own.
Liam Hopkins’ love of materials began at a young age. He first learnt how to work with wood, metal and paper from his father who made scenery for the television and film industries. Growing up around making instilled in Hopkins a fascination with seeing what you can create with things that get discarded.
It is this passion that drove him to establish his own design practice fresh from finishing his studies at the Manchester School of Art. Over the past 12 years the practice has evolved into an acclaimed studio working on projects for the likes of Habitat, the Mobo Awards and paper purveyors G.F Smith.
Based in Manchester, Lazerian (the name is taken from Hopkins’ father’s middle name), specialises in combining digital technology with hand craftsmanship. The studio is run by Hopkins with the help of a couple of apprentices, expanding to upwards of 18 creatives depending on the size of the job.
Working for himself was always the ambition, explains Hopkins. “I looked for a studio three or four months before graduating and I found an old mill that was putting units on the top floor, partitioning them out, so I took that unit and got it ready alongside finishing uni. It was all systems go,” he recalls.
“During the time at uni I put a little bit of money aside and picked up a few little basic machines off eBay and stored them in my mam and dad’s garage. I got a few commissions straight out of uni from new designers and then all of a sudden the work dried up and it was like ‘Shit, I’ve got bills to pay, I’ve got nothing coming in’.”
After looking into various funding options, Hopkins started making stands for golf club manufacturer Calloway. The cash injection helped Lazerian expand to a bigger studio and acquire its first CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine designed to digitally cut patterns.
Whereas during his training at university the focus had always been on learning the basics of working with wood, metal, plastics, ceramics and glass, this new digital element allowed Hopkins to create bigger objects made from multiple components.
The addition of a laser cutter changed the studio’s approach to design. Whereas initially everything had to be hand cut or scored, the laser cutter sped up the process and allowed for experimentation with different materials.
As well as acquiring new pieces of kit, Hopkins also builds his own machines. Six years ago he reimagined a traditional Victorian drawing machine that printed ceramics. The machine allowed him to produce unique designs simply by setting up three different parameters. It is the ability to produce one-off pieces with their own identity that appeals most to Hopkins.
“I like stuff like that’s got a bit more meaning and a bit more soul to it than just printing something for the sake of it,” he explains.
“3D printing is great, but there’s so much shit that’s printed on them with people creating more landfill. There’s advantages of having them, like people making hands and limbs for kids, but then a lot of the shit that’s produced on them winds me up.”
Creating pieces that have a function as well as a sculptural element is central to the way Hopkins approaches design – an important factor he took into account when deciding to change his practice five years ago.
Before then Lazerian used to design and sell a range of around 70 different products, from furniture to lighting. While the business was generating good sales and lots of contracts, the whole process started to feel like a production line.
“I hated it because the creative went out of it and I was just producing the same thing again and again,” recalls Hopkins.
“So I had to make a decision where I either became a manager and manage other people making these things, or I change direction and do a lot more one-off bespoke projects which is what I basically do now. I’m a lot happier in myself rather than just churning stuff out.”
The decision has certainly paid off. Commissions followed for the Manchester Polar Bear, a 2.5m tall, 6m long bear made from aluminium, and Chromatogram, an installation of 15 10ft tall walk-in ‘pods’ fabricated from precision-cut, individually printed cardboard designed for the inaugural National Festival of Making in Blackburn 2017.
Rather than hanging on to a favourite piece from the past, Hopkins works very much in the moment with each project that comes along.
“I love every project I start on and then when I get to the end of it I kind of get fed up of it, I get sick of looking at it and you just kind of want it gone,” he laughs.
“Still when I look back on them a few months or years later it’s kind of nice, but it’s a love and hate relationship with each project.”
Lazerian’s latest project saw Hopkins design a weight-bearing, full-size cardboard version of a Skoda Karoq. Three months in the making, the car design was not based on sheets of data or 3D drawings. Instead all Hopkins had to work from was the car itself, which meant scoring lines in cardboard and taking it from there.
When the brief comes through for each new project the aim is not to create a piece similar to something the studio has done before. Instead, Hopkins researches where the piece is going to be located and the connection it has to the space.
When Lazerian was commissioned by premium paper manufacturer G.F Smith to create a piece for the Paper City exhibition in celebration of Hull City of Culture 2017, Hopkins’ research centred on Hull’s long maritime heritage. The result was Local Fish, a four-metre-long paper model of a fish showing both its smooth scales and exposed skeleton.
“I wasn’t into fishing or anything like that before that project, but it kind of opened my eyes to understand the mentality of the locals there and the impact of going into the EU and why the majority of them voted to get out,” Hopkins reflects.
“You immediately go ‘What you doing, why you voting out?’ and yet when you start speaking to them and understanding that it basically ruined their livelihoods then you start to see a different picture. So it’s quite nice to be able to get an understanding of the people around where it’s [the piece is] going.”
While Lazerian has a few new projects that are under wraps, Hopkins is currently working on a commission for Darwen Council in Lancashire for a piece tying into the regeneration of the town’s market square. He describes the piece as combining his twin loves of functional design with a sculptural side.
Turning his attention back to the everyday, Hopkins is a firm believer in the power of design and the need to remember that everything we touch, whether it’s a pair of socks or a toothbrush, has been designed.
“Everything has gone through a design process and literally everything you touch changes your life in one way or another,” he adds. “Design is important.”