Catching Up with Future Heritage Alumni: Karlyn Sutherland  

Future Heritage holds a special place at Decorex. This permanent fixture at the show consistently delivers collectible work from the most exciting makers and craftspeople – those bending the rules of design and questioning the norm with their extraordinary processes. 

Decorex caught up with Future Heritage Alumni member, Karlyn Sutherland, to discuss her experience of exhibiting at Decorex, her motivations for using glass as a primary material and what projects she has in the pipeline.   

DECOREX: What do you tend to make and why?​

KARLYN SUTHERLAND: I have a long-standing interest in the bond between people and place. My current body of work uses perspective drawing as a tool to communicate feelings of detachment from place through suggesting spatial experiences that are inaccessible and unreachable. Most often, my work is comprised of wall-hung panels, which create an illusion of three-dimensional space through using either line or overlaid planes of semi-translucent glass. My work represents my own sense of attachment to place – mostly in relation to locations and buildings where I have lived and worked. 

Decorex Future Heritage Alumni Karlyn Sutherland
PORTRAIT OF KARLYN SUTHERLAND

 

D: You originally trained as an architect, what provoked this change in career?  

KS: I can appreciate that on paper it reads as a drastic departure, but to me it feels far more like a broadening of my career rather than a change. My education and my work are inextricably linked; I’m still mulling over the same issues that are important to me: light, atmosphere, sense of place. A return to the architectural profession isn’t something that I’d rule out, though I also feel there is still so much for me to explore both as an artist and as an academic.  

I was still an architecture student when I first began to work with glass. It happened quite unexpectedly – I was in the early stages of a practice-led PhD and was interested in the sense of attachment that people can feel towards places. The village I’m from – Lybster, Caithness – is home to North Lands Creative, which is a glass studio founded in the mid-nineties. I knew that many artists had returned to that small corner of the world over and again, describing it as “life-changing”. I found that hard to imagine and wanted to know more, so I applied to be a student on a masterclass. I was immediately hooked on the material and the processes involved, which took me completely by surprise. It altered the course and scope of my career completely.  

D: Talk us through the process you adopt to create your signature pieces. 

KS: I nearly always carry a small sketchbook and a camera with me; if the feeling of a space or moment catches my attention, I do a few quick sketches or take some photos to try and capture the essence of my surroundings. This allows me to think more about it later on. I pay close attention to geometry of forms and to the movement of light. 

After I’ve edited out what is non-essential, I’ll often scale up and do some larger sketches followed by studies of composition and colour. I reference perspective drawing within my work; I find the play between 2D and 3D really useful to create an illusion of depth. The finished works are comprised of an opaque base colour overlaid with various planes of semi-translucent white glass, so I’ll usually create a few collages using coloured paper and vellum, just to iron out anything I’m unsure of in terms of composition and proportion. The sheet glass I use comes in pre-determined sizes, so I’ll translate my sketches into a computer drawing, the precision of which I then use to determine the finer details of each layer, how much glass I’ll need, and how I can cut it in the most economical way.  

I’ll then progress to small scale glass samples, where I begin to overlay planes of colour to evoke a sense of atmosphere and an illusion of depth. Once I feel comfortable with the results of the small tests, I’ll often make a significant jump to the full-scale, final work. The panels are then constructed and fired in the kiln. Once the work is out of the kiln and cooled completely, I’ll grind the front and edges of the pieces by hand to achieve a uniform, matt surface that lets the right amount of light into each work.  

D: Light and shadow play a pivotal role in your designs, how these elements can influence the outcome of a piece? 

KS: The overall form and composition of my work is heavily influenced by light and shadow. Sometimes it references the pattern of light projected into spaces through openings or the shadows that are cast within spaces. In other cases (and more often at the moment) it relates to the shape and geometry of the opening that the light is passing through.  

I’ve been giving more consideration to how the pieces take on a different appearance as the light that hits and as time passes. Usually, my work is comprised of three to five layers of fused sheet glass – a juxtaposition of opaque, semi-translucent and translucent forms. These are cut to fit together in their layers, to overlap to varying degrees when stacked and fused. At different times of day, different edges catch the light or cast a shadow, depending on how opaque or translucent they are. I greatly enjoy these subtle shifts, and the thought of each piece getting a chance to have a quiet dialogue with its particular surroundings, wherever they might end up. 

D: What steered your decision to concentrate on using glass as a core material to work with? 

KS: From my very first experience of working with glass, I was absorbed and fascinated by it as a material. Its qualities – reflection, refraction, diffusion and transmission – and relationship with light allowed me to explore and communicate more than any other material I had worked with.  I’m particularly interested in openings within buildings and in qualities of atmosphere and natural light that come from within. I feel that glass translates this feeling really effectively.  

Decorex Future Heritage Alumni Karlyn Sutherland Vertigo Collection
Karlyn Sutherland Vertigo Collection

 

D: You’ve previously described your work as ‘autobiographical in nature’, do you feel that this helps you bring emotion into your craft? 

KS: Actually, emotion is what came (and continues to come) first – I don’t think I’d be driven to design or make anything if there wasn’t feeling behind it. My work in glass has always been a way for me to explore and tell stories about my own experiences of places and atmospheres. Over time, I came to make work that was more personal – referencing memories of spaces and the qualities that tied to significant moments. I name my pieces after the places that have influenced them, but often the specific detail about their story isn’t obvious – this is deliberate. Largely because I always hope to make work that is quiet and a little mysterious; leaving room for the viewer to wonder and make their own associations. 

D: What current projects are you working on?  

KS: I’ve recently revisited the tables I had prototyped for Future Heritage. In the years since then, my practice has evolved and my understanding of my own work has changed quite dramatically.  I’m more mature as a designer and maker; ready to really push this aspect of my practice forwards. 

At the moment, I’m developing pairs of tables that are relatively small in scale, which allows me to flag any problems and do any troubleshooting I need to before scaling up. I’m intrigued and excited by how the optical illusion is further enhanced by shifting this series of work from a vertical to a horizontal plane. I’ll be exploring this further in the coming months. 

D: You have been awarded a Fulbright scholarship – can you tell us a little bit more about that? 

KS: Yes! I’ve been offered a scholarship which will allow me (eventually, once the pandemic eases and the borders reopen) to spend 12 months at Corning Museum of Glass in New York. There I’ll be working on a practice-based project that unites architecture and site-specific/place-responsive art. In a nutshell, I’ll be exploring how the play between glass and natural light can help us to understand and create meaningful atmospheres of place within buildings more effectively. 

D: Are there any particular architects, artists or designers that inspire you?  

KS: For their sensitivity to place and light and their creation of buildings that are a joy to experience: Peter Zumthor and Reiach & Hall.

Decorex Future Heritage Alumni Karlyn Sutherland Toyama Collection
Karlyn Sutherland Toyama Collection

 

D: Were you to be represented by a piece of furniture or sculpture, which one would you be and why? 

KS: Finn Juhl’s Cocktail Bench – it’s practical, deceptively sturdy, angular but with rounded corners. It is likely from Viking heritage and has been designed for social occasions, plus it’s good at stopping your drinks from falling to the floor. 

D: What would you really like to do that you haven’t done to date?  

KS: I would like to become more involved in interior design and create architectural elements or items of furniture on commission. I’m also really fascinated by set design for theatre; I would really love to have the opportunity to become involved in that realm. 

D: What did you get out of Future Heritage?  

KS: Future Heritage gave me the opportunity and the occasion to branch out and try something new. I had been very focused on developing and refining my wall-hung work; making furniture wasn’t something that I had considered to do by myself before. It was an exciting experiment and a steep (but great) learning curve!  

Future Heritage made me look at my work and its potential place within the art and design world in a new way. It gave me a bit more confidence as a maker/designer at a time when it was lacking. It’s also led to a number of great conversations, connections and opportunities with all sorts of people – on both a professional and a personal level. 

For further inspiration from Future Heritage Alumni, read our blog post > Future Heritage, where are they now?