Tom Hancocks’s work does not reveal itself easily. His Instagram page presents a sleek set of various furniture objects. Presented without the context of captions, or even a sharp indicator of whether or not his work exists in cyber or physical spaces, Hancocks invites viewers to make their own interpretations.
His work plays with forms and materiality, exaggerating and inflating traditional design proportions in a way both playful and grotesque. You don’t need a design background to experience Hancocks’s work, it is captivating and provocative. He cites Comme des Garçon’s designer, Rei Kawakubo, as an influence, and discusses similarities between furniture and fashion design – both mediums have a similar relationship to the human body and material concerns.

As we have learned from other digital designers like Yimeng Yu, grounding a digital design practice in physical material knowledge is often essential to producing good work. Making the jump to digital can also then free one from the restraints of physical work, sparking creative exploration. Hancocks tells of his approach to this physical/digital chasm, which accepts serendipitous translation errors as sites of learning and play. What is most important for him is how his objects feel in our mental representation, the rest he figures out later.

While he has primarily worked with individual clients, he now hopes to explore more accessible modes of designing. He discusses his consideration of furniture design as medium people spend a lot of time considering yet is subjected to a special set of production requirements and cultural traditions that make it hard to access. In a candid interview, Tom Hancocks discusses his approach to design, his references and working with different modalities.
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Could you introduce yourself and speak a bit about your work broadly?
My name is Tom. I do a lot of digital work that attempts to reference or aspire to aspects of the real world. In recent years it has primarily focussed on furniture (specifically chairs), but can encompass animation, set design, graphic work, etc.
Where does most of your current work live? Mostly in cyberspace or the physical world?
Most of the work that gets seen is on my Instagram. Most of the work that I do only gets seen by clients. But for the most part, on the internet in digital form. I have been pushing a few more physical projects lately, but digital is always easier, cheaper, and quicker – not always as fulfilling though.
You are self-taught but have discussed that this isn’t something that has too much valence for how you think about yourself and your work. Can you speak a bit more about this? What experiences, educational or otherwise, ground your practice?
I've toted that expression a lot previously, I think it felt nice to set myself apart in that way. But I've come to regret that more, as it can be quite ignorant of the relationships and resources that allow someone to grow. I've learnt a lot from tutorials, other artists, friends, fabricators, etc. So, I think a better way to put it, maybe, is that I've had a non-institutional education. And that has definitely influenced how I work. In practice, I'm much more attracted to a more communal, non-commodified approach to art. And visually I think it's allowed me to avoid a level of rigidity (which has its pros and cons, but I think is a net positive).
You never seem to comment on your Instagram posts. What is the nomenclature of your work?
There is maybe some irony to saying this in a written interview, but I feel quite strongly that if my primary focus is on creating an image as my chosen form of communication, that adding additional text can be more of a detriment to the intent. There's something rewarding to experiencing people's interpretations. Not that the images I put on Instagram are that precious, but it never seems like a natural inclination to add anything descriptive to the image.
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How do you approach the ergonomics of your work? Are your pieces comfortable, in a traditional or untraditional sense?
From a concepting standpoint, I'm usually drawn to soft, rounded forms. Which, fortunately, lends itself to traditional comfort. But I primarily think of furniture as sculptural work within functional parameters. So the ergonomics, while important, usually comes second.
Does your approach to thinking about human-object interaction change when designing digital versus real furniture?
Surprisingly, not really. I think a part of what initially pushed me towards designing furniture was a desire to have some reference of humanity in the work I was making. I would make an interior or an environment and there would be an (obviously) empty feeling to it. So, I think I was drawn to chairs as a kind of anthropomorphic stand-in to fill that void. And therefore, I think there is always a subconscious consideration for the conceptual human that would be in that digital space or sit on that digital chair.
Often your furniture seems to resist normative frameworks of use. Do you see your pieces as disrupting the environments for which you envision them?
Maybe not the environments in a literal sense, but there is definitely the intent to disrupt, or at least, resist certain existing trends/styles. Building culture is often more about the rejection of other cultures than it is creating something out of thin air. And I find that approach to be a good way to turn negative reactions to mainstream work into a more constructive approach.
Your Instagram bio describes your account as a digital sketchbook? What does this mean? How has your quite elusive, yet prolific, social media presence informed, or impacted your work?
That's really just to do with how I envision the Instagram process. I don't view most of the work on there as a finished product, or even in the best condition to be presented. More of an exploration of fleeting ideas than any kind of cohesive body of work. I think I do this to avoid overthinking things, or feel like each post needs to be better than the last, or be concerned about creating an identity.
It can be a contradiction though, because it's both a fleeting exercise that people will only see for maybe 5 seconds, but also where the most attention/legitimacy lies as well.
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Some of your recent work has imposed text upon furniture. How do you approach the relationship between the word and the object?
This a bit of a continuation from some of the previous questions. I feel it's partly that desire for more humanity in a usually sterile digital artform. It adds something slightly poetic and interpretable when it's something short - a phrase, or even just a word. It communicates something to the viewer still without giving any kind of explicit explanation or reasoning.
Your work often has conflicting sensibilities, soft cancerous, organic forms sit atop medically clean surfaces and sleek textures. How do you work with these juxtapositions, and find balance?
There's almost always a separation in the process of these images, between object and environment. I'll usually have an idea for one and then need to figure out what the other is in a cohesive way, afterwards. Usually it's object first, where a simple and minimal background usually works best. But that can also feel very boring. Then trying to fit a conceptual object into a conceptual space can be a distracting clash of visuals, as well. So, there's a lot of trial and error in the process, for sure.
You have discussed the use of visually signified materiality as a property that allows people to ‘feel’ what your digital furniture would feel like if it were real. How close are your own approximations of sensory experience and ergonomics when you translate a piece from digital design to physical object?
I suppose at the end of the day, what most digital artists (at least, those that lean towards some level of realism) are trying to do is trick our brains into creating a false memory or fantasy of reality. So I think in that sense, it almost doesn't matter how close the concept is to reality, but more-so how legitimate the idea is in the viewer's mind.
But in a more literal and pragmatic sense, it can vary a lot. And is usually rewarding either way. If your approximation is accurate, you're surprised at how close you were able to get. If you're not, it's usually a welcome surprise of a detail you hadn't considered or an aspect of physics that you hadn't predicted.
Martin Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking informs so many designers and architects. Your work often seems to resist dwelling – it is haunting, apparitional and seems difficult to occupy – or perhaps recontextualises the act. How do you understand your work as a designer? Disruptive? Subversive? Imaginative?
I think I have a tendency, which can be both liberating and debilitating, to always want to create something unseen, or totally brand new. Which is obviously impossible. I'm not trying to pretend I'm some creative genius with only original ideas. But it means if something feels typical, as a dwelling often is, for good reason, I'll have an inclination to reject it. So, I suppose subversive would be the descriptor I would lean more towards. Preferring to avoid certain familiarities, rather than build on others. Which can lead to some weird and messy and not-so-great outcomes. But also helps provide conceptual reasoning if I feel stuck. Why show people something they've already seen before?
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You have mentioned Rei Kawakubo as an inspiration of yours – your work seems to consider archetypal furniture as a body, which you then treat with Kawakubo’s distortions and malignancies. Could you speak a bit about your references to fashion designers? How do these motifs manifest in your design?
Fashion is a huge influence for me. Even if it's an industry I'm not very involved or even that knowledgeable about. But going back to an earlier answer about wanting to resist existing styles. I feel like furniture design is an artform that so many people have an interest in but is so limited in its expression and cultural influence. I understand there are a variety of reasons for this, one being that the production time and lifespan of furniture is much longer than fashion. But another is that it's designed to be extremely inaccessible and panders to the wealthy, who are renowned for having horrible taste.
But fashion is so close to furniture in terms of materiality and relationship to the body. I just wish that more of the expression and experimentation would cross over as well.
What is next for Tom Hancocks? Are there any projects or collaborations for which you are most excited?
I'm usually hesitant to answer this question, because not everything ends up coming to fruition or turns out the same as you first envision. But I am hopeful for a few more physical projects coming up. I would like to figure out ways to make pieces that are more accessible. Which may take some time to get right, but feels possible to achieve. We'll see!
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