Martin Horspool has made a name for himself crafting objects d'art that are a mish-mash of 50s and 60s machines and appliances – notably, robots.
Back in the 50s, the future was a bright and shiny place. The war was over, there was peace and plenty, frugality and sacrifice were a thing of the past. Objects of utility were imbued with the optimism of the era – bright shiny chrome and steel that spoke of prosperity and stability.
But times have changed. The optimism of those early days of naïve materialism has been replaced with a culture of consumption, a throwaway ethos where things are bought cheaply and cast aside. Design is still valued, but tends to come with a high price tag, and well-made objects of utility are now the exception rather than the rule.
Martin Horspool understands the beauty of classic industrial design. He’s made a name for himself crafting cute and crazy critters from a mish-mash of 50s and 60s machinery and appliances. His insects, robots, dogs and faux stag-head trophies are products of an unfettered imagination and pay homage to the golden days of design.
Horspool creates his metal masterpieces from the basement of his Avondale home. Demand for his objects is unrelenting – his work has found its way as far away as New York and Europe, he’s got a robot on display at Mt Albert’s coolest cafe Salvation Kitchen.
Then there’s the infamous Splore robot: “Mrs Splorebot features backlit metal boobs and a bubble blowing opening, making a perfect partner to Mr Splorebot, who has laser lights and an 80s techno soundtrack. The happy couple was plugged into the mains over the three-day festival [and entertained] the ravers and hippies,” laughs Horspool.
He’s been sketching weird and wonderful critters for years (“I remember drawing interesting creatures in the back of history class,” he reveals) and he’s always been a fan of 50s and 60s design. A bit of a magpie, his love of vintage led him to search for abandoned treasures at junkyards, antiques shops, and through TradeMe. A box of such treasures discovered about four years ago was to prove crucial in the development of his art. Broken lamps may not seem the stuff of dreams, but for Horspool it provided the raw materials for his first venture into three-dimensional art.
“I can’t remember precisely when I decided to make a robot, but I can remember my first piece. It had the body of a 60s hand mixer, the legs were from a 60s stereogram, it had fish slice wings, and its bug eyes were made from tea strainers.”
Horspool had previously established a reputation as a photographer, exhibiting at Latham Gallery in Herne Bay. The gallery owners Anna and Donna Hanson expressed an interest in seeing his new sculptures, and were so delighted by them that they offered him the opportunity to show them in a joint show. His exhibition, called Fly Off The Handle, featured a collection of 12 buggy robots, whimsical robotic insects created from his collection of vintage pieces.
But it was his Retrobots that really captured people’s imagination. The ultimate toys for boys, the sculptures engaged an audience that was pop-culture savvy; they reference 50s B-movies and have more than passing resemblance to Japanese tin robots. The development of these retro robots was an obvious evolution for Horspool.
‘’It seemed a natural progression to start constructing robots, making them appear to be from 50 years ago with a twist of modern. I knew after I had built the first one that there was going to be a long bloodline of robots coming off my bench.”
A natural communicator, marketing the robots has largely been by word of mouth and through social media. His robots have appeared in music videos and he’s also created a range of prints that appear on tea towels, T-shirts and bags. Then there’s Robot Road Trip, a photography book featuring images of oversized robots in a variety of New Zealand locales. It’s humorous and whimsical – much like the robots themselves – and another example of his playful creativity.
One of the key elements in the success of Horspool’s work is his attention to detail. Each component part is as important as the whole. Part of the beauty of his robots is that they capture and celebrate the ethos of an era where industrial design was booming, and items were built to last. Take ‘Kelvinator’ for example. One of his favourite pieces, it’s big, blue and features a 1950s chrome fridge badge. Like its co-creations, it’s bold and unashamedly proclaims its provenance – a piece of great design, discarded and reimagined as intelligent, humorous art.
This wry humour was evident in Martin’s 2011 exhibition, The Trophy Room. When exploring a craft market about a year or so ago, Martin came across deer antlers in a box. It was a ‘eureka’ moment for him and he realised he could play with the idea of hunting trophies in a really interesting way.
Martin’s form of hunting is bloodless, (apt for a long-term vegetarian) and has yielded some delightful quarry. The trophies are created to look as though they have been caught off- guard, as if shot by accident. Mounted on pieces of vintage appliances, with names like Sabre2000 and Tanner, they’re a celebration of old technology, memory recast as contemporary innovation – and like all his creations, are a paean to the joy of great design.