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Newspaper Review - Insight City News - Saturday 25th March 2006
  Man of Fibre

Crazy for Fibreglass

After spending a morning with Stuart Bishop fibreglass designer extraordinaire, Brighton looks different.  Take the De Vere Grand Hotel.  It was built in 1864 and seems, at first glance, a peerless example of the Italian Renaissance style, corbels cornices and all.  But Stuart let me into a little secret and I will share it with you.  In amongst the corbels and cornices holding up the pretty balconies are more than a few fibreglass flakes.  They may look real but they are not.

I must have looked slightly baffled, because Stuart laughed sympathetically. Nobody ever notices! They look exactly the same.

And it is not just the Grand.  Go for a wander along the Palace Pier, while you are strolling out to sea, note the trim at the base of the elaborate railings.  It runs for almost a mile and though it looks completely vintage, it too is a fibreglass copy.  Next, pop down the coast to Worthing pier and admire the elegant lamps.  Once again, you would believe that every single one is brass, but many are made of fibre glass.

The reason nobody ever notices these modern interlopers to our period heritage is because the copies are perfect, right down to the texture of the wood or colour of the brass.  The beauty of fibreglass is that it is cheaper and looks every bit as good as the original.  Little wonder then, that those who own period buildings from councils to hotel chains, are queuing up to see Stuart's skill in creating beautifully crafted architectural replicas.

 
 

Originally from Canada, Stuart began working with Fibreglass at a young age when he was with his fathers company.  They started out in London, producing cold water systems for the local council.  After moving to Newhaven, they began to make banking furniture, signs and projects for McDonalds.  But when the company was sold, Stuart took the chance to set up on his own, establishing Replica Glass Fibres.  As he explains he wanted to go off and create his own work, as he wanted to do architectural work and experiment with new ideas, rather than be on a high manufacturing detail all the time.

Replica Glass Fibre creates a vast and various array of work.  Some projects will literally take years, like the Spa Hotel in Tunbridge Wells, where Stuart has spent the last six years, recreating the original features, but all in fibreglass, including intricate ceiling roses, shower stalls and roofs.

While big clients have included Aston Martin (Stuart makes head rests for the cars and is in the process of designing a leather seat crafted from a  replica back end of one of the cars, Euro Disney (bark signs) and the British Heart Foundation, Stuart also accepts work from private clients.

A standout private design is a claw-footed freestanding bath made of rose pink resin with real rose petals trapped beneath the surface.  It is sensuous and beautiful, but according to Stuart was tricky beyond belief to design.  The original design would not function.  There was no way it would work.  They had an idea of how they wanted it but it was impossible.  After some technical wizadry, he cracked the design, and created a range of petal bowls to match.  For all his newfangled materials Stuart is something of an old style crafts man, and one gets the sense that he is happiest when he is experimenting.  When asked what his favourite design is, he looks a bit startled.

Crikey.  It is when someone comes in and states it can not be done, that Stuart thinks there is a way!  For example there was no known way to put ultra violet pigments in resin.  Stuart kept blending and has now produced an ultraviolet that you can put into a cast resin and when under ultraviolet light it will be highighted.  I experiment and it goes on the shelf.  Then I move onto something else, and it is not unless someone comes in asking me,  Can you do...? that I remember that I have done it and it is already produced.

Although Stuart has art school background, he clearly has an exceptional eye.  My personal favourite design was a range of sixties chairs, with clean lines and available in an eyewatering array of Pop Art colours, including a shocking barbie pink.  The chair is a replica of an original, but Stuart created a matching table.  Though he is loathe to describe himself  as an artist, his description of the process of making chair and table work together reveals a subtle sensitivity to balance and line.

Students from local art and design courses regularly come in to get a taste of a process that is probably unequalled nationally.  There is no university or college that teaches these processes of fibreglass manipulation.  The establishment normally use the old plaster mould to teach.  Two students came in recently and learnt more in two days than in their whole time at college, they went away quite pleased.

Quite pleased is a bit of an understatement, bearing in mind that one student is now showing at the Ideal Home Exhibition, while another is in the process of pitching an idea to Big Brother.  If successful, he has already asked Stuart to make up the design.

It is variety like this that Stuart thrives on, as well as the day to day challenges of making a single material look exactly like something else.  The ability of fibreglass to disguise itself as almost anything cannot be understated.  But Stuart is as much art as technical wizadry and even if you do not have a mile of period railing trim that needs replacing, his designs are stylish and distinctive enough to enhance the most modest of homes.

By Olivia Laing

Portrait Ian williams

 

 


 
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