A Cuppa with Emma Carlow

Emma Carlow is the designer of the interactive giant jam sandwich that you can find in the exhibition Taking a Line for a Walk: John Vernon Lord and Friends. We had a natter with her to find out about her influences, life as an artist during lockdown, and the process of creating the largest sandwich we’ve ever seen.

Hi Emma! You designed the real-life giant jam sandwich in the exhibition, tell us how you came up with the idea.

The museum gave me a blank slate, I could come up with anything that I wanted. I was keen to create something that visitors, especially children, could interact with. John’s work encompasses so much so I decided to concentrate on his book, The Giant Jam Sandwich, because it is so well known and has a special place in so many people’s memories. In my mind the idea of a giant sandwich is quite anarchic and reminded me of Claes Oldenburg’s huge food sculptures. I wondered what it might be like to be stuck in the jam and that’s how I came up with the idea for a wasp’s experience of being trapped in a sticky jam sandwich.

Claes Oldenburg (American, born Sweden 1929). “Giant BLT (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwich).” 1963. Vinyl, kapok, and wood painted with acrylic. 32 x 39 x 29” (81.3 x 99.1 x 73.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of The American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, President. Copyright 1963 Claes Oldenburg. Photo: David Heald, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. (Photo by David Heald, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; Copyright 1963 Claes Oldenburg)

Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating the sandwich?

Because I am a maker myself, I’ve never commissioned someone else to make any of my ideas so I didn’t know where to start. Luckily I have a friend who creates adverts for companies such as John Lewis, so I asked him if he knew any prop makers. He put me in touch with Cole & Lopez. Because of Covid I didn’t visit them, instead I sent them detailed drawings and a description of what I was looking for; the types of fabrics, the size, the colours etc. The hardest bit was finding a fabric that had just the right amount of ‘cling’ when stepped on with a velcro soled shoe. I only had little scraps to test with. I haven’t actually walked on the sandwich with the shoes on yet but I hear that we got the desired result. I didn’t want any toddlers getting frightened because they couldn’t move but equally I didn’t want there to be no resistance at all.

Cole and Lopez were brilliant and I was delighted to see my drawing turn into a huge 3D experience. It couldn’t have gone better!

Children playing with the sandwich installation

Have there been any unexpected responses to the work?

Well I was very nervous about the sandwich being a success so I’ve been delighted to see all the photos on social media of people of all ages enjoying it so much. I hadn’t anticipated so many adults wanting a go! What has made me really laugh is children sticking the jam slodges to their feet and jumping around. Genius!

What’s all this about a giant jam sandwich tea towel/finger puppet kit?!

The museum’s Retail Manager Jenny Ogilvie asked me if I’d like to design anything for the shop. I love a good tea towel; they can be both beautiful and useful. It seemed to sit perfectly with the The Giant Jam Sandwich. I imagine there was a lot of washing up to do after all that baking. Jenny and I asked John if I could re-imagine the residents of Itching Down and he agreed! To make the tea towel even more popular, especially with those of us who hate drying up, I arranged the people with enough space between them to allow them to be cut up and sewn into finger puppets for re-enacting the story. The huge sandwich can be made into a bag to keep all the puppets in – the instructions are written on the tag.

Emma’s tea towel design re-imagines the residents of Itching Down

You say that toys are one of your greatest influences as a maker – can you tell us about the role of play in your projects?

In my work playing helps me to explore ideas, I feel relaxed, more inclined to be experimental, less attached to the outcome of what I’m doing. I’m more open to ideas and opportunities. I like to make things that are immersive, that encourage making and playfulness. Play is a great way to get people to engage with a subject.

We prepared this show during lockdown, which was very limiting at times. Was lockdown a creatively stifling experience for you? Has it changed how you think about the work you make? 

At the beginning of lockdown my husband and I lost all our work and I panicked and desperately tried to come up with a plan of what to do. After a while I decided that I wanted to create a new horizon for my work so that I had new opportunities when life returned to normal. My only remit was to do whatever I wanted! So, like Charles and Ray Eames, I immersed myself in the world of folk art and tried out all sorts of different crafts. Learning about folk artists made me feel more connected with the world. I was a graphic designer before 2020 but I’d describe myself as an artist now, which is a huge, exciting shift for me.

Emma’s influences, Charles and Ray Eames sitting on the La Chaise prototype, 1948. © Eames Office LLC. courtesy of OMCA

You were a student of John Vernon Lord’s when he led the School of Design at Brighton University. What was that like?

I was a student in the first year of the new Sequential Design/Illustration MA so I was very lucky to be taught by John, in fact he interviewed me for the course. I was very nervous but he immediately made me feel at home. He was always very enthusiastic and encouraging and at the end of our course he threw a fabulous party for us in his garden.

Finally, who is your greatest influence as a maker?

The American designers Charles and Ray Eames have probably influenced me the most. They respected play and had huge respect for the design and making skills of folk artists. For similar reasons, my present day hero is Patricia Urquiola, a Spanish architect and designer. I love the way she interprets traditional craft techniques in really modern ways, playing with scale and unusual materials.