In conversation with: Odette Smaldon, designer-maker

Geometric jewellery design by Odette Smaldon
Interconnected ring display by Odette Smaldon

I would… like to advocate for plastic being considered a precious material.

Odette Smaldon

I first came across Odette when I was doing some writing research for my day job. Odette makes pieces of art from – you guessed it – plastic. Acrylic, to be exact, and they’re beautiful.

Unlike the throwaway plastics we know and loathe, Odette creates jewellery and larger pieces that are designed to last.

When I stumbled on an interview with Odette in which she says that we should treat plastic as a precious material, I just had to find out more.

Geometric design element in transparent and brown shades
Visual design in shades of silver and grey
Geometric jewellery design by Odette Smaldon

Our conversation

Ellen: As an aspiring author, I often think about my future characters; perhaps living in a world where plastic is no longer made. They find themselves scavenging through disused landfills looking for – jackpot! – lightweight plastic water bottles and other useful artefacts to help them survive the rest of the novel.

Plastic is useful, that’s why we use it. But its use is completely out of hand, and it’s almost impossible to avoid. Even though it takes upwards of 400 years to decompose, it’s often used to make packaging that’ll be chucked in the trash just a few seconds after it has fulfilled its purpose.

I wonder if we should treat plastic with the respect that we reserve for other finite resources, like silver and gold. Perhaps this could be one way to combat the problem? That’s why I was so interested when I read that you also think that plastic should be treated as precious. When did you start thinking this way?

Odette: I love that idea for a novel, I would certainly read it! I’ve always been interested in plastic recycling, as a teenager I went through a stage of knitting plastic carrier bags into handbags; it was a long process but I really enjoyed it! When I started laser cutting acrylic during my degree, I became aware of my use and endeavoured to get the most components out of every sheet of acrylic. Each sheet is maximised to its full potential, as I am very aware of my responsibility to minimise waste.

Ellen: Your creations are absolutely beautiful. I love how they challenge me to think differently about the materials involved – for instance, wouldn’t it be great if your pieces became treasured family heirlooms? I’m sure they will. What is it about acrylic and perspex that you enjoy working with?

Odette: That’s great to hear! More often than not, I had experienced acrylic in quite a 2D presentation and I really wanted to experiment with different depths and views to experience these plastics. I enjoy working with the different qualities available with this material and I especially like using transparent components, as when constructed into my samples and products, they refract the light beautifully.

Ellen: I read on your website that you also work with found materials. What does that look like, and is there scope for you to make more precious creations from found or upcycled plastics? Could your designs be translated into reclaimed wood or glass – and, given that these too are precious and finite, would you want them to?

Odette: I often use found materials in the sampling stages of my design process; as I developed I found it hard to resource enough components to fulfil a larger sample which then led me to utilise laser cutting. I think working with reclaimed wood would be a wonderful idea, I already use plywood so it would be great to use a more sustainable material in the future. It would need to ideally be suitable for the laser cutter as I’m not quite experienced with hand cutting components!

Ellen: Tell me about your journey – did you start with the larger pieces and then re-imagine them as jewellery?

Odette: The larger pieces were developed from smaller samples and then everything was scaled down again to become wearable versions with the jewellery. I really enjoy that the techniques I use are this versatile, as it pushes me as a designer to see how I can apply my skills.

Ellen: In your Etsy store, you sell statement laser cut fashion jewellery. You’re essentially making wearable art – designed to be enjoyed by the wearer for, I’m guessing, a lifetime or more. Do you see yourself as part of the movement away from fast fashion?

Odette: That’s how I envision the jewellery too! I would like to think so; I have a strong passion for craftsmanship and making. I enjoy taking time to make something rather than mass-producing. Eventually, I would like to offer a bespoke jewellery service as I think it is important to put some responsibility into the hands of the consumer. Allowing customers to choose their colour combinations/style/scale should ultimately result in pieces that are treasured. With my interior items, including my lampshades, I would ideally like to make these on a commissioned basis for the same reasons.

Ellen: I think that artists and craftspeople will be exceptionally important in the future – just as they are now, but more so. You bring us joy; you’re our teachers; you’re our chroniclers. How do you see your role as a designer-maker in a world that’s facing so many big challenges?

Odette: This is certainly a sentiment I agree with. I’ve been told before that being able to knit would be very useful in an apocalypse… hopefully we aren’t going down that road but it is important to be able to do things that don’t necessarily rely on digital technology. This is why I have enjoyed my exploration with laser cutting; I use it as a tool but ultimately my products wouldn’t exist unless I could use my hands to assemble everything together. Long-term, it would be great to have easier access to a way to recycle plastic myself and then utilise it as a making material. Additionally, I intend to start researching the availability of recycled acrylic sheets to integrate into my practice.

Ellen: Have I missed anything? Is there anything else you want to tell me?

Odette: I’d like to thank you for reaching out to talk to me. It’s really important to discuss topics that could be deemed controversial. We are all aware of the issues surrounding single-use plastic and its physical longevity. I think as we all endeavour to reduce waste and be more responsible with what we consume we can also consider that it’s okay to hold ‘things that look nice’ with value.

A specialist in constructed textiles, Odette blends traditional techniques such as knitting and macrame with contemporary methods and materials. Find Odette Smaldon on Instagram.

What do you think? Let me know!