Robert Race

Portrait of Robert RaceRobert Race image 1 entitled Seaside MachineRobert Race image 2 entitled Eyebrows
Robert Race image 3 entitled Balancing Bird
Robert Race image 4 entitled Catch of the Day

Robert Race has been making wooden objects for nearly thirty years, starting with dolls’ houses and miniature furniture. He also made some moving toys for children, but these gradually developed into moving objects intended for adults and automata which incorporated simple mechanisms. ‘I was interested in developing toy mechanisms to produce things that move in simple, but interesting ways’, he says.


What do you consider yourself professionally - a toy maker, an automata-maker or a sculptor?

It’s a difficult question. On my passport I call myself a toy maker and I started off making children’s toys before I began making automata. But I don’t think you could call the work I make today toys in the conventional sense of playthings for children – they are mainly intended for adults, although a lot of children love them. I suppose they are like a special family toy that you wouldn’t let children loose on unless an adult was there to supervise as they are so fragile and delicate. But I don’t think the term automata really describes most of what I make either, as the pieces are not automatic and, to me, they are more akin to moving toys than complex clockwork machines.

How important is the element of movement in your work?

Movement is key to my work. I try to make the pieces stand on their own as sculptural objects and their look at rest is important, but it’s the movement that brings them alive. If you see them as static objects you miss the point. It’s not just that they are moveable, like a jointed doll, for example. The mechanism, with its crank handle, or push button, or lever, distances you from the movement and this means that the piece seems to come alive on its own. It works best in the abstract: for instance I don’t usually try to make a life-like representation of an animal but try and capture its essence in a simple, pared-down way. Once you add the element of movement it’s given a spark of life which lifts it onto another plane.

Do you mind the public handling your pieces?

Most of my pieces work by hand and as movement is of the essence you have to allow people to handle them. You have to risk the potential breakages, otherwise people would miss half the point – anyway most of my work is made out of wood which is a fairly forgiving material and breakages can be fixed. The best way to display them is to create a space which encourages people to touch and have fun with the objects without going at them like a child in a playground.

What materials do you enjoy working with most?

At the moment most of my work is made out of driftwood. I’ve always worked in wood as I have no practical training and wood is a fairly easy material to learn to work with, but I find driftwood a particularly attractive material and collecting it gives me an excuse to go to the seaside! I like the colours and the textures produced by the effects of the sea and sun which give driftwood a complicated finish that can’t be reproduced any other way. I also like the idea of the wood’s previous lives – first as a tree, then as a piece of sawn timber, then as an object before it even starts its life in the sea – it gives it a strange, extra dimension.

Do you like using colour in your work?

There are so many subtle colours in driftwood that you have to be very careful about adding extra colour as otherwise you loose the point of the driftwood. I used to use much more colour and often made objects in carved, painted wood but I found that the same object (at the same price) sold much better in driftwood so this encouraged me to concentrate on the natural colours of the driftwood.

Many automata-makers incorporate a lot of humour in their work. Does humour play an important role in your work?

My work is fairly light-hearted but I don’t think it’s directly humorous; I don’t generally do jokes. I prefer story telling and the juxtaposition of quirky ideas, but I hope that people find my work witty and engaging.

What are your sources of inspiration?

Traditional moving folk toys are a strong influence on my work. I have travelled around Mexico, Japan, Indonesia and India looking for these types of toy and have now built up quite a big collection. I enjoy the way their makers have made simple moving objects that really exploit whatever material is available to them, often in ingenious ways.