Ticking away…

So much of my life has been influenced by the rhythm of the academic year that September often feels like a more appropriate time to take stock, re-evaluate and make plans than January.

This year I find myself very aware of the passing of time. The point was brought home to me very strongly while I was at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham at the end of August, the largest exhibition of designer-maker fine furniture in the country.

my Twirl2 coffee table and Hall Table at Cheltenham

My Twirl#2 Coffee Table and 7-Hall Table at Cheltenham

I first visited the show in 1998, the summer between the first and second years of my City and Guilds training. I had never seen such furniture and from there I was hooked! When I was working for Robin Furlong, we brought our work to exhibit. Later, when I was teaching furniture making, I visited to keep in touch with the industry, to see what techniques, materials and design features were coming to the forefront, to keep my teaching relevant and up-to-date. And since I started my own business I have been going as an exhibitor.

One of the things I became very aware of this year is that a number of exhibitors that I used to see regularly in the early years are not there any more. It started with noticing that Martin Grierson was not at the private view. He retired some years back but he’s still been very active encouraging networking and organising exhibitions. And his absence started me thinking… who else wasn’t there? A few names jumped out. Andrew Varah, a great inspiration to me and many others, died a couple of years back… Sean Feeney, Robert Hingham and others have scaled down their operations and don’t exhibit as much… Richard Williams and Barnsley Workshop seem to have changed their business models and exhibit elsewhere I guess…

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Tom Eddols Coffee Table at Cheltenham

And new people, recent graduates from a variety of courses are taking their places. I was particularly struck by the presence of Tom Eddols. Tom was a student of mine at Warwickshire College and after finishing his course went on to work for various fine furniture workshops. And this year he was there exhibiting under his own name… I enjoyed thinking that we had three “generations” exhibiting together: Robin was there – I trained under him and then I trained Tom… If Martin Grierson had been there as well, we would have had four “generations”…

I’ve been involved with this woodworking world, in one way or another, for 18 years: I started my formal training in September 1997. Many things have changed (new technologies, machines, materials) and many haven’t (wood is wood and a sharp chisel and a steady hand are still required to cut fine dovetails…) – but every year I go to Cheltenahm I meet new people that share a passion for the work and the materials. It never ceases to amaze me: the sheer variety of designs – from very “traditional” fine furniture to cutting edge pieces bordering on the “conceptual art” (Sarah’s concrete-canvas chair?!? Or fine oak pallet?); the time, attention, dedication that goes into producing that work; the research, planning, thinking, creativity that is required.

And witnessing this flow of people and ideas, the changes that I have seen in less than twenty years, led me to thinking about the slow majestic flow of “tradition”… Not something stuck in the past to be re-discovered or preserved but something alive where creativity and passion mix the old (the mortice and tenon goes back thousands of years) with the new (computer controlled machines, acrylic, synthetic resins) to make beautiful furniture. And it’s quite humbling to think that in some way I am part of that too…

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Docendo, Discimus

Looking back over the summer months, I realise that most of my reflections have been generated by visiting or taking part in exhibitions. In particular, I have to admit that I have learned a lot by seeing the work of the students of courses I am involved in. As Seneca wrote many centuries ago: when we teach, we learn.

dan's and sam's tables

dan’s and sam’s tables

Last spring, I taught for a few weeks on the first year of the BA in Furniture Design and Making at the Rycotewood Furniture Centre in Oxford. As it was a temporary cover, I saw the students start to develop their projects but I did not see the finished articles until the end of year show. In a few cases, when the students showed me their initial sketches and discussed their ideas for the tables they were making, I found it hard to understand and appreciate what they were aiming for and what the finished pieces would look like. I believe I am pretty visually literate (in terms of being able to look at a sketch and visualise it in 3D) and while I could see what they were planning to make, I could not fathom if the piece would work. Two examples stick out. Freya’s table top was made in two halves – a board of solid wood and a board of concrete that had been pressed onto the wood so that it would visually have the same pattern – basically a book-matched pattern (pretty standard) but in two different materials (not so standard). I really wasn’t sure that it would work. I was concerned that the two materials would not come together in a unified whole. I almost suggested that she keep the concrete in the middle and put wood on either side instead. I was wrong. Seeing the finished piece what stood out was the book-matched pattern rather than the colour/material contrast – it worked! Elliot had designed a very angular zig-zagging type of table. Asymmetrical. Sharp. He had even made a full size mock up – and I still couldn’t see what he was aiming for. The finished piece, with the underframe painted in various pastel shades, worked really well. What had looked (in the sketch and in the mock-up) as a jumble of lines and angles, with the help of colour turned into a pattern.

I feel that what I learned was that communicating your ideas is difficult and clients must really trust you to commission a piece. What was clear in their heads, in their vision, was not evident to me at all. Do I communicate my ideas to my clients well enough?

terri's table and clock

terri’s table and clock

At the Warwickshire College End of year exhibition I learned instead how insecure I still am about my place in the world of furniture making. Phil, a mature student, was showing an impressive body of work with professional looking business cards, seeming well intent on setting up his own business. And I am ashamed to say that my first reaction was of fear – competition in my own backyard! Scary. It took me a few minutes to shake that off and just appreciate his skill – several pieces in black walnut with a clear Art Nouveau feel to them and very well executed. Good luck, Phil! It was also good to see how much Terri’s work had progressed over the years – I taught him in the first year of the course and he showed promise then. His final pieces were very interesting, very neat and crisp.

What is interesting about the fear of competition is that I didn’t feel anything like that at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham, where I was exhibiting my work alongside some 50 other furniture makers. What I felt instead was pride at being part of such a creative, skilled and interesting bunch of people. We all have our own individual styles, approaches, aesthetics and philosophies and there is room for everybody. In the fifteen years that I’ve been involved with the world of bespoke furniture I have always been amazed at the generosity of my colleagues. There is such a willingness to share tips, techniques, contacts for materials… In many ways we are loners, we are choosing this particular career because we want to “do it my way”, but at the same time, when we get together there is such a sense of “being in it together”… The other moment of pride at CCD was finding out that two of the students I taught at Rycotewood had won the Alan Peter’s Award. Well done Sam and Dan!

Rycotewood stand at New Designers

Rycotewood stand at New Designers

I had another epiphany at New Designers in London. As I wondered around the exhibits, I noticed a console table. What struck me was that even from quite some distance away it gave the impression of a high quality piece. Why was that? It was demi-elliptical console table, very well executed in macassar ebony but not a particularly innovative design. But these were details that I could see only once up close – what had I seen from a distance? And then it struck me: a high gloss finish on a tight dense wood. At the Rycotewood show I had been slightly disappointed by Jan’s table. It was a good design, it was very well made and I had expected it to sing out just like this one was. Why hadn’t it? I think this was the reason. The top on Jan’s table was made with a much less dense timber – a reddish cedar that matched the cherry underframe very well but too open grained to give that very smooth shiny finish that looked so good on ebony. I’ve never worked with ebony but at Cheltenham I saw a timber I liked – ziricote – a Central American wood, similar in some ways to rosewood, not quite as dark as ebony and apparently more environmentally sustainable than both – used to great effect on a piece by Keith Seeley.

So now I find myself toying with the idea of making another version of my Twirl table with ziricote and a glossier finish to see what a difference it makes. What do you think?

twirl coffee table in stained oak

twirl coffee table in stained oak

I’ll keep you posted!

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