Warwickshire Open Studios 2017

This gallery contains 13 photos.

In 2017 Studio 16 opened its doors to the most diverse, interesting and participative crowd ever, we welcomed many spectacular visitors ready with curiosity, insights or alternative visions. This year we presented original works by our three in-residence makers and … Continue reading

Growing up…

I walk into the local hardware store: Rob is standing behind the counter; one of his colleagues is carrying around several cups of tea and handing them out to the various assistants. I greet Rob and make some lame joke about having been missed out from the coffee run…
“What can I do for you?”
“Can you order me a tub of Cascamite, please”;
“What size?”
“Half a kilo…”
He makes a note in his order book:
“It’ll be in on Tuesday”.
“Great! Thank you” and I walk out.
By any means not an unusual interaction: the sort of thing that happens millions of times a day all over the country. Not unusual for me either: I go into that store several times a month for similar errands.  A couple of other details to flesh out the picture. The store in question is not a small corner shop nor a large chain store. It’s an independent store that serves the local construction trade with hardware supply and tool rental, including heavy plant machinery. It has a good reputation for service, technical expertise and range of products.
But that day it seemed extremely significant for me. Because as I walked out I had a memory of another errand, some 40 years ago.
A boy of 10 or 11 walks into the local hardware store.  It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from his house but it’s a big deal: this is the first time he’s done it on his own.
The shop is very busy. Men with greasy hands, or covered in plaster dust, walk in and out, talking some arcane language,  made of technical jargon and grown men humour… (I love the scene in “Grand Torino” where Clint Eastwood teaches a shy young man how men talk). He waits. And he waits. And he waits. After what feels like several hours (and might have been, who knows?) the store clerk finally addresses the boy: he’d thought the boy was there with one of the tradesmen and had ignored him up to that point. The boy finally gets to buy a pack of blades for his fretsaw and goes home.
That’s what struck me as I walked out of the TCL store: I’ve become one of those grown ups. I knew the store clerk by name, I could make conversation with him. He didn’t need to ask me my name or account number to process the order – if I’d asked him to deliver it, he would have known my business address.
I’m over 50. I have been working as a professional furniture maker for over 15 years: first as a maker, then as course manager training apprentices and finally I’ve been running my own business for some 6 years.
But so much of the time I still feel like that little boy in the hardware store. Shyly looking around myself, surrounded by “real” men that know what they are talking about. I am very aware of how much more than me some of my colleagues know about timber and furniture making. How some talk much more confidently about business matters. How others have much better design and drawing skills. And at those moments I can easily end up feeling small, ignorant, uncertain…
Lately I completed a major commission for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A set of benches in oak: bespoke seating for a garden in Stratford-on-Avon where Shakespeare’s house used to be, known as Shakespeare’s New Place. To deliver it I ended up hiring an articulated lorry some 15m long and putting together a team of 20 people to help me load and unload. I’d never had dealings with a truck hire company: I reached out to my contacts for advice and one of them replied very confidently that I “needed a 2 ton flat back”. That’s how real men talk.  I could tell that a “2ton flat back” is a lorry but I wouldn’t be able to pick one out of a lorry line-up. And for a few days I was that little boy again. Too scared to phone a truck hire company for fear of sounding stupid and ignorant of things that a “real” man of my age “should” know…  And finally I did it and the rep was really helpful and we discussed my requirements and hire charges and insurance matters, all grown-up like and matter-of-fact.

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Students from Warwickshire College Furniture Crafts courses helped me to move the benches for Shakespeare’s New Place

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The benches on the lorry

Those of you that follow my blog will be aware that much of my journey in the last few years has been about identity. Who am I? why and how do I do what I do? That’s the significance of the epiphany in the hardware store car park.
That I am a man: grown-up, capable, competent, confident. And I am a man: unsure, shy if not downright scared, needing help and support from other men. It’s taken me years to start to understand that. It’ll probably take me more to fully accept it. But I have been very very lucky. From my teenage years onwards I have had friendships  – with men my age and older, and nowadays, younger – where I have been able to have these sorts of conversations. I’ve been in men’s groups for over 20 years and I have been privileged to see the vulnerability, the pain, the fear that these men don’t (and, more often than not, can’t) show in their day-to-day professional, grown-up personas. And yet, I still feel bad when I fail to live up to the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood macho model of manhood I was brought up with…
I guess I’m not quite done growing up, yet.

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One of the New Place benches on site, with Simon and Philipp, who helped me make them.

I’ve seen the light!

I love it when serendipitous encounters suddenly shine a light on some undiscovered aspect of myself.

On my way back from a delivery a few days back, on the spur of the moment, I popped in to see Sarah Silver of Bastian Contrarian, an experienced copywriter and skilled translator, and a friend. We had a good chat over coffee and then she invited me to see the studio of Nick Logan, an artist and wonderful oil painter.

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Nick Logan’s Portrait of an Old Man (work in progress) after Rembrandt

While looking around Nick’s studio, my attention was caught by an oil painting of a bearded man – a work in progress. I discovered later this is an homage to Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Man”.

I love art in many forms, I go to exhibitions, have my favourite paintings etc. but I don’t know anything about the actual technique of painting. Three years of art classes at middle school made sure of that. All I remember of those years is trying to paint a landscape with a tree a sheep and a road (or perhaps it was a stream)… failing miserably and not getting any real tuition on what I was doing wrong or how I could have improved… so I never really tried again. I can just about use watercolours to give a bit of texture to my sketches before I present them to the clients but I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Looking at the painting that Nick had been working on though, I saw something I had never seen before (probably because for the first time in my life I was looking at it as work in progress rather than as a finished piece).

When I visualize my furniture, when I sketch it, draw it and even when I am just doodling I see objects in solid blocks. I basically draw in the same way as I make: one square block here, one block with a corner cut off there, etc. Everything is defined: there are rigid lines to determine where a piece begins and the next starts. If I use texture lines at all is simply to indicate the grain direction and pattern rather than any depth.

But on Nick’s painting there were NO LINES! What I saw, for the first time in my life, was that the whole thing was defined not by solid objects, parts, components (this is the nose, this is the ear, this are the lips…) but by light. There was no line to say “here endeth the nose and here the cheek begins”… there were just changes in light! Changes in tone, in colour, in hue but just changes in light.

I was trying to explain my realisation to Nick and he knew exactly what I was talking about. In the same way as I look at objects as defined by the shapes of their components, he looks at objects as defined by the shapes of the light. He sees shapes too but he sees the shapes that the light creates.

I think that’s why I’ve never mastered the skill of rendering – because I am fixated on the “object” rather than the light. I don’t pay attention to the light because (in my mind) that’s ephemeral: it changes with the position of the object in the room, with the time of the day, with the weather; whereas for me the shape of the component (the leg, the handle etc.) it’s permanent and constant…

And so I am left wondering: what would happen to my designs if I started looking at light rather than at objects?  You’ll just have to wait and see: I intend to keep this insight in my awareness as I go about my business of looking at the world for inspiration.

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…

The Designer’s Ego

Mark Newson’s Lockeed Lounge Chair recently sold for £2.4 million, making it the most expensive design object to date. While I don’t think Newson will make any money directly from such a transaction on the secondary market (unless, with clever foresight, he built any such conditions in the original sale transaction: would that be possible at all?), it will certainly affect the perceived value of any product even remotely associated with his name. Does that turn the chair into an art Marc-Newson-Lockheed-Lounge-at-Phillips-design-auction_dezeen_784_0piece? After all, you don’t spend that amount of money on a piece of furniture because it’s comfortable (though it might be, for all I know) or just the right size for that awkward space in the living room – in the same way as you don’t spend tens of millions on a van Gogh because the colours match the wall paper. The value of the piece rests not in the objects themselves and their functionality but on their significance, much of it resting on the “name”.

At the recent symposium “Ideas in the Making” in Oxford, one of the recurring themes was the importance for creative people to approach their work with humility, keeping their ego in check, whether by acknowledging a sense of ‘inspiration’ that is somehow extrinsic to themselves, or simply by accepting the need to subsume one’s personal preferences to the requirements of the design brief. The architect/designer Giuseppe Boscherini made an impassionate plea to recognise how the design process is a collaborative effort. While we are used to actors acknowledging and thanking a whole raft of people (family, producers, directors, colleagues) in their acceptance speeches and writers dedicate paragraphs to recognise the contribution of editors, researchers, advisers and (usually) long suffering family members, such expressions of gratitude seem to be much rarer in the field of design.

I found the same theme in “Artista e Designer”, by Bruno Munari. He takes the point even further making it the defining difference between the two fields. In his view art is a personal endeavour: the artist’s goal is ultimately always self-expression, whatever form they choose to work in (even risking inaccessibility, misunderstanding and rejection), whereas the work of the designer is one of collaborative efforts (with users, technicians, craftspeople, engineers etc.) in order to develop pragmatic, accessible and functional objects, where even the aesthetics are determined by materials, manufacturing and usability rather than personal preference. Paradoxically, despite his attacks on the cult of personality in design, he is probably the first designer I was ever aware of: my first school satchel in the early ’70 was designed by Bruno Munari – I remember being aware of the fact at the time, even though at 7yrs old I had no conscious interest in design and designers. (By the way, Munari’s book is well worth reading – while dated in some respects, it was published in 1971 – some of his sarcastic sideswipes at aspects of the art market he disapproves of and at artists’ attempts at product design had me laughing out loud – ).

I see much of this tension in the world of craft designer makers. On the one hand there is much talk of re-inventing and rediscovering a vernacular crafts tradition (hence the pastel colours and faux-rustic setting of the New Craftsmen gallery for instance) while on the other hand much of the ‘value’ of those same products is attached to the persona of the makers and a to practices that are closer to the art world: signed limited editions, numbered and catalogued short runs and one off pieces. Soetsu Yanagi in “The Unknown Craftsman” pointed out how much of the work of studio

The unknown craftsmanpotters seemed to be about deliberately recreating imperfections and asymmetries of earlier traditional (‘vernacular’) pieces; defects that in the original were due to the economic pressures of manufacturing: the makers were paid by the piece and the cost had to be kept low as these were, at the time, everyday objects not museum pieces; those same imperfections, in the world of studio pottery, now representing added value as well as an individual maker’s mark.

I see that same tension in my business. Some of my clients, in the best vernacular tradition, if you will, simply come to me because I am their local woodworker: what they want is a piece to fit a particular corner of the house (and there is nothing on the market of the right size, or shape, or colour), or they ask me to modify an existing piece to improve its functionality (take a shelf off for instance). They want somebody with the practical skills to do a good job of making a functional, usable piece that fits with the rest of the furniture in the room – regardless of current trends or of my own personal aesthetic preferences. I even had people walking into the workshop with a piece of wood simply to ask me to cut it up because their DIY skills or their equipment at home was not up to the task.

Others though, come to me because they have seen my work and they like my “style”. They still want a practical solution (a table, a set of shelves), but with the added value of my aesthetics, my craft skill, my problem solving contribution: my signature, as it were. They don’t just want a table but a Magnino table. From here to one of my pieces being resold for millions is quite a gap, but only a quantitative one, not a qualitative one.

After all, no matter how self-effacing I would like to be (in some ways), for my business to be successful and sustainable I need to maintain a visible profile. I have to keep emphasising my Unique Selling Point, as they say. What I offer is a service, and not an essential one. Nor am I the only one, even locally. What makes my work different from other makers? Why should you choose me over somebody else? Ultimately just me: my approach, my sensibilities, my aesthetics, my listening and problem solving skills, my understanding of materials and production processes: the service I provide. So, not unlike the Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping, how do I say “look at me, look at me” without ego?

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Twelve Days

…and it came to pass that I discovered that I carried an unspoken rule: that my posts should be well thought out arguments or at least clearly develop a specific theme and question. And I found that this kept me stuck: in the past 12 days several things have sparked thoughts and reflections; hints that might develop further… but at the moment they are no more than raw inklings. And I decided to share them anyway.

On 25th February I went to visit “William Blake: apprentice and master” at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I haven’t had any dealings with Blake since my early twenties but at the time he was one of my favourite poets. And within minutes of entering the exhibition, I was under his spell again. What is it that moves me so much in his work? As the exhibition demonstrates he was a very skilled and accomplished printer and engraver but technically his poetry is relatively simple. His use of language does not have the subtlety of a T.S. Eliot (to pick another of my favourites…) but his work has power!

William Blake - Ancient of Days

William Blake – Ancient of Days

“Rinthrah roars and shakes his fires”… say it out loud a few times savouring the sound: you don’t need to know what sort of creature Rinthrah is, nor how it fits in Blake’s hellish visions to feel its fiery power.

Wondering why Blake’s work carries such strong resonance for me I was reminded of a clip from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon that I used to play at the beginning of the design lessons. Bruce Lee in the role of a Shaolin teacher asks his pupil to throw a kick and he is not satisfied until the student can do it correctly: not with anger, not for show… it’s not even a matter of technique: “We need emotional content” he powerfully admonishes the student.

I guess that’s what I hear in Blake’s work: “emotional content”. Not a facile appeal to pathos or bathos in order to spark a superficial sentimental reaction. Emotional content in the sense of being fully present and immersed in the work. Of pouring all of oneself into it, whether it’s a kung fu kick or an engraving.

 

On Saturday 28th I was at Warwick University attending TedX Warwick. It was an interesting day, with a wide ranging series of talks. But I must admit that the thing the struck me most was the photographs. Loads of people were taking photographs on their phones – all day. Some I could just about understand: of the speakers, of the dancers. But others I couldn’t: of the empty stage with the logo, of the food they were having for lunch, selfies next to a great big red X in the enatrance hall… I don’t understand it. I photograph my work because I need to keep an up to date portfolio to show prospective clients, to provide to magazines and websites and to attach to applications to exhibitions. But my lunch? Me by the beach? What is that about? Marina Warner in Phantasmagoria has several chapters that deal with photography. At one point she quotes Italo Calvino’s “The adventure of a photographer” whose protagonist refuses ‘to live the present as a future memory’. Is that what it is about? Seeing the present as a memory already? Or, given that those pictures more than likely will be shared online, is it that the experience becomes real only once it has been witnessed by our ‘friends’ and ‘followers’? How does it affect your experience of the “present” the fact that you are looking at it through a lens – effectively distancing yourself from it? That you are effectively constantly interpreting it not for what it is but for how it will be seen by others?

 

And finally on Saturday 7th March I was back in Oxford for “Love is enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol”. A very interesting combination. I don’t know much about Andy Warhol, and I can’t say that this exhibition has done much to make me want to look at his work in much more depth. It was interesting to discover that there is more depth than I thought to his art, that there is some serious phylosophycal thought behind it… but it still doesn’t grab me. As for William Morris… well, a couple of things struck me. I have always struggled with his wallpaper designs and now I know why: they are just too full, too busy… What I really enjoyed was looking at the “cartoons” (I believe that is the term) of the wallpapers . Full size pencil drawings on paper. Those were just great. What you could see in them was the very careful geometry that underlies the design. I knew it was there, otherwise you can’t have a repeating pattern, but these laid it bare. Usually there was only one iteration of the pattern with enough details of the surrounding repeats to understand how they tasselated together. And only a small portion of the pattern was coloured in… just enough to give all the information necessary to the setters so that they could carry out the work. And so what you had were bright patches of colour in the centre of an intricate geometric pattern that became more vague and diffused as it expanded: just gorgeous! Why would you want a whole wall of it? Repeating it over and over, filling every space, just kills it for me.

Morris, Burne-Jones and others - The Vision of the Holy Grail

Morris, Burne-Jones and others – The Vision of the Holy Grail

The other thing that struck me was about scale. In the first room there was a tapestry by Morris, Burne Jones and others, part of the series about the Grail quest. I would guess it was more than 2 metres high and 6 metres long. And at that size it made a much more powerful impact than the reproductions I have seen in books and catalogues…

And it made me think. I tend to think small: coffee tables, clocks, cabinets, hall tables. What would I design, if I thought big? If I had to create something to fill a whole wall? Linking back to the thoughs about the wall paper above: how would I balance filling and owning the space with my need for emptyness, for room around things?

Thinking about Blake’s powerful beings and Morris’s Grail knights and wallpapers: what creatures, gods, monsters, geometric patterns would I devise? And how would I ensure that their appearance has such power?

PS – while searching for an image, I discovered that Love is Enough will come to Birmingham Museum later in the year! I’m going again: more of the Grail tapestries will be on display. And if anybody with a better understanding of Warhol cared to join me to help me understand him better I would really appreciate it.

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The Adventurous Forest

Why do I do what I do?

It’s a simple question with a many layered answer.

First of all, because I enjoy it (most days) – perhaps not all aspects of running my business and not all of the time but:

I enjoy the sense of satisfaction I get from making each piece – from the pleasure of solving a challenging making problem with use of clever jigs, to the feeling of smooth shavings coming off the hand tools (although the timber does not always cooperate…), the physical reassurance of feeling my body working, moving, doing… The sense of self-confidence I get when things work out and I feel capable and competent. And finally the sense of achievement when the piece is finished: something that I made!

beautiful shavings off a hand plane

beautiful shavings off a hand plane

I enjoy the praise when people like my work, when they go “Wow!”. I feel clever and capable. And at the same time I often struggle to hear the praise – I do carry a strong fear that I’m just  lucky coming up with these ideas… That at the end of the day, I am just making it up as I go along – I do not have any cast-in-stone rules to be sure I produce beautiful work so it could all go disastrously wrong next time and people would go “what is that s**t? (and I do get people telling me that they don’t like my work and that’s fine, I can live with that – as long as enough people tell me they like it…)

I enjoy the intellectual challenge of coming up with the designs, drawing them, figuring out how to make them, sourcing materials and all the preparation work that it’s necessary.

I enjoy going to exhibitions, shows, meeting colleagues and feeling part of a network of people with ‘something’ in common even though our stories and approaches are so different.

On a good day I even enjoy all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running the business: maintaining a web presence, dealing with insurance, admin, accounting, reading and researching to develop new ideas and keep up to date with materials… Although I do get stuck from time to time (and then for a couple of weeks nothing happens except the most urgent stuff) and although I do feel overwhelmed quite often… I am getting better…

So in brief, I do it because, most of the time, what I do makes me feel good about myself. And since I need to earn a living, I want my job to be something I enjoy.

And this is where another layer comes in. I think one of the aspects that helps me feel good about my work is that I have chosen it freely.

There is a lot of talk (especially around work) about finding your passion, following your passion. Is that what I have done? Is furniture making my passion? I don’t think so. Reflecting on a friend’s blog recently , I realised that furniture making and design has become such an important part of my life only because I have made it so: by giving it so much attention and focus, by investing so much of my energy and time – but it could have been some other topic, some other skill… I guess that having an initial sense of affinity with something helps to turn it into a passion, but I am also starting to think that it’s how I focus my energy, how much of myself I give into something that turns it into a passion. For instance, I love playing music – but I’ve never invested the time, concentration, dedication that I put into learning to make furniture: I don’t know if I could have been a great musician, but I know I could have been (could still be?) a much better one. On the other hand, my friend Eleanor Brown… well, her life is full of music and her music is full of her life.

When I enrolled on my first City and Guilds course in my mid-30s, I did not have a clear idea of where I was going to go with it.

My first project on the City and Guilds course - an occasional  table in Maple

My first project on the City and Guilds course – occasional table in Maple

All I knew was that I needed to do something to get out of a job that I was not enjoying anymore. I only discovered bespoke fine furniture in the summer between the first and second year of the course. And then I knew that that was the sort of work I wanted to do.

When I left my first cabinet making job with Robin Furlong, it was because (although he is a lovely man and the work was very good) I was missing being in an environment with more people around (my previous career was in group work, so I was used to seeing lots of people every day) so taking up teaching seemed an opportunity to fulfil that need.

The Gullwing Cabinet I made for Robin Furlong was awarded a Furniture Guild Mark

The Gullwing Cabinet I made for Robin Furlong was awarded a Furniture Guild Mark

When I left my course leader job, it was because I wasn’t doing enough ‘making’ and I was frustrated with the absurdities of the education system. I enrolled on the degree at Rycotewood as a way to refresh my skills and to take time to see what options I had.

When I finally set up my business, it was not a lifelong ambition – far from it – but out of the options open to me, it seemed to be the only one that had a chance to address my needs most fully.

So now I design and run a business (and that keeps my mind active, creative, challenged…), I make furniture (and that keeps my body and my skills in good shape), I work in a collaborative studio and I teach evening classes (so I’m still involved in education and I get to see people) and I write a blog to explore my thinking, motivation and meaning (in short, a sort of spiritual discipline…)

I believe that the underlying factor that moves me and has guided my choices is a promise I made to myself when I was a teenager. The promise of living a life I could believe in, I could commit myself to with determination, with passion, with freedom – and that applies to work too: I don’t understand the split work/life. If I need to spend so much of my life in work, then I want my work to be part of my life – something that challenges me, nourishes me, something that I can do with passion – not just counting the days till the weekend or till retirement. I want my work to be something that helps me in my quest to be fully me and fully alive!

I am aware (and grateful) that I am fortunate in having this choice. If things had been even just slightly different in my genes, my family, my upbringing, my social, financial, academic and physical circumstances, I might not feel I have a choice at all. But I do have that choice. As Joseph Campbell was fond of pointing out, the knights of the Round Table, when they set off on the Quest for the Grail, “each entered the Forest Adventurous at that point which he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.” I do what I do because my quest has taken me here. There is no path and there are times of darkness and aimless wondering and despair. And there are times when you come out and see that even the darkness is full of stars. The journey continues…

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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