How did you come to settle here and what role does the nature of this unique environment play in your creative process?
I grew up in Oxfordshire which is very flat, quiet and yet seemingly full of people. I yearned to live somewhere more hilly and more sparsely populated. So when the opportunity arose to move to Northumberland I was very excited about it. We’ve been living here for nearly nine years now and I enjoy it more and more. I think there is something about living in such a remote location with not many houses and few people that gives me space to breathe. This has had a huge impact on the way I think and relate to my work. I seek a sense of calm and resonance in my work, and in some way, my love for wood is a reflection of my need to be in the countryside; I think there is something about natural materials that puts me at ease.
So in many ways the move north was a catalyst for the work you now do….?
When we moved here I kind of knew that I wanted to work with my hands. I did the obvious thing and got myself a shed and just started tinkering and making. I made so many different things, from mirrors to toys. In retrospect I suppose it was inevitable that I would start making furniture. I was fortunate enough to be noticed early by a shop in New York. Then, slowly, interior designers in and around London started contacting me.
That sounds like a kind of dream start to any business.
Well everything went well until I hit the equivalent of writer’s block a few years ago; in the same way that I had had the urge to do something with my hands I now had the urge to innovate. The problem was that I didn’t actually like innovative contemporary furniture; I prefer minimal restrained work and I struggled to reconcile the urge to innovate with my taste in furniture. During this time I injured two of my fingers on one of my machines and I was forced to take six weeks off work.
So you were forced to pause and to step back from your work at a crucial moment?
Yes but this turned out to be an important six weeks for me because I allowed myself to indulge in learning new skills in relation to innovation and product design. I studied design software and researched machinery used in industry for manufacturing wooden parts. Within about six months I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to build my own computer-controlled machine for cutting wood, a CNC machine. So I’m now in the rather unusual position of combining a craft-based workshop with design software and a computer-controlled machine.
I can see how this could really reinvigorate your approach, but this embracing of technology doesn’t appear to impact on the design process. Your work retains a very natural sparseness and often echoes natural forms. Is this a conscious decision… where does your inspiration come from?
My daughter and I found some hedgehog bones back in the autumn and were mesmerised by the forms in some of them. We were particularly intrigued by the more complex bones, the shoulder bones, hip bones and the skull. Anyway, I took them home and put them in a little pan and boiled them until they were completely clean. I loved the shapes and the contours, the way they are no heavier or lighter than they need to be: the perfect balance of refinement and robustness. I think it’s this balance which resonates deeply with me and is beautiful to me. So I look to bones as an example of ideal refinement, and it is this that I attempt to achieve with the pieces I make.
One of my most recent tables was inspired by the holes that I had seen in bones that I have found. You find these holes in hip bones and in the skull; they are called foramen. A table I made recently is inspired by the hedgehog bones. I called the table the ‘foramen’ table, but it inevitably ended up being called the hedgehog table!
When you start a new piece of work what are you trying to achieve?
I am quite inconsistent in my approach. I often have very different starting points. I heard an interview with the writer Neil Gaiman who said that there are two types of writer: dolphins and otters. Dolphins can be trained to perform and can repeat performances over and over again. They constantly improve and refine their performance. Otters, on other hand, are much harder to train; you can reward them for doing something one day but it’s unlikely they’ll do it again the next day. The authors who are dolphins are fantastic and are able to commit to a specific genre and constantly improve their work (think J. K. Rowling) whereas otter authors experiment with different genres.
I feel something similar is true in most fields. In my field, craft and product design, there are many people who are exceptional at one thing; for example, making spoons. These people are happiest when they are refining their skills in doing that one thing to a higher and higher standard; these are clearly the dolphins. On the other hand, otter crafts people and product designers are happiest when they are trying something new. I actually don’t think people are one or the other but I do think that we tend to lean slightly one way or the other. I am constantly trying new things and new ways of working so I think I lean quite heavily towards the otter.
So this desire to innovate seems a really key factor in the process of designing a new product… how much weight do you place on requirement for functionality and how much on the styling?
I have two strands of work here, the first is the craft approach. Here I’m not starting with a design, instead I’m starting with an existing product like a box and then essentially doing my version of it. As I make boxes over and over again by hand, I change one or two things about how the box is made, it’s dimensions, or what it looks like. These changes aren’t premeditated, and sometimes they are a mistake where I accidentally make things thinner or more refined than I intended to and then end up actually preferring the piece like that.
What frustrates you the most and what excites you the most about your own work?
The difficulties and pleasures seem to go hand in hand. I love working with wood and solving problems it presents. Wood has become increasingly beautiful to me the more time I have spent with it. I guess it was an acquired taste for me... it was nice to begin with, but over time it started to resonate more and more. Working with unusual wood I get to experience it in its various stages of refinement, from rough sawn to machined, right through to a silky smooth finish. I am particularly fond of raw wood with no oil or finish. I find that often the oil or wax finish becomes a barrier between the wood and the observer that is slightly alienating. The only problem is that wood, without some kind of protection, absorbs dirt very easily. To try and solve this I have developed certain techniques and uses of oils and wax which leave a very matt finish, as close to its raw appearance as possible while still protecting the wood.
So finally, what makes a good day?
Solving problems and puzzling is my happiness. Fortunately there are plenty of puzzles in working with wood. One strange thing I love is having to repair mistakes as they often require quite a bit of puzzling to work out the best way to do this. Oh and days when I don’t break anything… those are always good days!
Photography: Dan May
First published: October 2017