Two of my repeat clients are Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. If you walk past either of these stores in London, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds or Edinburgh and there’s something that looks a bit curvy and it’s wood, the chances are that we’ve done it. Harvey Nichols tours the installations around its stores. My thinking with commissions is that they are all for things that will exist anyway, so if I pitch for that work and get it then I will produce it in a more low-energy, sustainable, eco-friendly way and also explore my practice creatively. I was at Chelsea flower show this year and have installations in Japan, Singapore, China and the US. Locally I have two sculptures in Grizedale Forest: ‘Together’ and ‘Mountains we Made’.
My older brother Joss began training as an artistic blacksmith and set up a workshop. I was at architecture school but had become frustrated by how hypothetical it was. I’d not done any making before and when I went and helped him, I thought, ‘Wow!’ You have an idea in the morning and by the afternoon you can have made something decent and useful. So, I quit architecture and did a two-year furniture course at Rycotewood, where a furniture designer called David Colwell who did steambending gave a talk. When I tried it, for me, what came out of the steam chamber was just a hot plastic material. I saw that I could do in wood what I’d been doing in metal with my brother. My sketchbook was full of metalwork designs and I’ve got a really organic, curvy style so it was natural for me to explore that.
I’ve always been really interested in materials. If you know a material in an intimate way, then you can do the best you possibly can with it. I’ve worked with ceramics as well as lots of high-performance materials including Kevlar, but by the time I had finished at college I was thinking about sustainability and decided that if you want to make contemporary work it has to respond to the contemporary context of the world. When everything was taken into consideration – ecology, the way it performed – steam-bending greenwood was still the best option, and people love it.
If you use locally sourced green wood, you know the tree’s going to be replaced and you’re not transporting it anywhere, so the carbon footprint is kept to a minimum. I love a streamlined solution. I keep going back to steam bending because it’s such a good process. If I am going to make things – and I probably shouldn’t – then this is a good way to go.
I was down at the London design festival and there were climate protests going on outside and no one was talking about sustainability at the festival. I don’t get it. I was in a room with two or three hundred designer-makers, everyone selling fancy things for your home. Still, everyone’s poor and just needs money, I suppose. And rather than getting something that’s a bit crusty and eco-looking, the customer will still go for something made of metal and paint.
Left image: Plankton | Middle image: Witherslack Knot | Right image: Trees for Buildings
My son Casper’s mum and I travelled to eighteen countries when we first met. Then, when we got back, I had two weeks before I had to start my first Harvey Nichols commission. So, we got the van out and went to the Lake District. I’d never been here before and I thought, ‘I’ve seen the world and all along this was in England.’ I’m from Dorset originally and we’d never been north. It was so nice. I couldn’t believe it. So, we decided to stay for six months and found the house next door to this workshop. Then, completely randomly, the next-door neighbour was about to put this barn on the market. I took it for a workshop and we never left.
I’m a designer–maker and I’m an artist. When I was in London recently I described myself as an artist, so that people knew I made sculptures and non-functional things. I think for designers it’s often more like a job than a passion or calling. When I first started, I thought that all designers were obsessed but they’re not. I think I’m quite an obsessive person. I think I’d rather be thought of as an artist than a designer–maker because I have a reason or narrative behind why I make a piece of work in a particular way.
Yes, there’s a walker’s café downstairs and some children with special needs from Kendal used to turn up in a minibus twice a year and want to know what I was working on. So, I’d show them around and then they’d want to make something too. I then got funding to make stuff with them and one of the products available on the website is exclusive to them or community groups. Now I hang out with them every week. This feels relevant.
It’s always the last thing. I’ve gone back to product design, which is where I started. Every year we had an open weekend where other makers or anyone can come along and I shared all my secrets. Then we started doing one-day courses. It evolved into the beginners’ steambending course. In the morning we take you into the woods and explain about how trees grow and what trees are and how steam-bending works, the ecology and why I choose it over other processes. Then we come back and bend ten different species of wood and we do a wide range of stuff which takes us through to lunchtime. And then at the end of the day they make something – a full-on product to take home. By the beginning of this year, people were actually making nice lampshades. I never intended for that to happen – I just wanted to teach them about the process. I’m proud of it because people are really happy
Honestly, when they go home, they’ve learned loads and they go home with something. And they hang a lampshade in their kitchen and they’re going to keep that forever. I still get emails from two years ago, and they send me a picture of their lampshade and it may not have the best finish, but they say ‘I love it. I look at it every day,’ and the reason they love it is that they made it themselves.