First published British Woodworking September 2008
Innovation in British Furniture Design
This is the first of a new series about British Furniture Design. I’m writing this in the context of a renaissance in British furniture making and furniture design. A golden period akin to that of Thomas Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite, great names evocative of a great period in English furniture making. But hopefully here I’ll do more than bang the drum of British furniture design. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk with you about what good design is, what good furniture making is, what quality is, what art is. For all of these things are essential if one is to make sense of good workmanship. Nothing saddens me more than seeing hundreds even thousands of hours poured in to a piece of exquisite workmanship only to be let down by poor design. If technique and craftsmanship give us the ‘how’, then design gives us an explanation, at least in part, as to the ‘why’. The reason, the motivation, for spending hundreds of hours making something truly extraordinary.
“There is no such thing as art….. there are only artists, who are favoured with a gift of balancing shapes and colours until they get it right. And rarer still, who posses the integrity of character which never rests content with half solutions, but is ready to forgo all easy effects, all superficial success for the toil and agony of sincere work” Ernst H Gombrich 1950. The Story of Art. This is the first paragraph of one of the earliest editions of what would describe itself as one of the most famous and popular books on art ever published. For 45 years it has remained unrivalled as an introduction to the whole subject, from the earliest cave paintings to the experimental art of today. Yet Prof. Gombrich’s radical and powerful introduction to the subject has been tempered over the years to something a little more accommodating to the art market of today. To say there is no such thing as art, though true, is challenging. To focus instead upon the challenges facing the producer rather than what is produced is invigorating, for it is this process that we want to examine. How is it done, what is it done for, what is important about it, how does the creative craftsperson work, what is valuable, what is not.
More than a year ago I attended an exhibition of contemporary British furniture that had the extraordinary effect of making me feel physically uncomfortable. Not to put to great a point upon it the work made me feel ill. The work of art is meant to move you, often physically, but not in this way. This exhibition entitled ‘A Celebration of Craftsmanship’ surrounded me with the work of young aspiring makers producing objects in which hundreds and thousands of hours had been invested, yet the overall effect was, to me at least, dispiriting. What was missing? What was not there? It is that, the why, the soul, the heart , that I want to talk about.
When taking on a large subject it is wise to attempt to digest it in small pieces and the structure and strategy of this series is to look at design in a series of discreet focused and complete chapters. Each article taking on a subject, and aspect of the conundrum that is art and design. In this case I’m going to start with the subject that foxed probably 80% of those makers exhibiting at Cheltenham last year. The subject of innovation. It’s one of the features of truly creative work that it is innovative, that it is different, it is in some way challenging to us. It’s one of the things we look out for. However, I do not in my heart believe that mere innovation alone is sufficient to move me. The Mark 1 eyeball is a terrifically clever animal. She will analyse a group of shapes, forms, in the twinkling. She can spot a dud line at 100 yards and is ever seeking to be visually enchanted and entertained. It is the Mark 1 eyeball that is the driver of fashion, together with a considerable industry that also benefits from it financially, but we won’t go into dreary commerce. It’s this requirement for innovation, for newness, for freshness. It’s this craving to make something new that induces the production of such vomit making furniture. Everybody wants to do something new. So lets grab the legs off of that, and the top off of that, and the finish off of that and what we end up with is a piece of furniture with all the elegance of a camel, and frankly I’m fed up with it.
So what does the innovative attitude of the designer give us? I’d like to compare chairs made by two furniture makers. The first is John Brown and the second is John Makepeace. John Brown is not a well known figure and not even his greatest friend could describe his work as being boldly innovative. John was a chair maker within a tradition of stick back chair making. He worked to my mind with great integrity, sensitivity and true awareness of what a good piece of furniture should be. But he worked without the objective of turning the chair on it’s head and starting again. John Brown was innovative but within the context of the details of the piece. He played around with proportion. He looked hard at the shapes and weights of different components, he bottomed out his seats and turned his spindles, he bowed his arms and tapered his legs, all with infinite care and sensitivity. You get the feeling that a chair made by John Brown was finished and polished with the sweat from his own brow. There is no bit of that chair that was ever given to anybody else. His work, his hands, his heart is deep within the fibres of the material. His whole personality infects the chair giving it presence, honesty, quality. Now there’s a word I don’t use very often. Quality. By that I don’t mean ‘quality assured’, or ‘hand made by robots’, I mean genuine creative quality. But it is a piece within it own oeuvre, within it’s own tradition. Most of John Brown’s stick back chairs stand out from the pack as being damn well made chairs, but would not define the moment they had been made. Would not change the way we look at chairs in the way that a John Makepeace chair might do.
The first time I saw Millennium I can honestly say that it was heart stopping, and that really is the test for me of whether a piece of work is profoundly good. We often say a work of art moves us and the art critic of The Times, David Sylvester, would describe the physical effects upon his body, the trembling hand, that a great painting would have. Moving us often literally means exactly that. Do we, can we perceive within our bodies a physical effect. Another test, especially with furniture for me is ‘the bastard, I wish I’d made that’. If I feel like that it’s a good one.
But why is Millennium so good? It was in lots of ways a development of techniques and forms that John Makepeace had been working on for two, maybe three decades. With chairs like Mitre, John Makepeace had shown the technical competence of his workshop. Laminating compound forms in ebony, a timber renowned for it’s ability to not stick one piece to another, and Millennium is a step on from that. Laminating compound shapes in a white timber like holly with totally invisible glue line is still incredibly impressive but these days we see technical competence and workshop mastery almost as a given, but John Makepeace was the first to push it to extremes. The forms of Millennium are like no other chair that goes before it. It has obvious influences from other periods and critics and art historians talk about the exact stylistic links to earlier movements, but the key thing is that it marks a point in the development of the history of chair making. It puts down a landmark. Before this point chairs weren’t like this, after this point they were influenced by the way that John Makepeace went about chair making, and that perhaps is something worth shouting about. If we accept that the things that we invent describe our lives, that common things from spoons and pens to chairs and bicycles are all made bearing the signature of our time and place and history will be learnt from the artefacts that we leave behind then this chair is of paramount importance. However, as a chair I cannot say I would want to be that close to it. I can feel very little of John Makepeace’s warmth and personality from within it’s bounds. Whereas a John Brown chair would sit in the sunshine and hum a pretty song to me, Millennium sits in an air conditioned museum, admired by many, but known by very few.