Chairmaking Syposium 2004


The first line of this article could best be sung to the tune of a well-known folk song as I was going to Tetbury Fair. However at present I lack even the energy to whistle. I am tapping this blog off in the peace and quiet of what has turned out to be a exhausting 3-days Bank Holiday event. This was a new event conceived by the wonderfully named Cloe Darling (yes, she is as nice as she sounds). An event bringing together chair makers from all over the world to spend a few days sharing not only lectures, workshops but also convivial evenings and pleasant walks around the wonderful western verges of Westonbirt Arboretum the idea was that we each should bring one chair that will form an exhibition to which the public would be invited to attend. At the end of the symposium those chairs that makers didnt want to take home could be auctioned at a public auction.

The attraction to me was the opportunity to meet fellow chair makers particularly people whose work I knew either from exhibitions at home or abroad but had never had the chance to spend any time with. Usually at an exhibitions private view youre working hard with little time to chat to collegues and compare war wounds. This was also a chance for me to meet young new makers and see what they are up to. Even though I was up for it nothing had quite prepared me for meeting George Morgan, but more of that later.

I arrived on the Thursday as instructed to find three large very wet marquees and half a dozen people in blue sweatshirts running around like scalded chickens. I was later to learn that almost all the people in the blue sweatshirts were called James, although one of them was rather affectionately known as Custard. I think that was my lowest point. Not learning about Custard but seeing the damp tents. Years ago one of my customers had said if youre selling expensive furniture David why are you doing it in a rain soaked tent. This was when part of my marketing strategy included a series of County Shows. Although one has to start somewhere he was right, and at that moment I didnt really want to be in another rain soaked tent. So I put my chair where I was told and quietly took my catalogue and went to my very expensive bed and breakfast. The chair symposium coincided with the Badminton Horse Trials which had driven the price of accommodation through the ceiling, I paid 90 a night for a very nice bed and breakfast that either side of this unfortunate weekend would have been half that price. As it happens the rain continued all weekend and the more the rain poured down the more I though that my decision to stay at an expensive bed and breakfast rather than a cheap campsite was an exceptionally good one. Later that night I settled down with the catalogue and saw in greater detail who else was coming. At first sight the preponderance of Windsor chair makers and shaker replica chair makers was a little disappointing. I say disappointing because there is a kind of negativity about people that make reproductions or replicas of existing styles of chairs, its abit like members of the Morris Traveller owners club. Perhaps this is are best summed up in the catalogue entry by Tino Rawnsley. Tino makes quite nicely a very average looking shaker backed rocking chair. Its average looks are described very clearly in this catalogue entry. Drawing inspiration from the woods where he works Tino believes that making by hand enriches and fortifies the soul and that the maker should understand and be involved in all processes from the growing and the culture of trees and woodland to the harvesting, processing and making. So far so good. the idea that good hand made work should be accessible and not driven by design for the sake of it underpins the attitude of the workshop. Well that explains why Tinos chair is so damn dull. Im sorry Tino you make great wood and your solar kiln project is a very interesting one but I would suggest that if you want to sell all that wood to local furniture makers, as you were suggesting it, might be prudent not to go chucking so many verbal bricks around.

For me one of the most interesting chairs at the exhibition was not a chair but a 3-legged stool, not made so much as grown, by Chris Cattle. Chris is not a craftsman but an eco-inspired ex-designer for industry. Chris has had the brilliant idea of adapting the training and grafting of young trees to enable the 3-legs of the stool to be jointed together in a natural manner. These 3-legs shown here had not been jointed but grown together. The process takes four or five years but thats not long in the great scheme of things and the potential of this scheme is really quite inspirational.

Ive know David Colewells steamed ash chairs for many years, although Ive admired his simple clean designs its always baffled me why he has appearedto be making variations of the same chair for the past 25 years. But his seminar piece was interesting and informative as it explained how he develops each component for what he calls performance. He went on to compare two recent chairs which though superficially similar were quite fundamentally different in structure. David has a view that if one could improve the performance of each component the appearance would improve as a consequence rather like the World War Two Spitfire fighter plane was a supremely efficient piece of aeronautic design and incidentally a very beautiful aeroplane. David would say consequently a very beautiful aeroplane and I think I agree.

Id never had a chance to meet Guy Martin before. Even though hes a member of the same Crafts Guild as myself and weve exhibited in the same regional exhibition in the past. Guys first paragraph of the catalogue entry resonated perhaps more so than any other aspect of the whole event. for me design is a listening process. I come to acknowledge that the best craft is an act of love, sacrificing self to the nature of designing and making. Certainly most of us engaged in this activity would feel that to be a statement of some truth. I was fascinated to talk with Guy about how he arrived at the constructional process that underpins his designs. The breakthrough came apparently when Guy saw an American maker bending and pinning together round sections and smaller sectioned timbers and laying each upon its neighbour and simply pinning it together with a brass or stainless steel pin. Again like David Colwell triangulation of the structures are very important . The use of the inherently strong small bendable complete sections of willow makes a resilient and flexible structure. Here Guy is using the strength of nature to his advantage rather than as most of do chopping up strong form then trying to regain strength by glueing it back together The technology of Guys furniture was low skill and is not time intensive therefore making his products relatively inexpensive and accessible.

Ive enjoyed seeing some of Scott Woykas work at recent exhibitions but have never had the chance to meet him. Scotts Sundowner chair is another example of simple elegant comfortable chair making. It was a pleasure to meet Scott and his lovely family and be able to touch base with another furniture maker in the South West.

As I was moving between seminars I was collared by Alun Heslop. A chair maker from Switzerland, though he is himself not Swiss. He collared me and showed me a portfolio of work which was in many ways far more impressive than the chair he had at the exhibition. Alun is setting up a workshop in Switzerland and he is geographically wonderfully placed to provide a service either for the Swiss or the German or the French or the Italian speaking furniture buying public in Switzerland. See his work on

Another person I didnt meet but wanted to was Brian Maiden who had a lovely looking laminated armchair, catch his work at

Another person who was on my list I wanted to meet but didn’t run across was Christopher Rose who showed a pretty convincing contemporary chair. This doesnt surprise me as hes the programme leader for 3d Design at the University of Brighton and a visiting professor in furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design in the USA. Catch his work on

Although Im always meeting young makers like Scott Woyka and Alun Heslop nothing quite prepared me for meeting George Morgan. Georges Clouded Blue was presented in the catalogue as a sketched concept. The real object was nothing short of a show stopper. Technically complex George has conceived of a chair, built around a sprung steel coil which is anchored on to a large marble slab. The steel was covered in walnut with each piece buffered by a cork strip. The high back of the chair was a mixture of techniques involving granite, cockly veneer at the back of the chair filled with foam, upholstery, and solid wood joinery. To say that this chair was technically complex would be an understatement. Georges objective was to draw attention to shock, impress, revive and remember, were his key words and cloudy blue certainly achieved his objective. Whether he has made a good chair is perhaps another matter. I congratulate George on his work. He seems young and ambitious and if you cant have a crack at an event like this with a piece like this then its a poor do. Rampant enthusiasm should never feel itself restricted by the constraints of traditional thought process. He should never allow those cold hands of convention to hold him back. Never pay any attention to critics George remember theyve never in their lives made anything, nor will they ever make anything. They are content to sit on the sidelines and from their comfortable vantage point point out the successes or failures of those of us who do have the courage to have a go. They have never known failure but they’ll never know success either.


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