I want a day bed she said. I want to be able to put my feet up in the afternoon and have a gin and tonic and watch the television and put the gin down just there she said waving her arm and gesturing dramatically towards a space a few feet in front of her. Not something normal, You know what I mean…, something a bit more interesting I had known Maggie Rose now for two or three years and made several pieces of furniture for her. Shed become one of my really good clients, and as someone who at that time was almost single handedly feeding my entire family someone pretty special. I always thought of her and knew her as Maggie Rose, not Maggie or Margaret or Mrs Rose, but just Maggie Rose. Shes definitely a Maggie not a Margaret, and she has all the fullness and fragrance of an English Rose in the full summer sunshine. So my task was to develop a design for a day bed for this particular place and this particular person. Something hopefully that reflected her needs but more acutely , her personality. Something full on and sexy, something like herself, a bit, as she said out of the ordinary.
Id met Maggie several years before and she was one of the people that helped me survive my bankruptcy. At a time when I was casting around for a new direction in my life, it was Maggie, amongst others, who came back and said well, we know youve gone bankrupt but wed still like you to make furniture for us and writing about it today still brings a lump to my throat, but that whole event is another story. People ask me, “Do you find clients restrictive”, surely there must be a conflict of interest between your wishes and whims as an artist and what your clients want. Surely its prostituting your talent. Well maybe it is. Maybe we all have our price in life and paying the bills is a big motivation in my life, but I have to say that clients like Maggie Rose have always inspired me to do the very best I can, to give her something very special, something very, well, very Maggie Rose.
So we began by chatting and talking about it and asking her how big it might be, and whether it would be light or dark, heavy or wiggly or whatever and at this stage, Im really trying to not have any preconceptions at all. My job is to come to the problem with as fresh a set of ideas as I can. Im listening very acutely to what Maggie is saying or maybe more important what she is not saying. Im trying to ask open questions and tease a brief out of her by talking around the subject. OK what kind of special are we talking about, is it a really sleek piece you want , No, well how about lighteness, darkness, cushions, whatever Its like you want to talk very little and just shut up and listen but listen to stuff that is really pointed in your direction.
I went away from our meeting excited and intrigued but with no image of the piece in mind. Sometimes an idea will jump out as the client is actually talking to you and its a challenge to keep you mouth shut and avoid saying Well Ive got this great idea No, experience has taught me to keep shtumm and instead put it down on paper. So I went away and did what I usually do in this situation of reflecting back to my client in a letter what it was I thought she was looking for and how I was at that time proposing to fulfil her enquiry and also how much it might cost. At this time you dont have much of an idea but you can at least give her a ball park figure. When youve done the drawings, then is the time to be a bit more specific but right now we still dont know what we are going to make.
I dont usually do much for a couple of weeks after Ive sent that letter, but this time I couldnt help doodling and scribbling away at the idea. Usually I leave it to cook in the back of my head. Theres always something else to keep me occupied and it also gave Maggie a chance to think about whether shed given me the right brief and whether Id actually interpreted her wishes correctly. I leave it so that if she hadnt got back to me by the end of the month then that’s when Id start the drawings and that’s really when I sit down with sharpened pencils and Radio 3 and begin doodling in seriousness. This is the time that all kinds of other jobs seem to leap in front of you to grab your attention. Anything, strangling the cat, even filling in your Income Tax return will become a compelling task compared with that interesting piece of doodling.
Ive noticed this pattern. Its almost like the empty sheet of paper is there all virgin white and untouchable, quietly saying I know youve done this before, but can you still get it up. None of that matters. Its now that counts and I dont think you can still do it Over the years I have come to learn a pattern that goes on in my own head and to make space for this I now allow three clear days, unencumbered by phone calls, visitors, students or family and whilst I mark the days out on the calendar I sit down at 9 oclock in the morning and start working. Thats the professional thing to do. Im not an amateur at this game, I know what Im doing and I know how to turn it on and get the job done, and that little voice just has to be controlled. Besides shes a lying little bitch and I can still get it up. There is always this othering factor that crops up at this time, sharpening half a dozen pencils, making a cup of coffee, selecting a suitable play list for the iPod, making sure the telephone is unplugged,then at last you are faced with the empty sheet of paper and the best way of controlling her is with a swift scribble that takes her virginity. After that I rub it out and get on with the doodling. At this time its just doodling. Drawing little sketches, little drawings of things.
I may have written day bed at the top of the page but what I doodle may not be day bed’ish’, but if you complete the image uncritically and move from doodle to doodle and let whatever pops into your head travel down your arm and off the end of the pencil onto the page and look at it and then move on quite calmly to the next one, something usually happens. Or thats been my experience. Music is a great free-er of the mind. Rodrigos Violin Concerto gets me tapping along and Yatta tat tata tat taaa ta Yatta tat ata ta ta, rhythms and movements and colours and shapes all come pouring out of you provided you have something to draw upon.
Note the words draw upon. Its a if you’re going to a well of ideas and pulling ideas out of your own history. If you havent put those ideas back there in the first place you wont have much to draw upon when you sit down and doodle. Thats why I despair when I cant get my students to draw. Sit down and play with paint I tell them. Dont worry what it looks like, draw that life model, draw what interests you, draw a ladys bum, draw a child’s hand,a bird in flight, a group of oranges sat on the window sill, I dont care what it is, and it doesnt matter what it is,as long as it interests you and as long as you draw it. Can I get them to do this? Nah. Too much like hard work. Theyd all rather pick up a digital camera and take a photograph. But it is hard work and it is the stuff that dreams are made of, quite literally the stuff that dreams are made of.
When you are sat there doodling you are pulling, you’re searching your own personal data base, your visual memory systems for images,shapes, forms colours that might be used fresh as a morning in this new context. In the context of, in this case, Maggie Roses gorgeous day bed. If youve sat in front of a life model and struggled with drawing the knuckles on her left hand for a couple of hours, even though your drawing may be a grimy heap of charcoal rubbing, the act of looking, and looking hard will have driven something interesting onto your memory systems. Something about the shapes involved with that hand. I dont care about what the drawing looked like. The important thing is that youve sat down and made it. Youve sat down and taken the action of looking. That youve used your eyes maybe for the first time. Youve used your eyes to do something more that the mundane act of walking around lampposts. Its staggering to me to what degree of acuteness the human brain is capable of perceiving an object. The detail, the colour, the intensity of form and shape. Yet most of the time we are content with a passing glance, a superficial visual symbol. Thats a chair. I know what a chair is. Dont even bother looking at it. Thats what our left brain tells us most of the time.
I draw mostly in French school exercise books. These are A4 sized with a very feinted 5 mm grid on the page that helps me to doodle in scale sometimes and keep my verticals verticals. Its a lazy way for me to scribble very quickly if I know that a tables height is 750 mm I can count up 71/2 squares and then plot an appropriate distance 25 squares to the left to represent 21/2 metres length. Its easy to get out of whack when youre doodling, some kind of real measure, helps to pull you back to reality. After maybe 4 or 5 cups of coffee in a couple of hours I usually have at least half a dozen pages covered with really scrappy scrawly drawings. As I say, Im not bothered about making Art here. I am bothered about getting whatever is in the back of my head down on paper and it is as if it is in the back of my head. Ive left it there for two weeks, having input the problem, I quite deliberately havent done any drawings and allowed my brain to work on the problem . Now I want to see what answers it may have come up with without my help and doodling uncritically is the way of achieving that. I want to get back there beyond my current state of consciousness, beyond my current set of answers.
If nothing happens in that first couple of hours Ill probably knock it on the head and leave it alone for a day, for the rest of the day. Ill feel like a complete prat but theres not a lot of point kicking a car with no petrol , its better to admit that this morning wasnt your day and you might as well input that problem to the giant computer between your ears, get a good nights sleep and see what it comes up with in the morning. This process of trusting myself to come up with the right idea at the right time is an implicit part of how I work. Somehow I know that when I need to find an answer to a tricky set of problems, how that leg is going to join on that frame, what that shapes going to work out like, I know Ill have an answer that will look good. Chances are Ill have inputted the problem long before it arises in the workshop and Im not even aware of the process of working on it , but I am. And I now have the confidence that when the moment comes Ill have the right answer and that, I admit, may be as a result of thirty years of experience, but Ive got to say., when I was young and arrogant I still had the same feeling. Though my hit rate was much lower.
When you are doing this, you are not entirely starting with a blank sheet of paper every time. Most people build on their old work as a foundation, adding and evolving, changing shapes, developing new ones. So when Id talked with Maggie , about the new pieces Id done and which she liked and which she didnt, from that I was able to push her piece in a certain direction. So many of the doodles had a base in pieces that Id done before, legs were shaped with an outward curling twirl at the bottom, thin spindly leg were pretty common, delicate mouldings, shapes like that, all had become a part of my visual vocabulary. But the vocabulary should be changing and growing and enlarging if one is to move on and work something new out. In this piece the new bit came from calligraphy.
I dont know when but sometime I must have taken acute interest in the way the brush marks of especially large format Chinese writing has a particular elegance, a particular immediacy and energy of form and it was that energy that I wanted to capture. I wanted a couch fit for Marilyn Monroe and I had the feeling that she was a pretty energetic girl. Id played around with open structures with cane work supporting cushions, I cant remember whether the cane work was something that Maggie had mentioned or something that came out of the ether. But that was combined very soon with open shapes enveloping relaxing shapes, that opened out to suggest a comfortable,soft day bed that was asymmetrical, wider at one end than the other.
I knew where this day bed was going and I knew Maggie would be approaching it from the right hand side, so these drawing were worked up into an elevation drawing and a plan and a three dimensional perspective drawing. All of these were designed to both clarify my mind and present the idea in as cogent a manner as I could to Maggie. Quite often clients will say to me how much the furniture looks like the drawing and that is exactly what I am after. At the moment that we are making the furniture, we are really trying to make it get back to the immediacy and vivacity of the drawing. So I toddled off to London and rather tentatively showed Maggie the drawings, to which she responded, thankfully, very positively. I spent a lot time on the drawings and was glad when she agreed that the more adventurous of the two proposals I made would be the one she would go for. Even though it was a little more money, well, quite a bit more money. Bless her.
Im usually deliberately vague about delivery dates because I know that between the drawing and the delivery is a rather tricky period of making. While Im pretty sure of how this piece can be made, in detail exactly how we are going to go about it is not down to me, but down to my makers. Before I went off to see Maggie, I had a word with Nick, the guy who was going to make this piece, and he sucked his teeth and said well I reckon it will take so many weeks to make that piece, I cant remember how many he said but I know it was more than I thought and I bit my lip, put another thousand on the price and zoomed off to see Maggie. Even though Nick had hung himself by the tongue by telling me how long he thought it would take him to make it, hed never made a piece exactly like this, though we both felt confident that we could do it and this is where time and delivery dates get stretched. We hope we can deliver it in the early Spring, but when it comes down to it, it may be May or even June before we get it to her.
As it transpired, Nicks guess was pretty accurate and this work moved relatively smoothly through the making process. Nick Chandler is a brilliant maker and throughout my career Ive benefited from a relationship with a series of talented and inventive craftsman. In order to design furniture beautifully, you need to know how to make it, so that you are able to properly debate the detailed making issues with someone like Nick. Without the knowledge, Nick would turn me inside out and hang me out to dry. As it is the dialogue is a bit like a tennis match Alright ,what kind of fixing do you want in this corner? Ive no idea, what would you suggest Well Ive got to get at least two screws and probably two or three dowels in there as well and they have got to be big screws How big a screw? Could you do two number 10s and get away with two dowels. I want to keep this junction area relatively small and light Well its going to be pushing it, remember we are working in rosewood which is very hard, theres not going to be much movement across that joint area and not a great deal of flex on the joint Well in that case we could get away… And so it goes on. Each of us is after the same thing. Each of us wants a supremely beautiful and functional object, a joint that is strong, lines that are clean and flowing, shadows that are interesting and highlights that ping around the place. But whereas Nick is spending his valuable time making this piece, Im only spending my money making the piece my life is only involved at a commercial rather thana gutteral level. Nick will always want to make the piece as quick as he can and Im always up for that, but if the shapes of the piece arent telling the right story then its usually my decision to say well, no, weve got to make that leg again, its not working, and at that point the designer and the maker will always see the thing very differently.
A part of this job involved sub contracting, that is asking another craftsperson to work outside of our own workshop. In this case it was caning. I approached a local upholsterer who gave me a price of I think it was something like 50 pence a hole. Holes are the holes drilled around the job where the canes fit in . As there was something over 700 hundred holes on this job, this totalled out at something like 1500 which was expensive but okay. At this stage I was still showing a profit. When the job however came back, he said Ohh it took me a lot longer than I thought , and its going to have to be 2500 What do you do. You can jump up and down and shout and scream, but hes done the job and it looks great and that at least you can be thankful for. As no doubt he was scatching about to feed the same kind of family as I was I didnt feel I could get too mad, 1000 additional cost was a lot of money to me, but I paid it and didn’t tell Carol about it because whats the point, you only have so much energy and fighting battles like that isnt going to get you anywhere especially when he has done the job, and done it well. At this stage we were looking at a piece of furniture that was starting to look like something suitable for Maggie Rose, Marilyn Monroe and Cleopatra all rolled up in one. We still had the upholstery and Mary Holland came in and worked with me in our own workshops to develop the shapes and forms that made up the specially shaped cushions. This again cost a bit more than Id thought. But there you go. Now we were getting something that was really looking like the kind of couch I drew and had never seen before. What we had to do was to get it photographed and delivered up to Maggie.
Now, Maggie lived up in London in a town house in St Johns Wood. One of the things we wanted with this piece of furniture was what Nick Chandler who made the piece for me was to call bags of wang. Now wang isnt strictly speaking a technical term, but imagine if you can a large thin sheet of metal held vertically then struck briskly with a thin length of timber twang. That’s the sound. That also is the energy we were seeking to convey in the shapes we were making. These are not just flaccid, floppy curves, these are curves created by bending a thin sprung steel ruler around a curve then carefully planing and spoke shaving back to that fast racing curve. But the bags of wang had given us lots of sticky-out corners. Lots of legs that werent tucked primly underneath this couch, but spread out in a lacivious laid back and comfortable manner which brings me to the issue of Maggie Roses porch way. I had thought about this, for Maggie Rose, inside her front door had a vestibule for hanging wet coats and scarves, indeed wed made a rather elegant coat rack for her just for this place. I knew this was going to be tricky because the two doors opened in to the same space and the outside door was narrower than the inside door. I had measured it carefully and I had conducted a small scale model through the assault course we were about to navigate. So it wasnt as if I hadnt thought about it. But fun and games were about to be had.
First of all the piece was sent up to John Gollops. Now, John before digital imagery used to take all of my photographs. He has a large ground floor studio in Barnstaple and its quite usual practice for me to have an early morning shoot with John then a delivery run to London with a late afternoon visit to see the client with the new piece of furniture. Watching John work is like watching paint dry. He fiddles around with lights and backdrops and puts his head under black cloths and looks at things upside down in the back of a plate glass view finder. But he got the shot which is important because it is that shot which we use to show the world what that piece of furniture was all about. Inevitable we only get a ghost of what the furniture really is about. No two dimensional image can express properly a three dimensional piece of work like that. But we got something and the something we got was pretty good. The couch went in the van along with Paul who does most of my deliveries and we drove off to London.
I sometimes think Im a very lucky person living where I do in one of the most beautiful counties in England but the price I pay is 3 and 4 and 5 hour drives to see my clients and now even 2/3 day flights and visits abroad. Thats a price Id happily pay to stay where I am. Devon is one of the best places to live in the whole world. I wouldnt swap it for warm and sunny Northern Italy, Gascony, or any of those tempting places which I visit in the summer and feel hey we could live here, be much warmer, have great big workshops and cor this wine is nice. Ive lived in Devon now for over 20 years and I dont see myself moving in the foreseeable future,that is unless the traffic gets that much worse. We generally have a 4 hour drive with an hour of London traffic at the end of it, so Paul and I arrived at St Johns Wood looking spry and businesslike, but feeling squeezed and dishevelled.
It should have been a straight forward two man lift as the couch itself wasn’t heavy. Reverse the van into Maggie’s driveway, open the doors, through the front door, through the lobby, past the dining room, down a set of open plan stairs to a lower reception and into this area which was to designated as Maggie’s TV room. But plans are always designed to crumble with first contact with reality and ,wel, thats what happened here…. we fell at the first hurdle. The sticky-out legs and arms and back were all sticky-out in just the wrong spots.
Paul and I were trying to put it through on end, trying to get one fat end through then twist it, but nothing was going the way it should go. It looked like it would go through, it felt like it would go through, but the couch didnt go through the front door. First of all we blamed this damn vestibule, having to stand the thing up on end, but after sweating and heaving and Maggie who, bless her heart was calmness personified, was calmly, too calmly for my liking wandering around around tying protective balls of paper on the sticky out bits.
Protective I suspect both of her wallpaper and her furniture, and yours truly getting more and more worried. It wasnt as if I had nothing to worry about. Thoughts that were going through my head were. .Crikey If I cant get this through this damn door, Maggie, sweet though she is, is not going to pay me and I cant blame her for that. If Im not paid, Nicks not paid , and I dont have that much money in the bank to ride this one through, if Nicks not paid I lose a great Craftsman and Oh Crikey.. But I wasnt really worrying like that until I suppose the arrival of Pudrick. Now Pudrick is one of those lovely guys you meet every now and again who always has an answer and a story about everything. Pudrick was a gardener working on the neighbours garden, and seeing our plight kindly offered his services as third pair of hands, and general adviser. Ah you know if we turn it round and put it the other way up, thank you Pudrick, and, My brother had a job like this, it wouldnt go through the door and he had to in the end cut the legs off. Thanks Pudrick but I think well manage ok. You know if i were doin this I would start from here Id be thinking of another way Thanks Pudrick, Ah maybe if pushed that up there. Thanks Pudrick, Ill push something up and it wont be up there. Ah you know maybe if we took it round the back What! Pudrick, what do you mean. Well what if we took it round Mrs Cs garden , maybe we could put it in the back door. Now youre talking Pudrick, but Mrs Cs garden had a fence and a trellis and nasty vindictive spiky looking roses and a 6 drop on the other side and I think at that point Pudrick took a hint and began pushing his lawnmower. I think this was my lowest moment.
Thankfully Paul who, being a one man removal business was more used to stressful doorway situations than I, saved the day by suggesting we take the front door off. In fact he didnt even suggest it, he just set about doing it. The screws proved to be 50 years stubborn so I being the least useful member of the party was delegated with the task of finding a new screwdriver which I did at the exhorbitant price of 6.50 from the tool shop across the road. At that moment I would have paid 600 for a successful screwdriver, but I didnt tell the man in the shop. I went back waving my purchase to see Paul grinning and all but the last screw removed from its hinge. My new purchase fitted the slot of the screw perfectly and pulled it out inside a minute. The door came off and we proceeded to offer the couch into the vacant space. This time I was running on empty and Paul, bless his kind heart, was muttering encouraging noises like Im sure itll go through this time Which it did, but only by the faintest of margins. Indeed if Maggie redecorates more than 2 or 3 times, Im certain that Daybed will not re-emerge successfully from that house as the walls will have shrunk around it. The daybed went in, the client was, and I think still is delighted, the cheque was received and two happy bunnies depart their way home to Devon. I frequently get asked by students, customers and clients alike, You must love your work, all that designing, making, polishing lovely furniture, you must be so sad to see it go. They look so sad when I tell them that the best part of the whole job, and this is almost without exception, is putting the cheque into the bank.