Jun 11, 2014

Guest Blog: Kester Muller - An Audience with the Woodworkers of Walthamstow

Two workshops threw open their doors for the first time for this years art trail.

St. James Workshop Ltd. is a large workshop on Brunner Road, soon to be totally reconfigured by the arrival of the new Morrisons supermarket. Five people, all working with wood in some shape or form, work out of this busy and productive site. Bespoke furniture maker Claire Darwent (www.cldarwent.co.uk) trained initially in Germany and since returning to the UK has established herself as a quality furniture designer and maker, often working on commission. The genesis of the current collective came about when she linked up with Phil Lardner, another furniture designer who was looking for a workshop. Also working here is Jennifer Low (www.boxheart.co.uk) and Natalie de Leval (www.deleval.co.uk). 
Natalie de Leval's 'Table Town'
Further south is Gavin Coyle's site, Belgrave Furniture Works on Markhouse Road. Built as a mechanics garage and a sometime melon warehouse amongst other things, the space is now home to Gavin, Chris and Oneal (www.gavincoyle.co.uk). 

Who would have known that so much bespoke furniture was being produced in Walthamstow? Both workshops told me that they were surprised at the number of visitors that they had that were extremely local and yet had no idea such workshops operated locally. It seems that both sites have had a very positive view of participating in the Art Trail, not just in terms of business, but mainly in meeting local people and drawing inspiration from the curiosity of their visitors: “It’s been nice to see that people are so passionate about bespoke furniture…about commissioning something” says Gavin Coyle. “I think when people understand the providence of a product, it adds so much value if people see where it’s made… a lot of people would assume that it’s made abroad”.  Maybe it's that the majority of people are so removed from industrial processes – it’s a consequence of the scale of mass production (see: IKEA) that less and less people have direct experience of the environments of production. 

Tools ready to go at Belgrave Works
The influence of multinational retailers like IKEA has also been to create a 'race to the bottom' on the price of furniture. After a generation has grown up with this as normality, furniture designers and makers, though still finding business, are occupying a more specific niche. Phil Lardner tells me that he finds a lot of satisfaction in an off-the-wall commission, but the majority of his work is in installing fitted furniture in shops and homes in affluent North London. “In general, you do make furniture for people with more money. I think that the majority of us makers wouldn't be able to afford ourselves what we actually make”. Perhaps this shows more than anything how successful the chain stores have been in redefining how people understand the notion of 'value'. Just a few generations ago, regular people would be prepared to spend more on quality workmanship as they understood that it would be more resilient. People expected to have their furniture for life – even to pass it on to their children, and that was 'value'. This would seem ridiculous to most people now. 

Gavin described a different kind of value inherent in the process of commissioning a local maker – a strengthening of the bonds of community. The process of commissioning is quite intimate. Gavin will visit homes to get a feel for the space and make preliminary sketches from this. “You spend 6-8 weeks making something for someone and you’ll communicate so much. Basically you’re building a friendship”. You also know that the money, the value, stays in the community. 

Gavin's collection of tape measures
Gavin is keen to make sure that some of his products remain affordable and produces large batches of small items for sale as a contrast to his more high-end work building prototypes and sculptural furniture for galleries and architecture practices.  I can see that he's got a real sense of play in his designs and he seems at home in the workshop. Gavin claims that he'd easily work a 60 hour week. It's long hours, and hard work. So at the end of the day, what drives these people to stick with their work?  “We all like to make things, don't we?” says Phil. I suppose he's right, but you have to respect the enthusiasm and persistence of these makers who have carved themselves a niche and stuck with it. The skill on display is amazing, and Jennifer seems genuinely excited to demonstrate her techniques. It must be inspiring to create such perfect objects, and maybe in some way it's good for the mind? “Well, apart from when you're approaching a deadline” Jennfier Low adds. Here is the conflict between creativity and more pragmatic considerations – I suppose this is experienced by anyone who has harnessed their creativity and turned it into a business. 

Jennifer Low adding a finishing touch
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

So said William Morris. Surely he would have approved of the mission of these craftspeople who pursue the marriage of these two considerations. There's a real sense of pride to be felt from the makers I met here, pride in the design, the process as well as the utility and beauty of the final product. 


Unknown said...

Brilliant, thanks for visiting us Kester it was a pleasure to talk to you.
You seem to have captured what we do perfectly and sensitively.
We're loving all the local interest, the E17'ers have been fantastic, they've made this really enjoyable.
Look forward to seeing you again.

Caroline08 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caroline08 said...

good news! :)

Greetings, Caroline
bespoke furniture Edinburgh