Radical carpenters: “The wood just splinters”
“Open that top drawer and sniff it,” suggests designer-maker Jan Hendzel, showing off his clean, wavy-lined Bowater cabinet. “It’s cedar,” he said. “The exterior is brown oak. It’s so lush.
The ripple is one of its signature details – and a cool, contemporary take on the centuries-old tradition of wood furniture making. Hendzel is part of a new wave of makers turning classic techniques upside down or using new technologies to make woodwork with a wow factor. Hendzel’s curved drawers, for example, are digitally designed and cut and then finished by hand, making them “burnished and luxurious, with depth and liveliness,” he says. “The wood just jumps.”
Hendzel shows me around his studio at Thames-Side Studios in Woolwich, south-east London – the 19th-century site of the Siemens Brothers Telegraph Works factory that is today a conglomerate of creative spaces. Hendzel established a furniture-making practice that “merges the carpenter’s longstanding knowledge of materials and hand tools with innovations in machining technology.”
His early experiences as a model maker (making wooden molds to mold tools for the automotive and aircraft industries) and his later design training at Central Saint Martins come into play. The elegantly curved Pier table, for example, has three cylindrical legs, each made up of 12 flat bands, while the top features a patchwork of inlaid sections.
Hendzel’s work, he says, aligns with a broader “artisanal uprising” in carpentry. “In London, there has certainly been a popular swell of manufacturers and designers,” says Sophie Pearce, director of vintage furniture store Béton Brut, whose first own-label furniture launch includes sculptural chairs and tables designed by Benni Allan, made from strong, UK grown oak. She also cites offerings from Fred Rigby and Edward Collinson as part of a thriving furniture scene. Other names of note are Bibbings & Hensby and Wilkinson & Rivera, two east London-based designer duos that reinterpret classic furniture shapes.
But traditional carpentry techniques are also invigorated further. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, a rural woodcarving workshop founded in the late 1800s was renamed the design company Zanat by fourth-generation family members Orhan and Adem Nikšić. They perpetuate the region’s traditional sculpture technique (and protected by Unesco) by partnering with internationally renowned designers. The 2022 collection includes geometrically patterned chests of drawers by Italian architect and former member of the Memphis design group Michele de Lucchi, as well as organically shaped Meduza lamps by German designer Sebastian Herkner, the subtly incised maple or walnut wood stripes and dots.
In the United States, the fusion of furniture and folk art highlights artisanal carpentry. Sculptor Casey McCafferty’s new collection, on display at The Future Perfect’s new LA gallery, includes a dining table, desk, armchairs and benches, all in his boldly biomorphic and totemic style, in woods ranging from walnut oxidized with sandblasted and blackened ash and Douglas fir.
Also in California, Vince Skelly explores “the relationship between ancient building forms and their similarity to contemporary architecture and furniture”, creating chunky, roughly hewn tables, chairs and stools in local white oak and red cedar. from West. His latest collection, created for the Tiwa Select gallery, is entitled “After the Storm”; it was produced from trees felled in his hometown of Claremont, including deodar cedar, pine, redwood eucalyptus and magnolia.
Los Angeles-based Kalon Studios, founded by Michaele Simmering and Johannes Pauwen, is more refined in its production and streamlined in its aesthetic. A recent collaboration with Reath Design sees the simple lines of their sugar pine-framed Rugosa sofa, daybed and chair augmented with a mishmash of cheerful, vintage-inspired upholstery.
Sustainable production is an interest shared by all these artisans and design houses. Zanat only uses wood from sustainably managed forests; he also plants three new trees for every tree he uses to make his products. McCafferty works with a friend’s family owned sustainable lumber yard. Hendzel, on the other hand, uses a combination of reclaimed and sustainably sourced British wood.
“We try to keep our supplier network pretty tight,” he says. “We use a lot of hyperlocal wood from London. We have a plane to London just a minute. He also uses chestnut, sycamore and ash, he says, although “everyone wants oak, but oak is about five times the price of ash.”
His latest project – the complete two-bedroom redesign of the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, unveiled at the London Design Festival (September 17-25) – incorporates London plane wood salvaged from Denmark Hill station. The project will include Pier tables and Bowater drawers, as well as bespoke kitchens, newly developed chairs and sofa, “a few sculptural pieces” and laboriously hand-calibrated and heavily textured mirrors that he describes as “a bit Neolithic”.
Just down the hall from Hendzel’s Woolwich studio is the self-proclaimed “zero waste and carbon counting” workshop of furniture maker Sebastian Cox. His process begins with milling his own materials from timber he manages in Kent, and ends with timeless and ‘heirloom’ classics such as the Bayleaf Carver’s Chair inspired by the Oak Windsor Chair.
Other designs are revisited: ultra-modern clean forms in burnt black wood or dyed in playful shades of blue or green with natural pigments. The tall boy British Species is more subtly coloured, its light to dark series of drawers made from sycamore, cherry, London plane, elm and walnut. The Hewn range of chairs, tables and benches highlight their source with hazelwood legs hewn from the Cox Forest and left as branches covered in bark.
Cox is also one of several designers involved in furniture brand SCP’s One Tree project, which is also part of the London Design Festival. It consists of unique pieces from different designers, all made from a tree in the garden of SCP founder Sheridan Coakley. “It was felled due to ash dieback, a disease that causes unusual cavities and grain patterns in the wood,” says Coakley. “What’s interesting is the variety of results – from bowls turned by Max Bainbridge to a hand-carved loveseat by Faye Toogood,” he says. “The project is also on the border between design and craftsmanship. It’s not every day that designers are tasked with not only designing something, but also making it themselves.
For husband-and-wife furniture makers Grant Wilkinson and Teresa Rivera, however, the task echoed their own studio practice. Trained in the fine arts but self trained in woodworking, they established Wilkinson & Rivera in 2021 and handcraft all of their corrugated and wobbly wares in a shipping container in Walthamstow. For One Tree, they imagined the Rough Cut Bench, which they describe as “feeling simple, with geometric shapes inspired by sculptors such as Brancusi and JB Blunk, held together by traditional hand-hewn joinery.”
Their limited-edition Of Nature series for SCP is more complex; it includes Baile’s Silla chaise longue – whose sinuous spindles are inspired by 17th-century barley twist woodwork – and four new chairs also on display at the London Design Festival. Inspired by a 1960s work by American sculptor Richard Serra, each handcrafted seat is crafted from a different wood: spalted beech, London plane, yew and wave maple.
In Hackney, Fred Rigby approaches wood in a different way. “We are more of a design studio, less of a manufacturer,” he says from his showroom – a space where his furniture is “finished and assembled”, bringing together, for example, an oak top with a powder-coated steel base. from various suppliers. across the UK. But he is also passionate about the use of solid wood. “We created our Cove sofas to be almost upside down,” he says of the oak-covered upholstered designs. “They have honesty on the outside. But everything is also thought out to add a playful element to the house.
A new range of homewares includes Totem plates and bowls in oak and ash, which can be stacked in attractive sculptural shapes. A version of the rounded Tide chair is in red painted ash. “I love how the grain appears,” he says. “Oak has a denser, flatter grain, while ash has a bit more texture, not to be a massive geek. . . ” On the contrary: knowing the bottom of the wood is ultra-cool at the moment.
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