Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Buzzword is Making Things

    The great thing about a blog is that you can say what you want without a magazine editor changing or messing up what you have written. The downside is that hardly anyone reads a blog unless you are a celeb. 
    Today's blog is about a true celeb in my life and that is my woodwork teacher. He more than anyone else has influenced my life - a true genius of a teacher and such is this man's modesty I could only find one Google result (below) about a Telegraph article about him riding a Royal Enfield Bullet in 2001. Curiously I owned one of those motorcycles as well as follow Howard in his footsteps and train at the legendary Shoreditch College as a Handicrafts teacher on leaving school. We were well ahead of the game teaching youngsters how to think creatively as well as use their hands. We were teaching design as an integrated part of Handicraft years before Design took over and eventually became embedded in Technology. The buzzword now is 'Making Things'. A bit late when the subject has been systemmatically dismantled over decades! 
    Howard Orme became woodwork master at Abbotsholme school as I entered the Lower Sixth form having failed Woodwork O level with the rest of the class under the previous uninspiring teacher who swiftly vanished. In the December resits I got 85% and two terms later Grade A at GCE A level (normally a two year course)! The thing about Howard, apart from him having a very glamourous young wife at this all boys' boarding school was that he was mildly eccentric and a damned good cabinetmaker as well as an inspiring teacher. Enthusiasm is what comes to mind and this certainly rubbed off, but he must have liked me and for someone who spent much of his school life in trouble that was quite something. 
    My father died when I was 17 and the headmaster gave me the day off lessons to be quiet and on my own. I took the day off fly fishing on the River Dove and feel no remorse in saying it was the first day of my freedom and so I guess Howard would have become a role model. He made learning woodwork fun and even gave me the keys to the woodwork shop one Friday night to make my first guitar. I worked throughout Friday and Saturday night and slumped over the bench around 4pm on the Sunday with one completed acoustic guitar. We had run out of French polish so I used shoe polish.  It was an exciting moment of truth to string the guitar and it sounded good. 
   Above all Howard was a superb craftsman and he would invite me to his flat to inspect his cabinets while his lovely young wife made coffee! Howard had just left the RAF and I guess he was about 23 years old when he joined the Abbotsholme teaching staff.
   On one occasion the headmaster brought some parents of a prospective new boy into the workshop. Howard and I were competing on mini crossbows we had made aiming at a poster of Edward Barnsley at the far end of the workshop. The headmaster was speechless but this was an independent progressive school and I was Howard's star pupil. 
    I dedicated one of my woodworking books to Howard Orme and later met up with him at Eton College where he took up a post in what he described as the Department of Maniacs (Mechanics).  I don't think Howard ever really knew how much he had influenced me and not just in a selfish way of my becoming a renowned designer maker but more importantly to hand on the gift of education and in particular the undervalued Practical Arts that was my particular vehicle for personal development and expression. The greatest reward and one more lasting than the acclaim of (transient) fame as performer is when out of the blue ten, twenty or thirty years on an ex pupil or student appears out of nowhere and says you helped them find their direction in life. Especially in the field of teaching when at the time you have no real measure of whether you are any good at all.
However, one thing for sure is that anybody in the business of education - a teacher, has no business there unless they have not just enthusiasm but a passion for what they are teaching. A university degree proving you are clever is not enough. 

Jeremy Broun with teacher Howard Orme at Abbotsholme School

Howard Orme and Jeremy Broun at Eton College where Howard taught

Howard Orme's Telegraph article:


Sunday, 30 October 2011

Flat pack hunter gatherer

  Apparantly part of Swedish furniture giant IKEA's success is that it appeals to male hunter gatherer instinct. Insert four scan bolts in pre-drilled holes and hey presto I've made the wife a piece of furniture.
Despite IKEA being a Global innovator the concept of flat pack furniture probably dates back to at least the English Tudor period in the gateleg table. Well, it packed flat enough to be freighted on a horse and cart! The one common link is the use of oak, probably the most durable of timbers. Of course durability and IKEA are never mentioned in the same breath but you would be surprised how attitude towards a piece of furniture makes a difference. The testing of IKEA products is not only vigorous and extensive, but if looked after many of the products do actually last.
   Discovering my passion for furniture design as a young man I would have preferred to design for a company like IKEA but I was working 20 years before they dared come to Britain (we were too backward looking for the company who by 1979 operated in 26 other countries).  Some of my designs in the 70's could easily have sold in IKEA stores since the 90's but my only career option was to become a solo designer maker as the UK furniture industry was so hidebound. Faced with the choice of creating designs at a reasonable price that give pleasure to many people or making very expensive one offs for an exclusive market my preference still remains the same 40 years on. There shouldn't be an either or choice but the market tends to dictate.
   It is highly unlikely my own furniture innovations will ever sit in museums such as the V & A but I can take great personal pride that my High backed rocker in particular has found hundreds of homes worldwide, is usable and accessible to ordinary people and some are now being handed down (see image in 'My beautiful hands').  I did produce a plywood flatpack version in the late 70's which was turned down by a local furniture retail shop. 'The public don't like plywood' the shop owner declared.

   The Early Tudor Gateleg Table - forerunner to flat pack furniture?

An IKEA room set photographed by Jeremy Broun in 1979 on his visit to 
the original Stockholm store as part of a Churchill Travel Scholarship.

A sturdy oak dining chair from IKEA in 2006. The main downside of pack flat furniture
 is the failure of the consumer to tighten the bolts a few months after the furniture has
 settled into the room environment. Solid wood shrinks and expands.

A flat pack ash rocker designed by Jeremy Broun (1980).
Don't forget to tighten the scan bolts.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Furniture Today

   I am working on 'Furniture Today Part Three', a DVD project I began in 1998. At that time it was mostly furniture 'yesterday' as Britain was drowning in its heritage through fear of the looming Millennium. Of course the title demands frequent updates as the first production was in 2006 and especially now as furniture 'today' has truly come of age.  It is a mammoth task as the field has expanded so much in just the last decade and there is fantastic work going on that is outside popular culture. It is a self-funded project, (the usual suspects rejected my requests). Nobody asked me to do it and unlike Parts One and Two when makers I approached were very responsive to submit material, I am struggling to get makers to respond. I suspect some might fear I will be too outspoken! Yes, I will be outspoken but objective and analytical. If an extremely expensive piece of furniture has technical flaws somebody should surely comment on that?  Be thankful my name isn't Jeremy Clarkson!  It is bizarre to think that conventionally film production involves a team of specialists and I am doing everything single-handed!

Self-taught film maker Jeremy Broun using a Super 8 cine camera in 1984

   There is virtually no serious in depth debate about furniture. The last broadsheet newspaper critic was Peta Levi who passed away (since I featured her in 'Furniture Today Part Two'). I suppose furniture design and woodworking is a passion of mine.
   I am struggling today to work on the project - endless hours of editing film footage, promoting the work of others, when depression drains energy. But I know, despite the struggle, I will make a good job of this update of what is a unique visual document of the best contemporary furniture being made in the British Isles (indeed some of the very best in the world) and placing it in a historical context dating back to the Magna Carta. As Churchill said 'History will be kind to me as I intend to write it'!

   The Zigzag Table by Jeremy Broun. First designed in 1978 this example made in 1984 and the last one commissioned in 2007. Each one is slightly different in size, material and detail.

'It exploits the markings of traditional manufacture, as seen in the wood joints where the top meets the legs, and it is innovative in its centre joint. Limited edition designer furniture provides the closest link between maker and user, and often results in the most interesting products'.

from 'An Encyclopedia of Tables' by Simon Yates (The Apple Press - Quintet Books) 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Come back when youre famous

   I think it was the year of 1973 and I was working in a converted cattleshed workshop on the outskirts of Bath. The rent was £5 per week. I called myself 'The Bath Carpenter' and took on a variety of work ranging from trimming the bottom of doors (fitted carpets had made their debut then0, to building fitted wardrobes and kitchens which paid the way for me to speculate on my individualistic contemporary furniture designs. I used an anonymous title as I felt good design should sell on its own merits rather than rely on a name, a rather naive view.
   There were no outlets for my furniture. It was too modern. I did manage to persuade the owner of a local Persian Carpet shop to put one of my rocking chairs in front of one of his expensive carpets in the window and he took just ten percent.
   There were two craft galleries in Bath at the time; Coexistence and Centaur Designs. I remember the tall female owner of Coexistence looking down on me and asking whether I had been to the Royal College of Art. I had more breeding in my little toe! I politely withdrew from her exclusive gallery and walked across the road to Centaur Designs with my portfolio. I showed a picture of my rocking chair and said it had been selected for a major London exhibition called "Wood". In his put down I recall the proprietor saying 'Let's wait and see what happens from the London exhibition' which in effect was code for 'come back when you are famous'.
   A few years later a gallery owner in the north of England telephoned me invited me to show my work at an exhibition. I asked her didn't she want to see my portfolio. 'No she said' reassuringly 'That's not necessary, we know your work'.
   2011 footnote: Was this licence to put in a Grayson Perry type appearance?

 The converted cattleshed workshop in Milton Avenue, Bath

A short extract from 'Missing Jean' by Jeremy Broun

Friday, 30 September 2011

Dovetails - The Holy Grail

   In the world of woodworking there is nothing more striking than a dovetail joint and what it represents historically. Many still argue it is the strongest joint and when it come to cutting dovetails they have to be cut almost according to the gospel. 
   But I find it a little irksome when I see immaculate cabinetry at exhibitions and when I open the drawer I see the shoulder line left on. No, no, no. If you are going to stick to tradition stick to tradition! I also observe inconsistency as the shoulder line is never left on the carcase dovetail! 
   So who is the gospel according to? Well if we take the 50's and 60's as the zenith of handmade cabinetry, before machine woodworking got into gear, a Mr Charles Hayward was famous for a series of definitive books on practical woodworking and he was pretty well acknowledged as the authority. In fact nobody since has gone into the craft in anywhere near the depth of his books. He states clearly that the shoulder line should be removed and this teaching at the same time was coming out of the leading colleges Shoreditch and Loughborough. A light shoulder is first scribed and then deepened where the tail and pin portions are removed. the line there serves as a location for a chisel and saw. 
   Although many antiques display crude shoulder lines left on which on close inspection by the torn grain imply a marking gauge was used (rather than a try square and marking knife), it is no guide to proper practice or the best tradition. Many antiques were made by semi skilled craftsman and are so badly designed and made would be thrown out of an exhibition of contemporary furniture today.    
   Here endeth the lesson!

A carcase dovetail devised by Jeremy Broun combining a traditional lap dovetail and through dovetail.
This is a short extract from an article to appear in British Woodworking magazine soon

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

My Beautiful Hands

   A few days ago I did a stupid thing and whilst using a portable metal grinder the molegrips slackened, the metal moved and the rotating cutter went quick walkabouts over my hand ripping through a layer of flesh around the base of my thumb. Fortunately no nerves or tendons were severed as this is my right hand used for guitar playing and my thumb is very important. The last time I damaged a hand was also whilst working on a car project in 1989 and I drilled through the bodywork with a half inch drillbit, forgetting I was supporting the material with my fingers the other side. In fact it was the same thumb! Complete stupidity and a reminder how valuable my hands are. 
   I often lie awake at night silhouetting my hands against the moon shining through a skylight above my bed. I still have beautiful hands, strong working man's hands but also well proportioned hands with guitar player's fingers. I don't think its vanity but a sheer appreciation of the wonder of how the hands interpret what the brain commands. I exercise my hands whilst doing my full moon ritual, making the fingers move in every possible way. Learning guitar chords (or any instrument probably) is an excellent workout for hand and brain.
Some guitar chord shapes take tens of hours to master from the initial careful placing of each finger on each string, often awkward to hold the position, then months later the chord shape is executed at speed. I'm lucky, although I used to be able to site read, I play totally by ear and once the muscle memory kicks in the chord sequences are automatic and I can then concentrate on expression. I am amazed at how many jazz players read off the manuscript. I thought jazz was supposed to be free and improvised. I am an improvisor and my wonderful hands are the greatest gift I could ever ask for, linked to a brain that fires on four cylinders most of the time. I am very fortunate, at this moment in time I have no aches and pains in my limbs and in particular my hands and it is surprising I have not worn my hands out. 
   I have made a living from my hands, renovated three houses and made countless pieces of furniture. On my rocking chairs alone I have drilled nearly forty thousand holes through which eight miles of sailing cord has passed to create the upholstery (although many of the chairs were woven by others) but I drilled every hole. 
   Over five decades of using my hands since building my first guitar at school, I reckon this represents between 30,000 and 50,000 hours of creative hand work and still they are almost as agile as when I was 17 years old. This takes into account a fair percentage of my life immobilised by depression. Perhaps the price I pay for such wonderful hands.

  My beautiful hands that survived a stupid accident

The High Backed Rocker has found homes around the world since 1973
Over eight miles of sailing chord and 40,000 holes drilled