Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The late Andrew Varah

        Andrew Varah died in July 2012, delivering something of a shock to the British bespoke furniture making community where he had become a distinguished figure; the bloke I recall from my student days, who always sat at the top table, and where after a late start in the furniture making world, he arrived. It was little surprise he was ambitious as he was the son of Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans suicide telephone line, member of MENSA and his mother, head of the Mothers Union Europe. Andy was a triplet and identical twin.
        I first met Andrew in 1963 as a fellow student at the legendary Shoreditch Teacher Training College in Surrey. In our second year Andrew got me a room in the sought after old college building alongside his close mates Geoff Buckland, John Eustace and Max Carter. I suppose the obvious thing we all had in common was that we spoke without an accent and so it was probably a class thing. I guess in retrospect we were an elite group although I saw ourselves as different rather than better than the main core of trainee handicraft teachers. We tended to be more independent minded.
           Shoreditch College was a fantastic training not just in woodworking skills but in other craft disciplines such as metalworking, basketmaking, pottery and bookbinding and we had the very best practitioners in the country as tutors. My God those were the days and I shed a tear on the very last day of my training looking over Runnymede from the college campus, thinking it will never be as good as this again. Shoreditch was renowned for supplying not only the best teachers but the pranks that went on at the college were legendary.
         From one of the towers in our residential building I recall being roped in by an errant third year student to spray one of the college tutors on duty with a fire water hose and later hiding in Andrew's wardrobe while the search party sifted through the study bedrooms. Andrew was sitting in bed wearing a nightcap, reading a book, innocently pointing to the open window which happened to be four storeys up and telling the tutor 'maybe they went that way'. I was nearly kicked out as an example to other students but I went on to gain a Distinction on the Advanced Woodwork course while Andrew became social secretary and was out with the girls rather than pushing his cabinetmaking skills. 
      Andy helped me buy my first Morgan three-wheeler and we drove out to secluded pubs in Virginia Water in it and even attended a party in Surrey held by John Gregson the actor. The three-wheeler had no reverse gear and on one occasion we plunged through somebody's garden fence in Bagshot. We shared many fun experiences lasting into our thirties. 

The first 1933 Morgan three-wheeler arrives on the Shoreditch College campus
in 1962, causing a sensation amongst students and staff. 

I took Andy salmon poaching on wild Scottish rivers (my home was in Scotland) and on our last day of the trip I said  'I can't send you back to London empty handed'. While my older sister stood lookout for the bailiff, I hooked the salmon and Andrew landed it. 

I hooked the salmon and Andy landed it
 - an apt description of our furniture making careers. (1968)

On a furniture travel scholarship abroad my car was stolen and he offered to drive over to Holland to pick me up. I managed to get an old banger and arrived back from a 24-hour drive straight from Italy to his barn workshops near Rugby and he was the first to see all the exciting items of innovative furniture I had been given.

The old banger loaded with gifts from Artek, Cassina Artemide etc 
- first port of call Andrew Varah's pad 1979

     At the beginning of our careers Andrew and I taught in tough London schools and met up in our respective school workshops after school hours to brainstorm designs for school projects. We were pioneers of design in schools a decade before Design Craft Technology became officially part of the curriculum. We both left teaching after two years and Andy went to work in Zambia running a furniture factory. He invited me over to be his designer but my phobia for injections stopped that. He returned around 1974 but in preceding years had written to me many times asking what it was like to be a 'designer maker' and saying he wanted to do what I was doing back in England. 
    He set up as a solo maker and so our contact was much closer. I visited him many times at Little Walton, mucking into the renovations of his barn workshop. He had a fantastic pad while I was working in a tiny underground city workshop without natural light. A strange contrast as at the time he was an unknown and I was well acknowledged in the field by galleries and magazines. Around 1979
I introduced him to the Prestcote Gallery and remember his very first exhibit there, an inlaid table in ash. It was a electric time as the new boys exhibited alongside the old boys; A Fred Baier chair sitting next to an Edward Barnsley table.

An ash table by Andrew Varah circa 1976

Perhaps ashamed of my own somewhat modest workshop I turned down an opportunity in 1989 to be filmed for a regional television craft documentary and introduced the film director Trevor Hill to Andrew Varah who at that time had just taken on the genius woodworker Andrew Whately from John Makepeace's workshop. I think it was Andrew's first television exposure and at that time a rare insight into the work of furniture designer makers. Jan Leeming, ex News reader was the presenter. 

A chair by Andrew Varah around the time of the first television feature 

     Andrew delighted in pleasing his clients and working to their needs, often adding whims drawn from different architectural periods making his actual designs somewhat derivative and overplayed in clever craftsmanship in my opinion. I felt he became a bit of an 'untouchable' in terms of design critique but then there are no critics of bespoke modern furniture! If it were a West End play the performances would be torn apart by ruthless critics (Kiera Knightly playing Anna Karenina)! But design apart, Andrew Varah became a formidable maker and guiding light to a new blossoming generation of furniture designer makers. It was the late Alan Peters (who also trained at Shoreditch College) who said in 1974 this is surely the most difficult craft to sustain.  
        I still have some prime quality flitch cut English oak Andrew sold me at cost price in the year of the drought in 1976 and some Rio rosewood veneer he gave me on the same occasion. In our halcyon days Andy would often get to meet the girls I dated and would say 'I can't believe how you can pull the most beautiful birds' yet he could pull the most prestigious clients and was really in a different league running a furniture business and employing talented young craftsmen, many of whom stayed for decades.
 There was obviously rivalry between Andrew nyself. Even as students he once told me he could run as fast without training as his identical twin brother Mike who was running 800 yards for Britain. I told him he was arrogant and challenged him to run around the college track. He beat me after 26 laps and I was in the college athletics team and he wasn't! Curiously as my furniture 'career' suffered because of depression in my life I once admitted to Andy I had often phoned up his old man's outfit the Samaritans. I got the impression Andy did not get to see much of his father in his youth. Despite our more recent fall outs, we exchanged an amicable conversation at our last chance meeting at an exhibition in Cheltenham where we were both judges for different awards. 
      I made a film including him called 'Five Ways to Fashion Wood' in 1989 and a light-hearted clip called 'Three wise men' in 2005:  


Inevitably Andy and I followed different paths, but nothing can take away our early formative and fun years.  Varah RIP.