Monday, 17 September 2012

The New Golden Age of British Furniture

          I first wrote about 'The New Golden Age of Contemporary Craftsmanship & Design' around 1990 in a magazine called Woodworking International (that was later replaced by Furniture & Cabinetmaking) and my DVD project Furniture Today has expanded on this theme taking contemporary furniture history up to the present time (Furniture Today 3 was produced in 2012). However, any age has a defining chronology, sometimes sudden. 
          The Age of Mahogany (in England) was defined by the lifting of import tax on mahogany from the Americas in the mid 18th Century by Sir Robert Walpole. The Age of Oak spanned spanned several centuries generally referred to as the Medaeival period. The Apple iPhone may very well rank in the general dating of change in this century which in a word is rapid. From an observer's point of view, indeed an insider observer as I am, I look for a useful  barometer and in our increasingly complex age there is no single barometer but a useful guide, and since I chose to focus on the work of furniture designer makers the major internet forum I belong to gives an indication. When new members apply I curiously view their websites. Increasingly I wonder if the same web designer has been used, the layout is extraordinarily similar and then when I look at the examples of furniture, increasingly I see derivative work. A bit of this in a dining table understructure and a bit of that in the way drawers hang, the stocking trade timbers would almost tempt me to call this a New Age of Walnut. Many of the designs now have been done before and I wonder if the period of innovation is being followed by a period of conservation?  Or is it that the true innovators more or less in same number as forty years ago, are treading the old elitist path and not mixing with the hoi polloi of furniture makers today? 
        In the Furniture Craft revival of the 1970's there was clear innovation amongst probably no more than twenty people/workshops. Not only was the style instantly recognisable (admittedly be people in the know) but each maker had something different to say. Many people have knocked the Crafts Council as being elitist which in a sense it has been, but it was a formidable body in fostering innovation and promoted those makers who 'redefined the boundaries of their craft'. I was one of those fortunate makers to be noticed (actually by my late friend Alan Peters who sadly passed away in 2009).  
          If my memory serves me well the influence of client on the work was less apparent than on today's breed of furniture designer makers. In my opinion when you hand over the very thing you are skilled at (creating an idea) to the client it is an open door to a mishmash design solution. The educated and considerate client will allow you the artist to interpret their need for a piece of furniture in your way and the buzz of the commissioning process is where like minds meet and both client and creator get more than they originally envisaged out of it.  With the shift in new money over recent decades the big commissions that feed the egos of the extremely wealthy has little to do with real innovation and at its worst could very well have limited second hand value after the fortunes made have been lost. Money does not equate design taste or indeed a deep understanding of the deep-rooted culture of craftsmanship and design.
The mobile phone and 3D printing open the doors to copying and diluting of ideas. This fairly sudden new democracy where ownership is challenged as never before. The new kids on the block will always have something to say that is their ownership even if the wheel is being re-invented and they like their fathers before kick against the status quo only to find later as their hair turns grey they are dubbed with the brush 'old guard', 'establishment'. It is difficult to avoid the generalised tendency that taste in music is often shaped by those formative years. Those Beatles parties we held when I was a student at Shoreditch college in the early sixties. You were either a Beatles or Stones fan when push came to shove. Stones was definitely for the rebels. I was.t a rebel then, I learned meticulously the traditional craft of cabinetmaking to the letter, to the secret mitred dovetail and long and short shouldered mortice and tenon. I was one of four at the leading British college who gained a distinction in my year and essentially we learned the art of copying. Only later did I then question tradition and necessity was the mother of invention when I set up a workshopwit when I was student

Monday, 3 September 2012

The JKB Window Hook Roof Platform

         The JKB Window Hook roof platform is a custom built device for hooking onto a dormer window and resting on the roof tiles in order to undertake repairs/maintenance. It saves hundreds of pounds in scaffolding costs and can be stored away in two separate parts after use. Made from stout 18mm exterior grade plywood and sandwiched at the hook in three thicknesses of material, it is screwed and glued together and lacquered with two coats of matt polyurethane varnish and one top coat of yacht varnish. Job done!

The JKB Window Hook platform. Copyright Jeremy Broun 2012

      It took longer to design the concept than build it and its hook profile and general angled geometry is made to measure for my particular roof. I had already constructed a roof ladder (see my You Tube WOODOMAIN channel) from a couple of bundles of batten so this is also a very low cost solution for servicing my roof and dormer window. Both sections of the platform are 48" long, conveniently coming out of an eight by four sheet and it makes lifting into position and storage easier. 

Looking down on the platform from the dormer window flat roof

        There is an extra hitch point where the two holes are to anchor the end of the platform to the dormer roof upright. I used rope but envisage constructing a metal strap that simply hooks into place. The two sections are fixed together in situ with stout stainless steel screws with the larger hole as a viewing hole to locate the screw. Each section is light enough to manoeuvre through the dormer window opening and fix into place on the roof and the hooks amply clear the window sill and flashing if repairs are needed there, which in my case they did. 

The platform is made in two sections for ease of mobility and storage

 If you are a woodworker/housebuilder who would like to use my idea all I ask for is an acknowledgment or better still buy my Routing DVDs (from as a thank you for my ideas. It would cost me too much to patent many of my ideas but I believe in the universal law of what goes around comes around. My device may be featured in a future issue of 'British Woodworking' magazine as an example of resourceful woodworking. I intend doing my own roof repairs for as long as I am active. If you use the idea and make a similar window hook platform I cannot accept any responsibility for its safety, not least because build quality is important. If you are 25 stone heavy obviously the way I have built mine would not be strong enough. Safety always comes first and it is imperative to use an anchored safety harness when working on a roof.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Passion for design

        Probably the most successful British chair of the 20th Century is the polypropylene  stacking chair by Robin Day for Hille International. The tooling costs were around £6,000 and it retailed at under £5. I was always inspired as a designer maker by the giants of mass produced innovation and found myself an increasingly reluctant member of an exclusive social club - British Designer Makers from the 1970's onwards.  I did work on the shop floor of a furniture factory as a trainee designer in 1973 but found the British mass production furniture industry depressing in the 1970's.

Stacking chair by Robin Day for Hille (1966)

      However, another icon of late 20th Century furniture design recently caught my eye in a local 'junk' shop which was a must have for me - four 'Supporto' chairs by Fred Scott, also for Hille International. I only want one for my quirky office but I am having to buy all four and hope to pass the others on. This is the classic original ergonomically designed modern office chair but most in my heritage city would be ignorant of its existence.


'Supporto' chair by Fred Scott for Hille (1979)

      It is not the first time I have picked up a scoop locally. A couple of decades ago. I picked up a classic Harry Bertoia chair from my local market for £5 and use that in my home. Who is Harry Bertoia you ask? We know who Simon Colwell and Cheryl Cole are! 


Harry Bertoia chair (1957)

         But back to the plot - my passion for furniture design is re-kindled when I see a classic modern chair and my home is just too full of chairs so I am having to build a separate sealed storage area for my micro museum! The very first chair I made was actually a copy of 'The Chair' by Hans Wegner and I delighted in spokeshaving the arms which are highly sculptural. I made it out of teak when I was 17 and it was one of my major pieces when I was at Shoreditch College, so I must have made that chair in 1966 and all it needs today is a fresh smearing of Danish oil. The cane seat is still immaculate despite occasional use over the years. 

'The chair' by Hans Vegner (1949)

I think it is important to know our history. I visited the Cheltenham Celebration of Craftsmanship exhibition last week and apart from feeling somewhat let down by the chairs on show (the public chair competition), noticed a table by a maker that was an exact copy of a table by a designer maker friend of mine - John Coleman in the 1980's. I actually could not bring myself to mention this to the exhibitor so here I am referring to it on my blog. But surely in this age of 'graduate masters degree' furniture maker they have studied their history, especially the recent history of designer makers? In my Furniture Today DVDs the history is detailed with hundreds of images of furniture design and many colleges stock my DVDs. 

Veneered Table by John Coleman 
'Maker Designers Today' exhibition at Camden Arts Centre 1984

         I am certainly not accusing this maker of blatant copying as the design possesses a certain structural rationale that could be conceived by more than one mind. But in a previous exhibition there was a submission for not just a direct copy of a classic design but the design itself, a stool was used and the top just re-veneered in burn walnut which stuck out like a sore thumb! I alerted the exhibition curator but goodness me I am not a member of the design Police but just surprised by ignorance in this graduate craft culture. 

Laminated birch stool by Alvar Aalto (1933)

          The wonderful thing about furniture design history is that it may be far from popular culture but it has a lasting and satisfying dimension to it and something to pass on. On my 90th birthday I intend holding a retrospective exhibition of my furniture designs and also show my chair collection which one day will be handed down.

  Cantilever chair in elm by Jeremy Broun (1984)
 inspired by Marcel Breuer's 'Chair with no legs' (1927)

          The designer Ron Arad once said to me 'a chair should have a very good reason for being'*. I would agree with that. It would be arrogant to claim total originality as we all know ideas come from somewhere and I think at least if one is inspired by one design to create another, the source should at least be acknowledged as a respect for that designer. But what does that silly old-fashioned term 'respect ' mean today? 

* 'The Chair' video 1990 (now on DVD) by Jeremy Broun