What drives me to create? (Part 1)

I’m sometimes asked what it is that drives me to make things and the answer to this is quite complex.  Let me begin by saying that I have always been passionate about what I do and this fire inside of me drives me forward to keep doing it. However the process of arriving at an end product, whether furniture, sculpture or wall art is often overshadowed by the piece itself.  I was interviewed recently by the designer and film maker Patrick Astwood for his series Product (see the video here) and discussing my work with him prompted me to put together this blog. It focuses on the differing aspects that I love about the process of creating a functional or decorative object and they are intertwined. Essentially they hinge around the three pillars of my work; Craft, Art and Design but woven into this trinity are also my clients who play their part. By sharing these elements, my hope is that they not only provide more meaning to the viewer of my work but they may ignite a similar spark for other creative people.



Craft and materials

For me craft has a lot to do with the materials themselves as well as the techniques used to manipulate them so they appear here side by side in this section. Taking a material and transforming its use and appearance with the aid of tools is such a rewarding process. For anyone who hasn’t sampled the joys of craft, there are undoubtedly parallels with cooking a new recipe, particularly if you do some of the measuring of ingredients with a little creative license. It’s not only about the ratios of the ingredients but how they are chopped, the order in which they are added and the means by which they are cooked. Whilst I have never baked a cake I certainly connect with the pride that the chefs on The Great British Bake Off display when presenting their creations to the judges.

Making things is partly about the finished gateau or cabinet, but the process has to be enjoyable too. 25 years on, I still get immense satisfaction from sharpening my plane blade and adjusting the handplane so that it creates continuous and even shavings that are a mere 1/20 of a millimetre thick. These wafer thin strips of wood not only demonstrate the power of keeping ones tools in good condition but when put up to the light are also artworks in themselves.

By investing time into influencing the look of a material with one’s hands it ceases to be simply be an inanimate object and takes on a newly defined individual personality of its own. Sometimes this isn’t immediate as the form emerges slowly from a block of material as the rough surfaces are shaped and smoothed. At the end of working on a wooden piece it can be more dramatic as the colour and grain patterns pop out when applying the first coat of oil and then a deep lustre forms after the subsequent coats.

Wood is unquestionably my favourite material for the many options it provides for the designer; colour, tone, texture, flexibility (when working with veneers) and variety within one species of even one piece of wood. Nothing compares to the sweet smell of freshly cut Maple and the remarkably fragrant Cedar of Lebanon. Colours range from the stark white of Holly at one end of the spectrum to the dark black of Indian Ebony at the other. The hues can be subtle like the oranges, browns and purples found in English Walnut or can be more striking like the purple of Purpleheart or deep red of Paduak. Grain patterns range from fine and consistent like that of Pear to wild and unpredictable like European Olivewood. The textures found in burrs such as Amboyna or Vavona contrast with the almost holographic qualities of ripple Sycamore or quilted Maple. In general it is such a wonderful material for the balance between its hardness and workability. It is soft enough to be able to carve into it with hand tools whilst still allowing the craftsperson to create a crisp edge (in contrast with more malleable materials like clay).

Purpleheart wood

Over the last few years I have started working with new materials. Metal, whilst not as malleable as wood allows for an even crisper finish and its hardness and durability mean that the finest of thicknesses to be used to create forms that simply wouldn’t be possible in wood. It hardness and reflective qualities also mean that it can be polished to a bright, even mirrored shine and this ties in neatly with many of my ideas that are themed around water and waves. It also offers a very differing range of alternatives in texture and colour when applying patinas. Resin and the casting process that I use it with, open up a whole range of creative, sculptural possibilities that wood simply can’t provide. The fact that it can be combined with metal and stone powders and a range of colour pigments means that it provides the artist with so many options.

Whether working with wood, metal or resin, or other secondary materials for me like glass and stone, the fact that there are a multitude of ingredients that can be combined together is one vital part in being able to conjure up something which really excites me.


The bigger Craft picture

I mention the importance of the process of making and extend this to the journey itself of developing as a craftsperson. Holistically this is like having a vision of scaling a mountain and focusing on achieving it one step at a time.  Each project on this path forms some of the many steps and many years later the accumulation of projects results in a sense of having moved from a novice to being a professional. However the more you learn the more you realise that there is still so much more to discover and therefore that you will never know everything. Therefore the reality is that as you reach the summit of one mountain you rejoice in this fact and also the knowledge that there is a larger peak just behind it which was originally out of view. Scaling the next peak then becomes about the new terrain discovered and how skilfully it is traversed rather than actually getting to the top of anything.

As one masters each process one can then totally engross oneself in it, and whilst a map is usually required to get to the destination, it can be folded away for the duration of this phase. The process then becomes more of a meditation where time seems to evaporate and the resulting peace of mind can be a welcome respite to some of the problems which exist outside of the workshop.


The beauty of Design

When I use the word design I do so with two different concepts in mind; as a verb and as a noun. As a verb it covers the process of using pencil and paper or computer aided design (CAD) software to create representations of objects. The noun looks at the category of functional objects and how their characteristics have been considered to enhance their usability.

I get a real buzz from dreaming up new ideas and this playful experimental stage usually starts with pencil and paper.  It is the most immediate and tactile way to transfer intangible concepts from one’s mind into the real world, albeit it in 2D. Sometimes the results are what I had imagined but at other times, they can lead me in new unexpected directions. The rational left side of the brain is best left to one side thus allowing the possibility of something lodged in the subconscious to emerge. Play is a vital part of creativity and the results can always be analysed through a more critical filter at a later stage.

This enjoyment I get from the initial sketching stage extends into making the ideas more concrete when working with CAD which allows me to transform a simplistic 2D concept into a 3 dimensional representation. The ability to be able manipulate lines and surfaces with ease and therefore combine different aesthetics with a greater speed than traditional means is something I really enjoy. The act of moving control points on a curve to increase its dynamism or stretching a surface in a direction to influence the narrative of a piece is a really fun process.  Whilst the CAD versions may not be actually be in 3D, its ability to replicate these objects in both form and surface detail (with the rendering facility) is still a fantastic tool and at times feels more like play than work.

3D computer render of Genie

The other side of design that brings me great pleasure is the noun and the concept often ties in very closely with craftsmanship; for example there is something immensely gratifying about making the lid for a box close with a buffered ‘ piston effect’. Good design strikes a chord with us in one way or another and when something looks and feels ‘just right’, that sweet spot is a thing of beauty to behold. It can be the way that a series of a choices are pared down to their basics leaving one with a sense of serenity like looking up at a clear blue sky. It may be the balance between comfort and elegance in a chair or the proportions used to create a cupboard that maximises storage in each section whilst still considering its aesthetic appeal. When one achieves these things there is a great sense of satisfaction. This can be at a cerebral level associated with the craftsmanship or the thought that has gone into the functionality of an item, which makes you smile and figuratively doff your hat to the inventor.  It can equally be on a more emotional level when feeling the smooth surface of a finished piece. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and thankfully the combinations of materials I select and the functionality I build in to the objects I create, marry with the tastes of my clients.

(The second and final part of this blog can be found here.)