Wish List: our bespoke commission for Sir Terence Conran and the V&A

Benchmark lead the way for British craftsmanship and fine furniture. They also champion young designers and use their experience to put people in touch with one another to grow and develop their skills and experience. Earlier this year they created an amazing project in collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) called Wish List.

They paired ten young designers with ten masters of the design world. I was paired with Sir Terence Conran and told that I would be designing and making a piece of furniture for him under the brief ‘The thing I’ve always wanted…’

All of the pieces made for the Wish List will be exhibited in the V&A during the London Design Festival in September.

What could Sir Terence Conran, the internationally renowned designer who has had a rich life-long relationship with objects, possibly still want that we could provide? Especially since the thing is to be made from wood, yet he co-owns Benchmark Furniture, Britain’s best woodworking workshop.

This is by far the most exciting, ambitious, and prestigious client and brief combination I could wish for and the stakes were high. Whatever we were to produce, it had to be the very best we could design and make.

There was another hugely appealing aspect to the Wish List for me. The project was been put together by AHEC, who are seeking to raise awareness of, and gather data for, Life Cycle Assessment.

LCA is something I’ve written about before and am deeply interested in. Simply, it’s measuring the CO2 expenditure of a product. Other industries like metal and concrete have lots of data on their carbon footprints, but the timber industry is behind the curve. AHEC are trying to change this and ensure that timber is known globally as the first choice sustainable material; a mission I want to be a part of, especially if it’s lead by Sir Terence Conran and Benchmark.

TAKING THE BRIEF FROM SIR TERENCE

I had the pleasure of meeting with Sir Terence at his home in Berkshire so I could take the brief and discover what exactly it is that he has always wanted.

His home is appropriately filled with fascinating collections and objects in every room. I nervously followed the smell of cigar smoke to his study and we chatted about the project over some lovely wine. I discovered that although he’s an icon of British design he’s a human being like the rest of us, with the addition of a good sense of humour and a kind manner. 

The piece that Sir Terence had always wanted was to be called Getting Away From It All and is essentially a desk, bookended by two towers that store reference books and other objects. Off these towers, Sir Terence envisaged a cotton curtain on a rail that would allow him to shut himself away and work undisturbed.

Sir Terence had a clear idea of what he wanted and dictated a set of lines that I drew. He would often pull a tape measure out to confirm his instinct for a dimension was correct and would occasionally sketch a detail – drawings now amongst my most treasured possessions.

I was very keen to ensure that this piece had my fingerprint on it too, so I suggested that the curtain could be replaced by woven oak screens hung on hinges. Terence liked this idea very much, so I went away and began to draw up what we had discussed, focusing on making this enormous object as visually lightweight as possible.

CHOOSING MY MATERIAL

I wanted to address some of the challenges that the American timber industry faces in the same way I have with British hardwoods, so I asked AHEC which timbers they have growing in abundance, but struggle to sell in the UK market.

Their answer was absolutely clear – avoid Walnut (a species that makes up only 4% of America’s trees yet is hugely popular in the furniture industry at the moment) and use Cherry or Red Oak, which are both grown widely throughout the US and have struggled in popularity in the UK over the last decade.

Cherry was perfect for the carcass and desk, while the red oak suited the woven panels with its good steam bending properties.

This piece was to be made during a single week at Benchmark, along with all of the other pieces in the Wish List project, ranging from a shed for Paul Smith to a set of pencil sharpeners for Lord Norman Foster.

A WEEK OF MAKING

All of the commissioned designers were welcomed into the wonderful world of Benchmark for the week. We camped together in Terence’s garden, we ate and drank delicious local produce, had free rein of the Benchmark workshops and access to their smart and skillful makers.

The atmosphere was fantastic; everybody was learning new skills, getting to grips with new materials and time was tight.

The piece for Sir Terence had every cabinet-maker’s challenge in it: sliding woven doors, an entirely wooden tambour, a secret compartment, a series of drawers, scores of housing joints and a dovetailed carcass. Here’s Jo meticulously routing housing joints on day one.

Jo, George and I had the occasional chance to escape the frenetic workshop and go down to the river, where our Red Oak was being soaked to make it supple for weaving. I was really pleasantly surprised at how well the soaking worked – you could literally wrap the Red Oak around your finger!

However, we couldn’t spend too long paddling, we had an enormous task in hand in the workshop. I have to say, I’m immensely proud of the work we did as a team. To make a piece of furniture that large and complex in the given time was the biggest test we’ve had as makers, and when we’d finished we were exhausted!

The whole Wish List collection will be on show at the V&A during the London Design Festival, and it will then go on a world tour before each piece is passed to its commissioner. There will also be a book published with detail of each piece’s Life Cycle Data. All of the beautiful photographs and the film you see here are the work of the wonderful ©Petr Krejci.

 

Brogan Cox