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Around the Workshop – Best of 2016

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

I’ve been struggling to find time to write the blog recently, a reflection of just how busy 2016 has been. It has been an amazing year now I look back on it; in terms of the amount of work, the size and ambition of the projects undertaken but also just the sheer breadth of what we’ve done.

This time last year we were just finishing off work on two museum projects; one being some stools for the newly refurbished V&A Europe 1600-1815 galleries learning area, the other being furniture for the Watts Gallery in Surrey. On both of these projects we worked in close collaboration with ZMMA Architects, a dynamic London practice we have strong connections with. You can in more depth about these museum projects on the blog by clicking here.

And it’s very much that collaborative theme that continued through the year…

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Highly challenging museum work with ZMMA Architects for the Watts Gallery (right) and the V&A Museum (left).

As the museum projects came to an end we were just gearing up for our first big project of 2016, the interior of a large contemporary CLT (cross laminated timber) built house on the North Norfolk coast called Bliss Blakeney. It’s not our normal stomping ground but the project and the clients meant it wasn’t one we wanted to miss out on, besides getting to know a new part of the world is an added bonus. We were asked to design the entrance hall and stair areas, kitchen, living / snug area, bar, library, bedrooms and dressing rooms. The first half of the year was very much focused on the Bliss project, we ended up completing the abstract stair panelling, the very funky kitchen, the snug and the library areas before drawing a line under it. The next elements are due in 2017, so hopefully this time next year there will be more images to see.

What I loved about this project is it was the clients who were pushing us for more radical design solutions, they are not scared of risk taking or bold design. That’s always a thrill for a designer when it happens and inevitably leads to new and exciting work – I see Bliss as very much a joint project between us and very creatively minded clients. Not sure what I’d pull out as a favourite piece or element of the Bliss project – the kitchen island perhaps? I also love the sideboard / media cabinet in the black sycamore wall panels of the snug, and the stair wall panels in fumed oak / pink ripple sycamore and intense blue, and the library and….

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Bliss Blakeney on the North Norfolk Coast, full of colour and creativity and came to define the first half of 2016.

We still need to get the space properly photographed, but even from our site snaps you can see this is a bit special. Despite being a long way away the site fitting was always a pleasure because we could get put up in the luxury ‘Cabin’, a four bed self contained wing of Bliss where the team could chill out after a long day’s work. The local pubs were great and so was landscape of North Norfolk coastline. It’s not often we do describe the fitting part of a project as a ‘pleasure’, but this was certainly true of the Bliss Blakeney project.

For more about Bliss and staying at the stunning Cabin yourself click here…

Cabin at Bliss

The daily breakfast meeting discussing theĀ fitting day ahead in the ‘Cabin’ at Bliss Blakeney.

The other big news of 2016 was our collaboration with Sitting Spiritually, the garden furniture and swing seat makers from Lyme Regis. Late in 2015 they approached us to design a new contemporary swing seat for them. They had seen the work we had done on the Tudor Arcade Public Seating project and our prototype ‘Floating Benches’ with scorched and natural oak and wanted to harness that look in a new swing seat. Out of this came the ‘Yakisugi’ swing seat in 2,3 and 4 seat versions. We also licenced the Floating Bench to Sitting Spiritually and developed one and two seater versions as well as the original generous 3 seat bench. This became the ‘Simon Thomas Pirie Contemporary Range’, sold exclusively through Sitting Spiritually, but designed and made by us.

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We don’t have a high profile in the garden furniture world, but Sitting Spiritually do and they take a stand at the prestigious RHS Chelsea Flower Show every year. It’s the build up to that where the Yakisugi Swing Seat but especially the Floating Bench got huge attention – getting shortlisted for RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year. Images ended up in every paper and supplement imaginable. Post Chelsea it was a key feature in two RHS Gold Medal award winning gardens at Hampton Court and Tatton Park, with plenty of BBC TV coverage to boot. It’s nice seeing other garden furniture suppliers trying to play catch up – the scorched and natural oak combination was definitely the hot theme of 2016!

Floating Green

I don’t think I’ve ever designed something that has ever got quite so much attention in a short space of time. The middle of the year saw us making healthy batches of the swing seats and Floating Benches and we are already discussing what’s going to be on the RHS Chelsea Sitting Spiritually stand for 2017. Sworn to secrecy though!

A little film to celebrate the Sitting Spiritually / STP Collaboration in 2016.

For more about the Simon Thomas Pirie Contemporary Range which is sold exclusively through Sitting Spiritually visit the Sitting Spiritually website.

On the collaboration theme we continue to build relationships with interior design practices, high-end developers and architects. They come to us for our very bespoke skill set and the fact we can help them elevate their concepts into something real and exquisite. One such project was with Jigsaw Interior Architecture and AMD Developments in a new property by the river in Christchurch. This stunning contemporary build utilised a very calming neutral interior palette which is both elegant and subtle. We were asked by Jigsaw to work on the staircase liaising with the metal fabricators to produce the timber stair treads and landing elements as well as a couple of large room divide / display storage shelves. These were made in a birch ply and a black face veneer. They look simple but were much more tricky to make then they initially appear. One of these had a large siding end grain panel on industrial castors that covers half of the display space.

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The living and dining space shelving in ply and black tulip wood at Wick Lane – Scheme by Jigsaw Interior Architecture.

There is more detail and more images of this project on the blog – click here.

We are working on other schemes with Jigsaw, as well as with other interior design and architectural practices on some very exciting varied projects for 2017/18. Three years ago we decided to pursue more of this kind of work (as well as our own generated furniture, kitchen and interior commissions) and it has certainly paid off, giving us a much longer project horizon. It means we have have stuff penciled into the schedule 18 to 36 months ahead and properly firmed up for up to 18 months. From a business perspective it just means we can plan ahead and feel secure.

If the first half of the year was shaped by the Bliss project, the second half would be equally dominated by another project with a snappy one word name: ‘ACE‘ is a new apartment block on the desirable stretch of coastline at Sandbanks, Poole. We were only involved in the Penthouse flat, which has views over Poole harbour to one side and the open ocean, with panoramic views from the Isle of Wight to Old Harry Rocks on the other. We were invited to tender for all the fitted furniture elements except the kitchen on this by Woadden Nash Interiors in conjunction with Westcoast Developments. The building was being built by Colmar Construction who we had worked with very successfully on the ‘Fire & Water’ kitchen in 2015.

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We have known the team at Woadden Nash for some time and had come close to working with them on a couple of projects before, so it was lovely to finally secure something this big. The finishes are rich and opulent throughout the scheme, with lots of use of Italian coloured Tabu veneers on the furniture as well as a very dark brown sprayed oak throughout as a constant repeating theme on the furniture and internal joinery.

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Images of work during fitting at ACE Sandbanks, the project that has defined the second half of 2016.

We worked intensively with the Woadden Nash, Westcoast and Colmar team on developing very narrow 35mm skirtings, picture rails and decorative door linings throughout the apartment and these were the first elements to be fitted. The furniture consisted of all the wardrobes and dressing rooms in the 4 bedrooms, dressing tables, master en suite bathroom cabinetry, master bedroom furniture and panelling, shelving and TV cabinet for the living area, as well as the shelving for the night lounge / study. Last but not least is the two sided bar cabinet which stands in the centre of the room – my favourite piece on the project.

Still to get professional shots of the ACE and Bliss Interiors but i’m hoping the portfolio book and websites will be bulging with lots of exciting images and full length case studies very soon.

For all this talk of big projects and doing complete interiors we do still love making small individual pieces of furniture, it is after all at the very core of what we are as makers and designers. When you are working on projects that take months to design, months to make and almost as long to fit then snag, it’s rather refreshing to see smaller commissions designed, made and delivered in weeks. It’s important for us to get a nice mix of projects, so I’m as happy designing a small side table as I am a kitchen or library. We’ve had a few furniture pieces that have stood out this year and perhaps some images can say more than words here.

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Top left – ‘Perch’ chairs in elm as ruby wedding present to match existing STP table and benches. Top right – Stunning olive ash and fumed oak dining table – chairs to come! Bottom – Media sideboard in oak with scollop detail panels.

Next years projects are already beginning to take shape in the workshop. We are currently working on a beautiful study, which is the first element of a major new build near Beaulieu in the New Forest. We also have two large kitchens and interior projects lined up for the spring / summer, a classic 1920’s modernist interior in Hampstead, the next stage of the Bliss work in Norfolk, 60 Officers Mess chairs for a Guards regiment, a church alter and lots more we are in discussion about. 2017 looks like it could be even more exciting than 2016!

Bliss Fit 2

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Bliss Outside 1We have just returned from our second scheduled fit at Bliss Blakeney on the North Norfolk coast. This time we were concerntrating on the main living space which includes the kitchen and TV/snug areas. I say second ‘scheduled’ fit because John & I did an extra fit over the Easter break where our families came along and stayed in the cabin with us – they had a mini holiday while we worked our socks off. They had a great time and it is a lovely part of England to explore.

For this fit we had lots to do so brought our full team. We have taken on a another maker (confusingly another Mike) who just happens to be the son of our upholsterer. We were staying in the Bliss Cabin again which is a real comfy home from home with plenty of space and luxury to chill out after a long day. The other advantage is it’s a very short walk to work. It’s so much nicer than staying in a B&B where you can’t really relax in the same way. Despite the luxury, the convenience, the good local pubs when you can’t be bothered to cook, fitting is nevertheless very hard work. By the end of the week we are all knackered and aching in places that have never ached before.

Bliss snug Fit 1

Effectively we divided up into two teams one concentrating on the kitchen island, the other working on the TV/snug area. The kitchen island went together really quickly, by lunchtime on the first day the basic structure was assembled and in position so we got our real sense of the scale of this piece. At 4m by 1.4m it’s easily the largest single island we have made. While it certainly is big in the context of the space it’s perfectly proportioned and really does form the centrepiece and focus of this key space. In many ways the island is the kitchen – all four faces have a purpose – some more practical, some more sociable. Fit 3 at the end of May will see us build the back wall units which contain the ovens, more storage, the surrounds for the fridges and a lit copper inset work surface, but the priority this time was to get a functional kitchen in as the clients are already living in the house.

Bliss Island Fit 1

The one piece stainless steel worktop hit problems at the fabricators so did not turn up at all this week. The island should have been completely finished but in the end we had to rig up a temporary plywood surface until it arrives – hopefully next week. The copper sheet that forms the plinths and the under-surface detail also came late due to issues with suppliers so when we left at the end of the week we hadn’t seen it with the protective film taken off except on one corner of a drawer detail. It looked incredible against the the dark grey ripple sycamore panels. That combination of copper, charcoal figured sycamore and the stainless is certainly going to create one of our most dramatic kitchens ever. Very different to our contemporary but curvy, woody and mostly walnut kitchens. Don’t get me wrong, we love doing those, but this is a refreshing change of direction and palette towards something modern and very cool.

The first stage of the project was stairs walls and library area where the predominant material was the pink figured sycamore (click here to see Bliss Blakeney Stage 1 fit blog story.) In the snug and kitchen it is a similar dark charcoal grey version of that material that links these two areas together. The snug is very much about that dark grey sycamore – creating a rich enveloping space that quite literally ‘wraps’ around you – on the walls and the ceiling, incorporating the TV wall. There is also a built-in cassette type fire which is surrounded by slate in a similar dark grey. The slate and the sycamore have a repeating horizontal shadow line every 450mm which creates a really striking ‘wrap’ detail. The only contrast to the dark grey of the sycamore and slate is the floating sideboard piece that houses all the AV equipment. This is in solid grey fumed oak and is a key material that repeats all over the house.

Bliss Snug Fit 2

The stone fitters were unable to complete their installation and as a result we couldn’t finish the panelling on either side of it. Same is true of the island and the stainless top. In fact we got to the point where we ended up not being able to finish either part of this stage of the project so ended up leaving a bit early on the Thursday evening instead of Friday. We’ll be back at Bliss at the end of May to finish both the island and snug and build that back kitchen wall.

Can’t wait to see this area finished, even from these rather busy fitting snaps with tools all over the floor you get a sense of the stunning space to come…

Bliss Island Fit 3

Bliss Fit 1

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Bliss Outside 1
In late February we moved the whole STP team from Dorset to the North Norfolk coast for the first stage of our Bliss Blakeney fit. This amazing project sees us collaborate closely with the Bliss Space team to create striking interiors for this most stunning contemporary home. Over the course of the next months we will be returning regularly to fit the kitchen, larder, living space, bar, dressing rooms and other fitted and free-standing bespoke furniture throughout the house.

What I really love about working on this project is that the clients are so visionary and brave about what they want. It’s a very creative partnership that is leading to dramatic design solutions and a whole new language that keys into the architecture of the building and its surrounding landscape.

Bliss Blakeney is a sleek low profile CLT (cross laminated timber) structure which is built around a central courtyard overlooking the Norfolk salt marshes, Blakeney Harbour and the North Sea. Despite being a very modern building in an area dominated by more vernacular traditional flint cobble buildings, Bliss sits in this big panoramic landscape beautifully. It is quite frankly a bit of a masterpiece. So the bar was raised for us – not only by the clients, but the building and the environment itself.

Sea Room Bliss

The call from Daniel & Lisa Broch, owners of Bliss came out of the blue, they had found our website and video work and liked what we did, although they made it very clear from the outset they were not looking for furniture and interiors that looked like anything we had done before. For me as a designer and the whole making team this is exciting to hear. Although we love all the work we do we know that it is when we are pushed creatively that we come up with our most exciting ideas, ideas that move the business forward into new directions. From the first meetings, initial design concepts and material palettes we knew Bliss Blakeney was going to be hugely exciting…

Stage 1 was to tackle the stairwell walls and open upstairs library / comfy area. Now wall panels on the stairs may not sound the most exciting place to start, but these are no ordinary panels. The brief was ‘architectural scale Mondrian’, and when we talk scale we are talking two walls – the largest being nearly 7 metres high and 3 metres wide. To create something that appears so simple, as is so often the case, is anything but…

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Firstly we had to attach hardwood frames to the CLT walls and straighten any misalignments out, then attach the panels with the pink ripple sycamore veneer on as the background layer then invisibly hang the decorative surface panels onto it. Most of the surface panels are made of solid oak and treated with a fuming product that turns the oak a subtle grey, with the exception of 3 which are a strong flat vibrant blue colour. The largest of these is the size of a very generous 12 seat dining table top, which of course went near the top! Needless to say the logistics of this involved lots of muscle and some brilliant scaffolders who built stuff as we needed but more importantly took it down as well. It did take us the full 3 and a half days on site to build, but looked stunning when the scaffold finally came down on Thursday evening.

Of course most of the preparation and making had been done in the weeks and months before back in Dorset, although we only ever really see these large interior assemblies together for the first time when the clients do – as fitting ends. Up till then it had been a kit of rather large parts taking up more and more of the office and workshop. The stair panels and library, together with most of the workshop tools ended up filling our 2 vans plus a large luton for our Monday morning convoy to Norfolk. That first day was spent loading, driving and unloading again. It’s a glamorous job sometimes!

Bliss VanCabin at Bliss

That was made up for by our accommodation for the week. Part of the Bliss Blakeney complex is an attached but self-contained luxury 4 bed ‘Cabin’ which provides four bedroom suites all with direct access to gardens, a great Master Suite with private deck and feature bath and open living area leading to deck and garden. The generous living and kitchen space became our chilling space after a long day but also doubled up as my impromptu office to work on drawings etc. We planned to take turns cooking but with so many great pubs around we only managed on 2 of the 4 nights. Having our own comfortable space on site really makes the situation easy and enjoyable.

As well as the stair wall panels we were also building the contemporary library at the top of the stairs. Together with Daniel & Lisa we came up with a very abstract design for this piece. Although I call it a library, in reality it also serves as a media wall, snug area, filing and samples drawer cupboard and general storage. As with everything on this project the scale is large. Even after all these years sometimes scale still catches me out. It was only when I walked into the workshop and looked at the two 2.8m tall floor to ceiling cabinets that it hit me as to how large this element of the project was.

Bliss Library 10

The pink ripple sycamore panels as the background element tie the library visually to the stairs, as does the other common material – the fumed grey oak on the cabinets and drawers. The 3rd material is another coloured ripple sycamore – this time a grey / black for all the horizontal shelves. Like the stairs we also had to straighten the walls with timber frames first, then panel in the pink sycamore before we could construct the ‘furniture’ on the front. The design of the library relies on everything being completely true and square. In the end it took John and I two days to get the panels to sit correctly. We had anticipated getting the whole library up in two days then be helping out Mike and Tom on the stairs. Just goes to show that when fitting nothing ever goes quite to plan.

Bliss Library 15The pink also runs around a corner creating a ‘wall wrap’ detail. Again this was to integrate the furniture with the interior architecture but also meant we needed to create perfect mitre joints on site (it’s hard enough in the controlled environment of a workshop!) For all its difficulty to achieve as a detail though, it is a visual triumph and something that we will repeat as a theme throughout the project.

When we left it still needed the electrics and AV equipment installed, as well as having the pink sycamore facia TV panel added, but it has really started to come into it’s own when dressed with books, lights and other objects. It was designed to be used and to be useful. There is so much going on here I can’t choose a favourite element – I love the material / colour contrasts, the fold down front where the AV equipment is housed and the repeat horizontal detail and recess handles on the drawers. But I keep coming back to that pink corner wrap and it’s not even a piece of furniture!

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And Lisa Broch’s take on what we have done already…

“The Library looks amazing and feels like it has always been here which is a bit of a weird feeling, but just means we are all in tune with this house.The staircase is a piece of art. Very excited about the next chapter”.

Perhaps the real surprise to me is the stair wall panels themselves though. I got wrapped up in the detail of the design and then the fitting of the library so wasn’t paying much attention to the stair walls. It was only on Friday morning when it really hit me as to how stunning the whole thing is; it’s sheer scale, the way it catches and reflects the light around the space, its relationship to the landscapes and sky through the glass openings around it and the fact you touch and interact with it as the handrails on both flights of stairs.

There are lots more great design ideas and new materials to come on this project, but i’m wondering if in a year’s time it will still be those stair wall and handrail panels that are my favourite element.

Bliss Stair fit 5