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Around the Workshop – Best of 2015

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Goodness me, I have been a bit lax with the blog over the past 6 months, but there is lots of exciting stuff to come. One of the main reasons there has been so little written is because we have been unbelievably busy designing, costing and quoting and quoting some more. Projects large and small have been coming in as fast as we can turn them around and we are seeing the results of that hard work taking shape now, with work going into museums, private homes, public spaces and major events like the RHS Chelsea Flower show.

2015 started as 2014 finished, with a run of dining tables and chairs. It’s funny, dining furniture seems to come in fits and starts, nothing for a couple of years and then, well the buses thing comes to mind… Perhaps my favourite set this year has been the English walnut lozenge table with a set of matching Gabriel chairs. It was made from a walnut log we sourced from a local estate and cut by our friend Will Miller on his Woodmizer sawmill. Although it didn’t look especially promising at first it did produce enough lovely timber for the table top and chair backs, with the rest of the set (table and chair frames) being made of subtley contrasting American black walnut. It was also the first time we had made a Gabriel armchair which we were very pleased with.

Left: Lozenge dining table and chairs made with locally sourced walnut tree. Our first Gabriel armchair at the head of the table. Right: Contemporary twist on a farmhouse table made in ‘Grown in Britain’ olive ash & elm.

The other table that stood out for us was as close to ‘rustic farmhouse’ as we get. Of course it had our contemporary take on rustic farmhouse but this stunning olive ash and elm table really looked a bit special. The top was made out of a pair of very beautiful wide boards of ‘Grown in Britain’ ash. Good news is I actually bought 4 so will be able to use the others on my own kitchen table next year!

We have spent time over the last few years developing relationships with top end architects and interior designers which has led to great enquiries and projects. My favourite of 2015 was a stunning burr walnut drinks cabinet for Anna Bilton Interiors. This was based on an earlier design we made in ash and burr sycamore. We had always thought this piece would look great in a darker timber and Anna gave us the opportunity to explore that. In fact we ended up making two similar pieces, one for the client in black and burr walnut and one as a speculative show piece in English and burr walnut. You can see more stunning images of this drinks cabinet taken by Double Exposure Photographic by clicking here and find out why it’s the piece I’d still make for myself.

Another theme for 2015 has been going back into kitchen interiors that are now a decade old and doing refurbishment work, in both cases this year because new owners were extending or changing the layout of the room. I always say to clients that we design and make kitchens to last decades, but the truth is the technology and appliances often start to look dated before the cabinetry does. Our very first kitchen was designed and installed on the edge of the New Forest back in 2003 and it was this one that unsurprisingly came up first. Although we discussed far reaching changes with the new owners in the end our changes were relatively minor, moving and re-configuring cabinets which is a testament to how good the original kitchen was.

The original fridge cabinet (left) with chunky retro handles and hinges has been refined and had new appliances fitted as part of a major refurb a decade on.

I don’t suppose it should have come as a great surprise that a few months later our 2nd kitchen was next for the refurb treatment. The major element of this one that needed attention was the large freestanding fridge / freezer cabinet. This needed new appliances and some cosmetic changes because the doors needed to be hinged differently. We also replaced some runners and hinges and generally spruced everything up. Again the design and cabinetry have stood the test of a decade well. This was a landmark project for us back in 2005 and has remained an important portfolio kitchen to this day. The new owners of this Surrey house also asked us to design a new oak and maple larder, so in the end the project was a good combination of old and new work.

The 2014 workshop blog round-up was dominated by two jobs, the first being the 75 oak desks and tables for the Makers’ Eye / St Hugh’s College, Oxford project. While 2015 has been relatively quiet on the newly named ‘Poon’ desk, we have made a number of these for Makers’ Eye’s private clients, including a couple of walnut versions which looked stunning. In late 2014 the St Hugh’s project won the ‘Wood Awards’ Bespoke Furniture category, in early 2015 the Makers’ Eye / STP collaboration also won a prestigious Design Guild Mark, this time specifically for the Poon desk. Tony Portus and I were photographed with walnut and oak versions of the Poon desk for publicity. The Desk and other items from the St Hugh’s project are available exclusively through Makers’ Eye website.

Tony Portus of Makers’ Eye and I with walnut and oak versions of the double award winning St Hugh’s College ‘Poon’ Desk.

The other job that dominated 2014 was our latest contemporary elm and walnut kitchen in Poole which has become known as the ‘Fire & Water’ kitchen. The project has only just been finished and we have finally got in to photograph and video the finished space. The new film has already been described by Grahame Morrison, well-known kitchen industry insider, journalist and blogger as ‘probably the best kitchen and certainly the best kitchen video of 2016′ and that was before 2016 even started!’

There are plenty more images and of course a full in depth description of ‘Fire & Water’ in our new case study.

Needless to say we think it’s the best kitchen we’ve ever designed, it’s certainly very striking with its two islands and walk in drum larder; the clients love it, both from a visual standpoint and as practical kitchen space. Although we spent plenty of 2015 putting finishing touches to this project we didn’t actually make any new kitchens throughout 2015, but we did design and quote on lots and i’m pleased to say we have confirmed 2 very exciting kitchen projects in 2016 and are still designing 4 others.

In a way it’s been a year of finishing off long-term projects. Our public art project in partnership with Adam Zombory-Moldovan of ZMMA Architects at the Rickyard is on a new Persimmon Homes development to the east of Shaftesbury. Originally born out of a 2011 public art project for the centre of Shaftesbury which fell away, we were able to use the research and development from there to create this installation. So over 4 years from concept to completion, with the curved log benches and uprights having been stored in my yard for the last 2 years! Anything to do with public sites, planning and development takes an age, but we’ve got used to a variety of projects moving through the workshop schedule at very different speeds. However, 4 years+ is probably the record so far! You can read more about The Rickyard and the other Shaftesbury public art projects by clicking here.

After 4 years in the development and design process the ZMMA / STP ‘Rickyard’ project has finally been installed on site. Just some pathway work and landscaping to complete now.

We love working with Adam and the team at ZMMA, it’s a really dynamic and creative relationship which has also manifested itself in two museum projects during 2015. The first is for the V&A Museum, London. ZMMA were appointed to redesign the ‘Europe 1600-1815’ galleries. It’s been a huge project for them and although we have only been responsible for a small number of stools for the learning and resource area it’s still been lovely to have made work for one of Britain’s great cultural institutions. As always ZMMA’s concepts are really striking (and challenging to make) even on a seemingly simple stool, but the outcome is delightful and getting lots of very positive attention.

Top Left: The V&A stool is a striking concept by the ZMMA team. Top Right: Fitting the 4.2m display sideboard at the Watts Studio, Surrey. Above: The glass top Watts Display Vitrine, one of the most complicated pieces we have made.

The other larger museum project collaboration is for the Watts Gallery in Surrey. ZMMA have been working at the Watts for many years now but this latest stage – refurbishing Limnerslease, the house where Mary and G F Watts lived and worked for many years. We won the tender to create a couple of large archive display pieces in English walnut. The first is a 3 metre floating display vitrine with 4 glass sections and one lower display drawer. The other is a huge 4.2 metre long sideboard with further glass topped display drawers for artefacts from the collection. Both these pieces of furniture are extremely intricate, with delicate brass frames around specialist German made non-reflective museum specification glass. They are probably the most challenging pieces we have ever made. They look stunning though and as ever, the work we do with ZMMA pushes us into new realms and that is enjoyable from both a design and making perspective. Again there will be more on this project in due course.

News of another exciting partnership is taking shape on the garden furniture front. We have been busy making a new exciting prototype garden swing seat for Sitting Spiritually, due to be launched at RHS Chelsea 2016. There will be lots more on this very soon, we can’t wait to show you the new Sitting Spiritually ‘Simon Thomas Pirie Contemporary Range’. We have also made a few of our ‘Floating Benches’ this year and put them into some stunning garden locations. In fact ‘Floating’ already made an appearance at RHS Chelsea this year on Simon Gudgeon’s award winning ‘Sculpture by the Lakes’ stand.

Last word has to be about people and investment in our future. We are pleased to say that we have taken on a new apprentice called Tom Cornick who is progressing really well with us and on his Didac NVQ training course. He has fitted into the STP team like he belongs here, so expect to see him popping up in shots here on the blog in the future. 2016 is looking like a very exciting year, i’ll try to do better at letting you know about it!

Tom under the watchful eye of his Didac trainer Alex in our workshop.Tom getting watched over carefully on the circular saw by his Didac tutor Alex.

The Best of 2014

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

I tend to use the twitter and facebook feeds for our general workshop updates these days rather than writing on the blog, but I though it would be nice to do a ‘best of 2014’scrapbook with some of my favorite images / projects from the year.

It was pretty well on the last working day of 2013 that we had confirmation of two big projects – the elm and walnut kitchen and the Makers’ Eye / St Hugh’s College Oxford furniture. These two projects have dominated 2014 and taken up most of our workshop time. In a sense they bookend the year and bring us right up to date…

The Makers’Eye St Hugh’s College job had taken months to organise and prepare for and although we only had confirmation a couple of days before Christmas we were also ready to take delivery of our first lorry load of oak before the break, so we could hit the ground running in January. The timing was always going to be very tight to meet the delivery schedule so we took two new members of staff on from January, Dale and Harry. Although I’d had a strong hand in designing all the furniture for the new Dickson Poon China Centre at St Hugh’s (co-designing with Tony Portus of Makers’ Eye), we took on the signature pieces – the two drawer desk and folding study tables, 75 pieces in all to be finished by early March. Needless to say we went like the clappers but by about half way through we were confident we would be on time and on budget. It was the largest job we had taken on and we were pleased to see our hunch come true that large scale batch production really does make the time tumble – it had to because the budget for this solid oak furniture was tight.

Our biggest challenge on this project was transport and storage – we thought the workshop was large until we started stacking the desks and tables in the office. By the time we had completed 25 we were full to the brim. As it happened the building was running late so all the desks & tables went into storage off site. By early March all 75 pieces were away, as were the pieces being made in the 3 other Makers’ Eye workshops connected with the project. This is not quite the end of the story of the St Hugh’s project, but more on that later…

We have fitted plenty of other smaller furniture commissions around the bigger projects. There are a couple that stand out: We have been working with Simon Gudgeon of Sculpture by the Lakes a lot over the last few years and built some pretty interesting plinths and stands for his work. Among them was a walnut and silver plinth for one of his ‘Isis’ bronzes. It’s a combination of materials, techniques and forms that ended up being particularly pleasing.

Perhaps the commission that stands out is the 2.0m diameter English walnut dining table with a ‘lazy susan’ centre. This was such an elegant looking table, perhaps even more so when you could see the elegant structure of the skeletal framework made of laminated strips, it had the look of a growing tree. We also made our first large set of ‘Gabriel’ chairs to go with the table which complimented it perfectly. Even the tree was special, a very beautiful Walnut from the Hampshire Dorset border through my old friend George Morgan. The client has ordered other furniture and used up the whole of this rather special log.

We were lucky enough to be able to use this dining set as the the centre piece for our Dorset Art Weeks open studio show in May / June and it certainly won many admirers. We also made a prototype in American walnut which sold almost immediately, it was almost as beautiful as the English walnut version! As soon as the show was over it was time to get stuck into our next big challenge – the biggest and most complex kitchen we have taken on to date.

Our client has bought the house in Branksome Wood, Poole which is being built by Colmar Construction. They are a company who seem to be building the biggest and most flamboyant properties around East Dorset, although this one is hardly small it is fairly understated.

I pushed the boat out on this coming up with a design that incorporated two islands called ‘fire’ and ‘water’, one focused on the cooking and the hob, hence ‘fire’, the other based around all the wet services – sinks, dishwasher, boiling water taps etc. Brilliantly, I called this one ‘water’! I also used the only clear wall to create a very idiosyncratic collection of units that includes an ‘L’ shape bank of Miele ‘Havana brown’ ovens – 5 in all, plus machine coffee machine, a big drum walk-in larder and Gaggeneau integrated fridge, freezer and wine fridge as well as lots of storage.

We also designed some more ‘furniture’ like pieces – a tapered, curved-fronted corner cabinet with pivot drawer, a large display / drinks cabinet with yet another fridge within and a round dining table with another set of ‘Gabriel’ chairs. These were in the two timber combination of elm and black walnut which runs throughout the whole of the kitchen cabinetry. There are a number of ‘feature’ pieces – the drum larder cabinet, the centre sideboard section of the ‘water’ island and the curved fronted drinks / display cabinet that have a really stunning burr elm on. These pieces create focal points around the room, effectively using the burr as a contrasting texture to the other horizontally laid timber.

For all sorts of reasons out of our control the site is running very late. Originally we were meant to be finished by late August. Actually although we have basically fitted it now we won’t be going in to do final snags until well into the New Year. You can see a time-lapse video we took of the two week fit here. There will also be a more lavish feature length video that follows the project from start to finish out in Spring 2015.

I mentioned this and the Makers’ Eye / St Hugh’s project effectively bookending our 2014 year. The kitchen because it has just taken that long between long periods of inactivity, but what about St Hugh’s, after all that was finished back in March!?

Well, Tony Portus had entered it into the ‘Wood Awards 2014’, a kind of Oscars of the wood world. Prizes for the best use of timber across the fields of furniture and architecture slug it out for these nationally respected gongs and – we got shortlisted! At the end of November we all went up to the Carpenters Hall in London for the awards ceremony only to win the ‘Bespoke Furniture’ category. It was a massive high and a real credit to a truly collaborative effort between Makers’ Eye, Us and 3 other bespoke furniture workshops. To read more about the project click here.

But that wasn’t quite it for 2014 yet. We still had a few really nice furniture commissions to deliver, in fact during December we have completed two lovely dining sets, a sycamore display cabinet and a set of oak library shelves.

As for 2015, well it’s looking exciting. We are working on proposals for at least 3 big kitchens, museum furniture, fine architectural models, and even furniture for one of England’s great Cathedrals. January sees us straight back into making a new walnut version of the St Hugh’s desk for Maker’s Eye, a very large ash and elm dining set bound for London, and 30 of our ‘Gabriel’ chairs. So 2015 starts as 2014 ends, busy!

Saying that, we are never so busy that we can’t fit an extra job in for you, so why not have a browse through the portfolio pages for some inspiration…

Case Study – The English Walnut Kitchen, Bath

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Our ‘Case Studies’ are an opportunity to take a more in depth look at projects from a design perspective…

Our latest kitchen is a bit different from our previous projects. This is entirely made out of solid native wood; English walnut and sycamore. In many ways it is also the most subtle kitchen we have ever made, being in a beautiful Georgian rectory on the edge of Bath, it needed to sit comfortably with the period architectural detail and yet be modern and practical.

We have made film that follows this project all the way from cutting the first boards of walnut, through the months of cabinet work, to the fitting and final completion in December 2012… It was recently described as “the best kitchen video ever made” by KBB kitchen journalist and blogger Grahame Morrison. See what you think!

The project came about through having already made a number of pieces of furniture for the clients, including a stunning pair of English walnut pivot drawer console tables. It’s through this I realised they had a love of native walnut, not only commissioning these but having a number of very high quality antique pieces in the same material. It was some months later when they contacted me to see if we might be interested in designing a new kitchen.

Unusually they had a very clear idea of what they wanted with lots resolved, even down to some basic CAD floorplans and an appliance list. Despite being a big Georgian house with high ceilings the kitchen space is relatively small, so the design needed to be compact. It was the island that still needed the most resolution but we quickly came to a conclusion on a shape that would fulfill all the storage, seating, work surface and practical needs, whilst being an impressive focal point. Needless to say we couldn’t resist adding soft curves to make the space flow and circulation around the island easier.

The key question was still material. They wanted something warm and rich, but not too dark. The list was narrowed down to oak, elm of English walnut, much lighter and more characterful than the American Black walnut which is widely available. All these woods are from the UK, I was (I always am) keen to use native timber, as were the clients. Now it just happens that we had a good stack of native walnut that we had sourced and cut ourselves in 2009, it was ready to use and the colour was perfect – light compared to many trees. This is one of the challenges using the walnut, every tree is full of individual character, colour and texture. Finding two that match can be hell. The other issue is that they have a very high wastage factor – you do end up throwing alot of it away due to faults, knots, shakes, and a light and sometimes ugly sapwood. On top of that the woodworm love it! So not an easy material, and we only just had enough by the look of it.

We also had to find another timber for the internal solid timber panels and interior elements. In the end we fixed on sycamore, partly because it added visual lightness but also it was a beautiful partner to the walnut. The main island worktop was also made out of sycamore. I like the fact that there is a strong tradition of using sycamore for tops – you often see it in the kitchens of large estate houses where it is scrubbed daily, creating a lovely patina.

But if this kitchen is about one thing – it is celebrating what I believe is the most beautiful timber on Earth, English walnut. Ironically, because it is so full of character it actually makes it very difficult to use: For example laying up 3 pieces to form the centre of a door panel – sometimes one piece just won’t work because of grain or colour, even though it’s stunning it gets rejected (hopefully to find it’s place in another panel somewhere). Of course the same issue arises between sets doors on a run and individual cabinets that are adjacent to one-another, it all has to appear visually harmonious which is much more difficult to achieve than you might think.

At first glance the kitchen furniture looks quite traditional, but look a little closer and you will realise there are subtle things going on. We have created solid frame doors with a solid centre panel, but the panels sit flush with the frame, highlighted by a 3mm recess all round the centre panel that creates a crisp, graphic shadow line. Also instead of the stiles (the vertical rails running up each side of the door) going the full length as is normal, it’s the top and bottom horizontal rails that are dominant. This means we can use one piece of timber across 3 or 4 doors with the grain running through. These long runs create ‘landscape pictures’ in wood. These details also carry across the curved doors which we made by cutting up solid timber into a pack of consecutive veneers then laminating them back together over a curved mould. Lots of work to make sure there is no visual difference in appearance. The other reason for using those horizontal rails across door sets was to help balance the very tall squat nature of the room – strong horizontals making the kitchen seem lower and wider. It works!

The clients selected a granite called Antique Labrador from Bristol Marble, they went with a sample of the actual timbers so they could get a good idea of what it would look like. Like the timber this is a subtle choice. It has strong blue/grey tone which does not make an obvious partner to the warm orange/green/browns of the walnut, but it does work. We also picked out the blue by using a similar blue leather on drawer linings throughout. As far as other colours go, the other major feature of the space is the impressive Black Everhot range cooker. This is the largest 150cm version and looks much more contemporary than the traditional Aga. The top of the cooker has lots of visible stainless steel which links it visually to other appliances and items around the room. The walls are a warm off white and then off course there is the sycamore top on the island. The dominant colour and theme of the room is that rythmic walnut though.

From a design perspective it’s a really cohesive space, but as always there are favorite bits that stand out to me. The real triumph is the addition of a sideboard type piece into the island. Sitting higher than and protruding from the rest of the island helps give this element a separate identity – a piece of furniture within a piece of furniture. Because it has a granite top it also acts as a serving area for hot plates and dishes before they get taken to the adjacent dining area. The drawer at the top is a single wide cutlery drawer which shimmers with shinny silver things when opened.

What else, well I love the fact there are no handles to distract from the purity of the timber, that big slab of very slightly rippled sycamore on the island top (too much ripple would have been overpowering), the bookshelves over the microwave, the bespoke walnut trays in the tray alcove and even the recycling bin cabinet! That was the last piece in, it’s free standing and looks just like a tall boy cabinet, but it’s life is as a glamorous bin – well 4 bins to be precise, such are the complexities of modern life!

I love this kitchen, because at first sight you might just walk through, but like the best music, it has depth and grows on you. Using solid hardwood to make anything other than a very traditional looking kitchen is a challenge, it’s no accident they look that way. What you see in a Shaker style kitchen for example is very efficient use of the material; working with its strengths and aesthetics. In many ways our cabinetry is also bound by those tried and trusted rules but, we subtly changed them, using the limitations of designing in solid wood as a positive start point to develop from.

Is a solid wood kitchen better than a veneered one? I think this is a question I will come back to and explore in more detail. As a designer I can certainly be more flamboyant using veneers – playing with grain direction, using woods and combinations of woods in a more decorative way, forming curves and shapes more easily. But there is something honest about real wood that I feel as a designer, I know the makers also feel that on the bench. It has soul, it feels like a priviladge to use, especially English walnut.

If you’d like to talk to Simon about a kitchen project please get in contact, initial conversations and ideas cost nothing. For more of our kitchen case studies click here.

All images taken by Double Exposure Photographic / Video work by Watershed PR

Around the Workshop – Autumn Arrives

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

The workshop has had just one focus and one project since August – our English walnut and sycamore kitchen which is bound for the outskirts of Bath. In that time the seasons have changed from Summer to Autumn and I don’t feel I’ve even looked up.

The deadline was always tight and by the time we landed this fabulous commission we were already starting 3 weeks late, time we hoped to make up during the 8 weeks of making. The kitchen is part of a complex refurb of a stunning Georgian House, so timing and schedules really can’t be stretched without all sorts of knock on effects.

If you saw the last ‘Around the Workshop’ post you will have read the ups and downs (mostly downs) of using English walnut. Sure enough most of that has come to pass – I love this stuff but the firewood pile has consistantly been 3 times bigger than the component pile. So we have had to go out and find more, that’s never easy at the best of times. Luckily i’d been speaking to contacts in the business just in case we did run low, so I called in some favours and parted with more cash.

Although the outer doors and surfaces are all English walnut, the internal carcasses and frames are all made of solid sycamore, another favourite wood of mine. It’s great to be able to make all of a kitchen in solid native timbers, from a making point of view it’s the ultimate challenge, something we could all really enjoy getting stuck into. As always my design work incorporated lots of curves so that adds to the making challenge.

Curves also mean we have had to cut our own ‘saw-cut’ veneers so they match the solid straight components. Essentially we make a our curved doors by slicing up pieces of thick timber into veneers through the bandsaw, (around ten 2mm pieces out of 2 inch stock.) We then re-glue them over a curved mould. It makes an incredibly strong, light door but it is time-consuming, particularly if you have lots of different radius curves to make. It’s another thing we have become very good at – but it has been made a lot easier with the big dimension sander. The design detail on all the doors and drawers has a 3mm shadow gap around the framed centre panel. Its a bit of a play on a traditional frame and panel door, but as always we are playing with subtle twists – using traditional form and proportion in a very contemporary way. It’s not minimal, instead we are trying to bring the best out of this wonderful timber.

It’s been a bit of a baptism of fire for Connor our new apprentice, straight in at the deep end, but he’s done well. When the pressure is on like this we probably don’t have as much time as we like to talk him through stuff and put each process in context. As a result he has ended up doing things that make no sense at all until a couple of days later. I’m always saying to him and other people we have trained over the years, that a critical part of being a good maker is the ability to be thinking about a dozen processes ahead of what you are doing now. That comes as second nature to John, Mike and I (most of the time), but for someone out of a school environment used to being taught in a systematic way to pass an exam, that’s a giant leap. The great thing is you can see those eureka moments on Connor’s face when it all falls into place. Or perhaps it’s a sense of relief that the people he’s working for aren’t mad after all!

We have already part fitted some of this kitchen, partly because the lead time between granite templating and fitting was so long. So two weeks ago we got all the base cabinets in ready for templating. We are back on site next week to fit wall units and the island. That will coincide with the granite fitting. We still have one or two elements to finish after that, the main one being the free standing cabinet for recycling bins. Again, rather a nice piece in English walnut and sycamore for this unglamourous job. That will be complete by the end of the month and see a conclusion to this project.

We have loved making it, but I’m sure it will run over time. We have also been working long hours, including weekends, and are all knackered. So for us and the clients its conclusion can’t come soon enough. We have been filming the making and fitting of this project so there will be some video in a month or two, as well as the usual still images. Mind you I’ve not photographed the last kitchen we finished yet! It will be like buses – all at once.

I’ll blog some more images at the end of next week, by which time it should look much more like a finished kitchen.