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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.

Double Prize Winning Design

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Simon Thomas Pirie and Tony Portus of Makers’ Eye have scooped their second major design award for the St Hugh’s / Dickson Poon China Centre Desk. The Furniture Company’s prestigious Design Guild Mark is awarded to drive excellence and raise the profile of British design and innovation. The Award recognises the highest standards in the design of furniture for volume production, by the finest designers working in Britain, or British designers working abroad.

This follows the same project winning in the furniture prize of The Wood Awards in November. So our one desk now holds two of the most recognised and coveted awards in British furniture design.

Tony and Simon received the award – Design Guild Mark no. 142 at a special event and seminar to discuss British design during Clerkenwell Design Week 2015. Other winners that night included Samuel Chan of Channels, Sir Terrence Conran, Mark Gabbertas, Rodney Kinsman as well as Robin Day and Ernest Race for classic pieces. There is a comprehensive round up plus images on Wallpaper.com In all 21 Design Guild Marks were awarded this year out of a shortlist of 50.

The St Hugh’s College / Dickson Poon China Centre project, for which we made 63 of these desks in oak also had other pieces like folding tables, academics desks, bookshelves and occasional tables as part of the furniture package. In all there were nearly 200 items of solid oak furniture designed by Simon & Tony. The manufacturing was spread across 4 bespoke furniture workshops – Waywood, Matthew Burt, Tim Hawkins and Simon Thomas Pirie. This is the great strength of the Makers’ Eye model – to be able to use some of the best furniture workshops in the country and make use of their skill sets and working capacity. The result was delivery of all the items in just 3 months – on time and on budget.

The ‘Poon’ Desk as it is now known was always the signature piece in the range. It comes in two sizes – 1.8 and 1.6 m long and currently two timbers – the original European oak and now in black walnut as seen here. The desk can be purchased through Makers’ Eye as a one off but we are also keen to sell more to institutions and corporations. The range of products will be expanded to include tables and chairs very soon. Bespoke variations can also be created for specific situations whether it’s a one-off or multiple.

More information:

There is a full article on the project and the other pieces we designed for St Hugh’s College and the Dickson Poon Centre, click here.

You can order the Poon desk and see more images and the specifications on the Makers Eye Website, click here.

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…

Wood Awards 2014 – Winners!

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

It does sound good – Winners of the 2014 Wood Awards ‘Bespoke Furniture’ category.

Tony Portus and Ross Fenn of Makers’ Eye, myself and Matthew Burt were at the Carpenters Hall on Tuesday evening for the Wood Awards 2014 announcements. Although we were down to a shortlist of 4 I don’t think any of us really had any idea of whether a project like this one really stood a chance of winning: ‘Bespoke furniture’ tends to imply a ‘one-off’ single maker or a small workshop piece, indeed the other 3 shortlisted pieces tended to reflect that. What we had done through Makers’ Eye was about collective and collaborative effort, much more like the Architectural teams who’s prizes had all been announced earlier in the evening. They had clambered up on the podium with commissioning clients, structural engineers, contractors and suppliers.

So when “Oak Furniture for Dicksoon Poon China Centre, Oxford” was read out, none of us moved at first, I think we’d all been waiting to hear ‘Makers’ Eye’. We did eventually all get up on the podium and were joined by James and Geoff Tyler of Tyler Hardwoods who supplied the oak for the project (it was the second venture onto the stage that night). So an amazing project with an amazing team has been recognised. It’s this element that gives me the biggest pleasure, because we all stuck our necks out and did something unusual.

Tony Portus and I did the design work together, working really hard to not only fulfill the brief but deliver something exquisite – which would be beyond St Hugh’s College’s expectations.

The judges summary put it nicely, “Makers’ Eye created a family of products with a clear design signature to complement the subtle Oriental influence of the architecture.” I’d go further than that – i’d say we’d successfully combined an oriental influence with the quintessential Englishness you’d expect to find in an Oxford College in all of the 177 pieces made by the 4 workshops involved.

Those four workshops; us, Matthew Burt, Waywood and Tim Hawkins each took the elements of the project that best matched their skill set, facilities and of course available capacity. In the case of Waywood for example their CNC knowledge and equipment made them the ideal workshop to take on the 63 wall hanging shelves. We focused on the 63 two-drawer desks for student rooms and 12 folding tables, Matthew Burt the lino topped academics desks and Tim Hawkins the occasional furniture for the break out spaces. Everything was delivered on time and on budget, meeting the client’s high specification on material and design.

Much of the success of the design and manufacturing on this project comes from the management role Makers’ Eye played. Not only did they secure the project against established providers, but also got to grips with the complex contractual negotiations with the clients / contractors on this high-brow, high profile new build project. That allowed the 4 workshops to concerntrate on the making without distraction. There is no doubt it’s a great model to allow smaller workshops to work co-operatively and tackle projects normally ‘out of their reach’.

Throughout the Wood Awards ceremony I was struck by the good judgements made in the various Architectural Project categories. There was some lovely work including the Ditchling Museum of Arts & Crafts, House no.7 on Tiree, and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe in London. There are plenty more projects worthy of mentions, some were winners, some not. It’s hugely encouraging to see wood used in so many ways on so many exciting projects. The RIBA Journal has a good run down of all the projects (including the furniture categories) with images and is well worth a look…

The Bespoke Furniture shortlist was very strong, as was the Production Made Furniture category, it’s great to see UK timber furniture design looking so bouyant. We pipped the Barnsley Workshop, Shaw Stephens and NMHK co. to the prize and perhaps it was that new take on collaboration that made this project stand out? Then again perhaps it is just a lovely bit of design and making by small workshops at the top of their game, supported by a dynamic, light touch team at Makers’ Eye plotting our course through tricky waters.

Needless to say we are all delighted at Simon Thomas Pirie to have ended 2014 in such a positive way after putting so much work into this project. Saying that there is little time to reflect as there are a dozen new projects to design, make, manage and fit. John puts it nicely in this video except…

If you are still unfamiliar with Makers’ Eye do take a look at their comprehensive website full of the best of British furniture making and design: www.makerseye.co.uk