Things are progressing apace on my collaborative project with Allen Jones, supported by The American Hardwood Council.
It has been, and remains, a thrilling experience working with Allen Jones – an experience that I liken to speed dating: we’ve been getting to know each other and understanding how we both like to work. How would I describe him? Focused, consistent, eloquent, witty and charming, all of which comes across in his work and which I think is reflected in the piece we’ve created together. His delightful riposte? ‘I am used to dealing with lusty and crusty men from the steel trade. It is a great pleasure to work with somebody from the opposite sex.’
This is the first time I’ve worked on a piece this size. Past work has included tables, cupboards and stools but the size and curvaceous nature of this piece has stretched me as a maker. Thanks to the expertise of the American Hardwood Council, who have provided the 4-meter long American maple and walnut veneer leaves and the technical experts at Benchmark Furniture, I can add a chaise longue to my list! To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Patrick Campbell, who needs "The deep, deep peace of the double-bed when you can have the hurly-burly of the chaise-lounge?"
Allen had a battered, cardboard maquette that has been sitting on his shelves for the last 10 years. This 1:10 scale model of a reclining, androgynous figure has been sitting dormant for over 10 years. Allen explained that he didn't have the facilities to pursue it - "metal was an option but that seemed a very unfriendly material to sit on". When Terence Conran, who is an old friend, asked Jones to offer an idea for the Wish List project, he almost immediately thought of his recliner. Now we will bring this object to life. We also had a saucy tale to add zest to this brief which involved the late great art collector Peggy Guggenheim, a sculpture of a horse and some nuns... You can read Allen Jones' interview with The American Hardwood Council here.
Once I had the maquette in front of me - handled with great care of course to preserve its 10 year heritage, I was able to sit with Allen and draw up some sketches, the earliest part of my design process and one that I really enjoy. To see a little sketch come to life
as a 3D object always feels a bit magical.
All sketches have to come be made real eventually so I made a 1:1 rough prototype in flex ply and MDF to test ergonomics of the sitter (Allen Jones himself). The CNC cutter was put to good use. I made a large polystyrene mould for vacuum forming and this large block was cut with the aid of its whirring blades.
One of the most nerve-wracking elements of this process is taping together the veneers (very thin 1mm of maple and walnut leaves). At 4m long, they're unwieldy and unpredictable. They're almost alive…
A bit of school yard, old time glue mixing comes next and this is rolled out thinly on the sheets which are in turn, laid over my polystyrene and MDF mould.
The laminates (as they have now become), and the mould are pressed together in a hugely impressive and daunting looking bag press. This big beast of equipment - a little too big to appear in just any old shed at the bottom of the garden - is a crucial piece of kit for makers who need to mould wood veneers into a certain shape and more importantly, stay that way.
The mould is laid on the base of the machine - if you squint carefully you could almost say it's like gigantic trouser press on its side. Pull down the top of the machine, with no little force, and a giant piece of vinyl sits snugly over the mould, the vacuum element of the machine sucks out the air and this mould sits inside the machine, quietly, for 6 hours. It usually takes longer but we are having an Indian summer and the glue is going off very quickly. One has to work fast! All the time I have to remind myself to time each process to the exact second.
When ready, you gingerly open the machine, keeping fingers firmly crossed that the all your veneers are beautiful stuck together with no wrinkles or gaps or puckering: it's a very nerve wracking part of the process.
Once formed, the chaise is trimmed (sides and bottom) the sides are chamfered with a hand router, that is tidied up nicely - not unlike a trim at the hairdressers. The back is cut out with a jigsaw and finished with a chamfered edge using a hand router and the “head” is attached. A drainage hole is made with a tapered drill bit; the bowl is attached to the back of the chair with glue and a dowel (refer here to Allen’s interview and you will see what visual mischief is afoot here). The final pieces to make are a shaft and bowl, turned from sold maple and walnut.
The chaise is oiled with 3 coats of satin polish.