An Interview with Alison Brooks
Most people when asked what they have always wished for don’t immediately think about whether it can be mass produced, but for architect Alison Brooks this was a given when she was approached to take part in The Wish List.
‘It never really occurred to me that it would just be for me,’ she said. ‘If you are going to design a piece of furniture it should be universal. If it is going to improve my life, it should improve other people’s.’ What Brooks wanted to improve the lives of herself and others was a stool, 650mm high, that could be used in a kitchen.
She particularly likes stools because of their informality. ‘The stool is really interesting because it is in between sitting and standing,’ she says. ‘It has a temporariness that makes it easy to use and social. Stools are incredibly useful and versatile and low maintenance’
But, she feels, they are a neglected area of design, paid far less attention than chairs are. Many of the stools that do exist are bar stools, typically between 750mm and 800mm in height and far too tall for a kitchen. And those that are the right height often have ‘a very designer idiom, which makes them far too fashiony for a kitchen.’
What Brooks was looking for was a stool that was elegant and well-designed but that could work in a range of kitchens and, while pleasing to use, would not be attention-grabbing. She wanted to avoid the industrial ethic that seemed to dominate.
Alison Brooks was paired on The Wish List with designer Felix de Pass in a relationship that she described as a blind date but was clearly very happy with. From an early stage they started exploring forms for the stool. ‘We thought that 100% wood is good,’ she said. ‘I was interested in a tree structure with a supporting base and a stem – or perhaps a mushroom.’ The two hit on the idea of having a triangular stem that then splayed outwards into three supports.‘Quite early on,’ said Brooks, ‘one of the issues was how the stem meets the seat. We both really like the idea of a dish-shaped seat.’ Brooks went to Benchmark during the making week, and she and de Pass realised that visually the seat needed to be slimmer. ‘We came up with a tapered profile,’ she explained, ‘which gives the illusion of a super-slim disc.’
Another decision that came early on was the choice of timber. American cherry is a beautiful timber for making furniture, but one that is no longer as fashionable as it once was. For Brooks, who was born in Canada, it has a special resonance. ‘I have always loved cherry,’ she said. ‘I grew up with a lot of cherry antiques. My other collected early American and Canadian furniture. Cherry is a very rich deep wood with a very fine, light-filled grain – a very liquid feeling. Because the grain is very tight, it has a kind of a sheen when it is polished. It takes me back to my youth. I think everybody has forgotten about it.’The one non-timber element on the taller stool is the footrest (de Pass also made a shorter version where it was not necessary). This is a light circular steel ring, attached to the splayed legs with three spokes and helping to constrain their movement. Its symmetrical nature is important, since the stool is intended to be non-directional, meaning that users can just sit down without worrying about whether it is facing ‘the right way’.
Most of the making time at Benchmark was spent on making the jigs for the steam-bent legs, which is exactly as it should be for a process that is intended to go into production. For Brooks the whole process has been fascinating. ‘I really enjoyed working with Felix,’ she said. ‘I came without any expectations or preconceptions. Although I didn’t choose him, I had seen his work on his website. I admired his approach and the kind of thoughtfulness of his work. It is low-key but there is always something ingenious and clever.’
Between them they have come up with a stool that fits that description perfectly – the result of a highly successful blind date.