The Wishlist

 
 

Sebastian Cox

The thing I've always wanted...


A few months ago I was invited to lunch at the Carpenter's Hall along with 9 other emerging designers, and 10 masters of the design world. I was paired up with Sir Terence Conran, and told that I would be designing and making a piece of furniture for him under the brief 'The thing I've always wanted...'


What could Sir Terence Conran, the internationally renowned designer who has had a rich life-long relationship with objects, possibly still want that we could provide? Not to mention the fact that the thing is to be made from wood, yet he co-owns Britain's best woodworking workshop, Benchmark Furniture.
This is by far the most exciting, ambitious, and prestigious client and brief combination I could wish for and the stakes were high. So whatever we were to make, it had to be the very best we could.
 
There was another hugely appealing aspect to the Wish List for me. The project was been put together by AHEC, who are seeking to raise awareness of, and gather data for, Life Cycle Assessment. LCA is something I've written about before and deeply interests me. Simply, it's measuring the CO2 expenditure of a product. Other industries such as metal and concrete have lots of data on their carbon footprints, but the timber industry is behind. AHEC are trying to change this and ensure that timber is known globally as the first choice sustainable material, and of course I want to be a part of that battle, especially if it's lead by Sir Terence Conran and Benchmark.
I certainly learned something on day one - 6000km by boat is the equivalent carbon of 600km by road, meaning timber grown on the Eastern side of the US (as long as it's near the port!) can have almost the same carbon footprint as timber grown in Scotland, and used in London. Fascinating!
So, I met with Sir Terence at his home in Berkshire. It's appropriately filled with fascinating collections and individual objects an every room, and I followed the smell of cigar smoke to his study. I have to admit that I was nervous, I'd only known Terence as an icon of British design, but this quickly dissolved as we chatted over a glass of wine and I realised that he was a human being like the rest of us, with the addition of a good sense of humour and a kind manner.
Terence was quite prescriptive with what he wanted and dictated a set of lines that I drew. He would often pull a tape measure out to confirm his instinct for a dimension was correct and would occasionally sketch a detail, sketches which are now amongst my most treasured possessions.


 
The piece that Terence had always wanted was to be called Getting Away From It All and is essentially a desk which is 'bookended' by two towers that store reference books and other objects. Off these towers, Terence envisaged a cotton curtain on a rail that would allow him to shut himself away and work undisturbed.
I was very keen to ensure that this piece had my fingerprint on it too, so I suggested that the curtain could be replaced by woven oak screens hung on hinges. Terence liked this idea very much so I went away and began to draw up what we had discussed, focusing on making this enormous object as visually lightweight as possible.
I wanted to address some of the challenges that the American timber industry faces in the same way I have with British hardwoods, so I asked AHEC which timbers they have growing in abundance, but struggle to sell in the UK market. Their answer was absolutely clear - avoid Walnut (only 4% of America's trees, yet hugely popular at the moment) and use Cherry or Red Oak, which are both grown widely throughout the US, and have struggled in popularity in the UK in the last decade. Cherry really nicely suited the carcass and desk, while the red oak suited the woven panels with its good steam bending properties.
The piece was to be made during a single week at Benchmark, along with all of the other pieces in the Wish List project, which ranged from a shed for Paul Smith to a set of pencil sharpeners for Lord Norman Foster. The atmosphere was fantastic, the Benchmark staff welcomed us with their usual enthusiastic pace of work and the workshop was buzzing. Here's Jo meticulously routing housing joints on day 1.


Jo, George and I had the occasional chance to escape the frenetic workshop and go down to the river, where our Red Oak was being soaked to make it supple for weaving. I was really pleasantly surprised at how well the soaking worked - you could literally wrap the Red Oak around your finger!
However, we couldn't spend too long paddling, we had an enormous task in hand in the workshop. The piece for Terence had every cabinet-maker's challenge in it. Sliding woven doors, a sliding tambour, a secret compartment, a series of drawers, not to mention the scores of housing joints and dovetailed carcass. I have to say, I'm immensely proud of the work we did as a team. To make a piece of furniture that complex and big in the given time was the biggest test we've had as makers, and when we'd finished, I nearly collapsed through exhaustion.
The whole Wish List collection will be on show at the V&A during the London Design Festival, and it will then go on a world tour before each piece is passed to its commissioner. There will also be a book published with detail of each piece's Life Cycle Data. Soaking Red Oak in Terence's river.

The Wish List designer's campsite at dawn - early starts!





Joe and Jo hard at work weaving the panels

Joe & Jo bandsawing the soaked Red Oak into wearable strips

 

 








A couple of snaps of the inside of the piece, you'll have to go and find it in the V&A to see the rest..