Australian Ben McCarthy moved to Hong Kong in 2007 after a stint working with the legendary Tom Dixon in London. Landing a role with Michael Young he found he loved the energetic, ‘super productive’ environment of his new home. “London was a great creative hub with so much inspiration and a lot of people with mad ideas, but I’ve found in Hong Kong that people just get on with it…that productive energy is infectious. It was welcoming, collaborative and fast-paced and with so much going on” he says.
Whilst his role at Michael Young uses a lot of his creative energy, one thing that he craved was to spend more time worked with his hands and making things out of wood. With an eclectic array of influences including “engineering solutions, artists, craftsmen, friends and music”, McCarthy was looking for an outlet to experiment with non-commercial projects.
Finding a creative space in which to work is a challenge in Hong Kong. “I made a dining table for my first flat and had to dangle a power cord out of a window and work on a trestle table in the street”, says McCarthy. However, the discovery of a small workshop that he shares with two other designers has provided a space where he could work on his own timber designs.
Wood has always been an attractive material for this designer. “I like the intricacies of the species and the history of the tools”, he says, “I use tools in my workshop which are the latest technology as well as ones that are 100 years old every day…I love how wood can be processed for decoration, for engineering, for fuels. I think I was a carpenter on a Victorian era naval ship in a past life!”
American oak and walnut feature heavily in Ben’s work. Drawn to the more natural tones, he tends to avoid stains finding that the untreated timbers provide a huge array of colour, grain and texture. Like all good designers, McCarthy has a respect for his materials. “In our workshop we treat solid timbers like gold, mostly because they’re expensive here but also because they’ve been through such a journey to be in my hands. I want to do something amazing with them”, he says. “We keep laughably small offcuts!” he adds.
McCarthy’s latest creation is a chair made from American red oak. A challenging design that appears effortless, he wanted to build a frame without stretchers between the legs. Generous tenon joints were employed at each of the junctions and the backrest has a complex 3-way join which he says “came together like a puzzle, with 3 different types of joint to allow the assembly”. Not only was the design and creation process rewarding but the end result is strong and beautiful.
McCarthy is currently in discussions with Indianapolis based Collect.Studio to have the chair produced commercially in the US. The strength of American red oak was already known to this designer. His first project, a 1.8m bench, had a minimal volume of timber with very slender components which he created to push the timber to its limits. “It made me a bit nervous at the time but it’s been going strong for 6 years now”, he says of the piece.
McCarthy is a designer who demonstrates how creative minds thrive on keeping active, both in terms of ideas and their execution – they just need to be given the space to flourish.