out of the woods exhibition

Design becomes reality: The story of 12 chairs

For a week in July, the Benchmark plant at Kintbury, Wiltshire was turned upside down, as 14 students descended along with their tutors and mentors. Space was found for 13 of them in the main woodworking shop, with the 14th working outside, chain-sawing a log while surrounded by trees. Some of their fellow students also came to help.

In an incredible feat of organisation, manufacture continued at this company, founded nearly 30 years ago by Sean Sutcliffe and Sir Terence Conran. While some of the workforce was seconded to help students, most continued to make the furniture for which the company is known, designed either internally or by renowned or newly discovered designers.
The complex, a mix of converted farm buildings with others of an agro-industrial aesthetic, houses not just the workshops but also a showroom, and little disturbed its smooth running apart from an encampment of tents in what was virtually Conran’s back garden. A pair of striped blue underpants appeared on a stone gatepost to dry out after a photographer had strayed too far into a stream to photograph the test launch of the floating chair, but otherwise it was business as usual – until one walked into the shed. 

Among the craftsmen calmly making high-quality furniture were the more excitable but closely focused students, concentrating on the best ways to make their designs work and being guided where necessary through the tasks involved. In addition to two of his own team, Pete Everest and Mark Hinton, Sean Sutcliffe had brought in specialist wood turner Mike Bradley and boat builder Will Reed. Independent furniture maker/ designers Sebastian Cox and Liam Treanor also helped, as did RCA tutor Harry Richardson. 

Richardson said: ‘The week at Benchmark gave the students an immersive experience that saw them exploring their ideas within the context of a busy commercial workshop which made for a wonderful and highly charged week of work. The collective skills and experience of the team that supported this work from all corners (design, making, scientific) represented a once in a lifetime opportunity that the students relished. They are very lucky! I think the results speak for themselves, as we have a fantastically diverse range of ideas that have all achieved a high degree of resolution.’

Sean Sutcliffe was determined that, at the end of each arduous day, every student should fill in the sheets they had been given saying how much time they had spent on each machine and how much material they had used. This was vital for the lifecycle analyses. ‘It is the LCA that gives the project proper relevance and gravitas,’ he said. ‘It takes it way beyond just another student project.’ He also felt the workshop experience was invaluable. ‘The best designers I work with have a good sound knowledge of how to make stuff,’ he said. He compared the process of working with the students as ‘like going to a party and dancing with 12 different girls – fascinating, infuriating but ultimately lovely.’

The week involved some early starts, but also the excellent lunchtime catering enjoyed by the Benchmark staff – including paella cooked out of doors - and the opportunity to swim in lieu of a shower.  They all appreciated the setting – one even regretting that there were no laundry facilities because London offered so few opportunities for line-drying his clothes.

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