I’m going to start a series of interviews with some of my favourite artisans to discover the machinations and processes that form in their lovely lovely minds. Here’s the first, with Bryony King, founder and maker of Oriana Fine Furniture.
My great great uncle, Edward Wilson, was involved in two Antarctic expeditions with Robert Falcon Scott, or 'Scott of the Antarctic': the 'Discovery' expedition 1901-04, and the 'Terra Nova' expedition 1910-12. He was one of the men in Scott's party that reached the south pole in 1912 (only to find it had been previously reached by the Norwegian explorer Amundsen), and later died with Scott as they attempted to journey back to their base. He was survived by Oriana, his wife, my great great Aunt. This Antarctic connection runs strong throughout my extended family: indeed, several of my family members are deeply involved in polar history and science today.
It was important to me to choose a name for my business that had a personal connection to me, as I of course have a personal connection to all of my work. So, when Oriana was suggested as a name for my business, it seemed perfect: a strong female figure from my personal history.
What is your favourite wood to work with?
It's hard to pick a favourite wood: it very much depends on the piece I’m creating. Factors like the style of the piece overall, where in the piece the wood is to be used or where the piece will ultimately live... all these play a part in making the most appropriate selection. And, of course, costs need to be taken into account!
That said, one of my favourite things is to hand-plane some cedar of Lebanon with a freshly sharpened plane. Although I have only used it in drawer bottoms and box linings so far, the scent from it is heavenly.
What inspires you?
I draw inspiration from everything that crosses my path... which turns out to be a lot. Since starting down this road, I’ve made an effort to be more aware of the shape of things I come across: particularly furniture (the arms of the seats in the local civic centre are great, for example). Of course, my general interests inevitably influence and inspire me. My ongoing fascination with fibre and fabric has planted the seeds of some ideas that I’m looking forward to developing (I’m currently trying to work out if it’s possible to knit strips of wood together). I’m also studying for a maths degree with the Open University: I think the world of maths is infinitely beautiful, and I am always on the lookout for ways of bringing aspects of what I’ve learned into what I’m making.
On a daily basis, I find Jane (www.janebrenchley.co.uk), my workshop colleague, a huge inspiration. Whether it’s in a passing comment, or discussing how to solve a particular construction issue, or just sharing ideas on what curve or angle works best in a particular sketch, she is a great source of ideas to me (and I hope I am to her). I think her mind works in quite a different way from mine, so we can offer quite different perspectives on things.
Daydreaming is very important to me. I love doodling, and I’ve had several designs spring from a particular pattern or scribble in the corner of a page when I’ve been supposed to be working on something else. I think this is also how I prefer to be inspired the beauty of the south Oxfordshire and west Berkshire countryside: staring out of the windows or noticing minor details like the changing colour of leaves on my drive to the workshop. I do find the best way to “suddenly” have inspiration strike is to work hard at some design or series of designs, doing lots of sketching and doodling, and then spend a good while doing something completely unrelated. A new idea or approach has occurred to me when doing something completely different: the washing up, playing a computer game, reading a book.
What would be your dream commission?
I guess a dream commission would be to produce a few coordinating pieces with a free rein to experiment with interesting and innovative shapes, textures and functions. I would love the opportunity to step closer to the line between sculptural furniture and art, although I'm firmly committed to staying on the furniture side of that line. I’m hoping to incorporate some other materials in my furniture, in the future. I think mixed media work can be amazing.
Whose work do you admire and why?
It's hard to pick out particular makers at this stage in my career: there are so many incredibly talented people out there and I’m discovering more and more of them by the day. However, I am a huge fan of Marc Fish. I think the pieces produced by Waywood Furniture are incredibly beautiful. And I was inspired by the John Makepeace exhibition that toured recently: it was amazing to see some of his work up close, and he’s certainly an iconic figure.
You have many creative outlets including various needlework, knitting and crocheting pursuits as well as computer design, painting, drawing and writing... What made you choose wood as your material to specialise in?
That's a tough question! When it comes to fibre or fabric (be that needlework, knitting or whatever), I think to some extent I wanted to protect those as beloved hobbies. There's an argument that goes: do what you love. That's fine, but I need to have something to do when I'm not at work, something I can do when my focus is just on "me" time. And, much like computer programming, I knew that I wouldn't want to do it at home if I spent all day doing it at work! And on the flipside of that argument is the way I felt drawn to wood. I feel comfortable with the medium, and astonished on a regular basis by what can be achieved with it. I became fixated on this material which is all about nature and history, and yet can still be all about the future. And once I'd set foot in a proper workshop, I felt like I'd come home. It just feels like the right place for me to be.
What's on your workbench right now?
In short: a mess! At any stage, there’ll usually be a small scattering of hand tools (say, several chisels and a block plane), waiting for me to put them back on their shelves. I invariably have a few small wood offcuts which I’m hoping to find a use for (but will probably end up being too small for anything really useful). I’ve also got a few sketches and notes which I’m pretending are organised, but are really just shuffled into a pile.
As a side-project, I’m making a small dovetailed box from some maple I had leftover from my workbench: the four sides of that are on my bench whilst I fit the dovetails together.
There's also a very big cup of coffee, which is keeping me working during the cold mornings in the workshop: I have this huge mug that a friend painted for me for my 30th birthday. Ideally, there'd be a couple of chocolate hob-nobs or a slice of cake, but I think we’ve eaten them all.
The main piece I’m working on at the moment is a television cabinet, and currently the back panel is on my bench whilst I work on its oak veneer. Towards the end of this week, I'll put it in a "tent" for fuming - essentially sealing it in with some ammonia, which changes its colour from the honey brown we're familiar with to a deeper chocolate colour. It's like magic in action, I love playing with this kind of thing.
What do you listen to in the workshop?
Jane and I are lucky in that we’re both pretty easy going when it comes to what we have on. Quite often I tune into BBC Radio 2 for the mornings: I’m addicted to the “Pop Master” quiz. Once we hit midday, though, we usually switch to Radio 4, 4 Extra or to one of our iPods. I am generally happy with anything I can sing along to, and my music tastes are very broad! I probably drive Jane absolutely mad.
Are you a 'Pretty Organised' or 'Creatively Chaotic' artist?
To be honest, I'm still coming to terms with the idea of calling myself an artist at all. But, as might be evidenced from the state of my workbench, I am "creatively chaotic" all the way when it comes to making.
I like to have a clear-up between major projects, clear my bench and surroundings completely: it’s a nice mental calm before the next storm! But whilst I’m in the middle of a project, I tend to ricochet from thought to thought, task to task and mess to mess. I try and keep it a little more constrained in the workshop (compared to home), as Jane is much tidier than me! But I definitely prefer to have as much going on as possible.
What are your plans/hopes/dreams for 2012?
I am still struggling to believe that it’s 2012 at all. Surely 2012 is the distant future?
However! Plans-wise, I have my next commission lined up and a tentative idea for one or two after that. I’m planning to do one or two exhibition pieces, which I’d love to submit to a show (perhaps the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design in Cheltenham) if I am happy enough with them (and have time to complete them before the due date...). And I am planning to apply to join the Oxfordshire Craft Guild.
My hope is to continue surviving and continue enjoying what I’m doing. And my dreams? Well, a dream would be to get a commission from someone I’m not directly connected to! At the moment, as expected, I am operating in “friends and family” territory: it’s very fulfilling, because I dearly love these people and I’m delighted that they’re able to support me, but it would be a terrific further boost of confidence to hear from someone else.