In the first of a new monthly series of profiles of designers based in the UK and Europe, our Editor at Large Katie Treggiden talks to steam bender extraordinaire Tom Raffield.
It’s hard to know where to start a profile of British furniture designer Tom Raffield. Based in Cornwall, the far southwesterly tip of the UK, he invented a new technique for steam bending wood while still at university and has built a business around the complex forms it enables him to create. Not content with making furniture and lighting, he and wife Danielle have recently built a family home, entirely clad with steam-bent wood, so impressive that it was featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs and was described by presenter Kevin McCloud as “Tom’s masterpiece; the summation of his life’s work.”
He has invested in his local community, working with Cornish craftsmen and training apprentices from the local college, something which has earned him an Apprenticeship Employer of the Year award to sit alongside his Lighting Design Award and accolades as one of Kevin McCloud’s Green Heroes and one of Walpole’s Brands of Tomorrow.
And at London’s Chelsea Flower Show May 23-26, 2017, he will be lighting up the Artisan’s Retreat with an installation of 80 lights hanging from the trees and launching his new summerhouse concept. The installation, commissioned as part of The Grosvenor Series, premiered in Belgravia’s Pimlico Road (above) as part of London Craft Week. But despite McCloud’s talk of ‘summations’, speaking to Tom, you get the sense that this is just the beginning.
Growing up in the countryside alongside “more animals than people,” he struggled at school due to dyslexia, but found his feet at university with a making-led approach to learning. “They had a massive workshop full of tools and I was like a kid in a candy store – I just wanted to try everything,” he says. “And because I was so interested, the technicians loved me, so they used to spend evenings teaching me. It was a great environment.” A materials project led to wood and to steam bending, and he was hooked immediately. “There’s something magical about applying nothing but steam to bend wood,” he says. “It’s the honesty and simplicity of that process that I fell in love with – I’ve been steam bending ever since.”
Eventually becoming frustrated with the limitations of a centuries-old process, Tom came up with a new way to form the timber while still inside the steamer, giving him longer to play with forms and create more complex shapes. His graduate project was a chair made entirely from one length of wood and he hasn’t looked back since.
Today, his products include the Arbor Sofa (above), which features one long ribbon of oak forming the front legs, arms and backrest, plus a base, back legs and a fixed seat upholstered in wool from one of the few vertical woolen mills left in Britain; the Giant Flock Chandelier, which comprises over 120 individual steam-bent wooden shapes suspended around three tungsten light bulbs to mimic a swirling flock of starlings in the twilight sky; and the Amble Hanging Seat (top), a suspended circular chair made from three pieces of steam-bent ash, scarf jointed together and held in place by steam-bent wooden slats that all create the illusion of a perfect circle when viewed head on.
They are all made in his Cornish woodland workshop by a team of craftspeople, most of whom he has trained up from apprentice level. His team even built the workshop itself from trees that had fallen in a storm. It’s an environment that has proved critical to his work.
“The woodland is my main source of inspiration,” says Tom. “There are acres of beautiful, untouched and remote woodland in this valley, which is a rare thing in this part of Cornwall and we are lucky enough to own about seven acres. I wouldn’t be making the sort of work I am if we were anywhere else – I only need to step out of my front door and walk a short distance through the trees and an idea for a new design could be staring me in the face.” And as long as that continues to be the case, we haven’t heard the last of this pioneering, steam bending, designer-maker yet.