“What have you always wanted in your home, but have never been able to find?” This question, as asked by Terence Conran to a group of his friends, who just happen to include some of the most renowned designers and architects in the UK, was the beginning of a really quite wonderful project.
Conran paired the group, which comprised Paul Smith, Norman Foster, Amanda Levete, John Pawson, Alison Brooks, Zaha Hadid, Alex de Rijke, Allen Jones, Richard and Ab Rogers, and himself, with ten up-and-coming designers. The answer to the question became the brief for the young designers, to be made from American hardwood, in collaboration with Benchmark and the American Hardwood Export Council.
6 x 500 is Win Assakul’s response to Amanda Levete’s request for a serving dish long enough to serve cold meats and cheese, or fruit, to guests at her 4.8-meter long dining table. It is made from American walnut and comes apart to fit into a box that she insisted was as beautiful as the object itself.
Gareth Neal was paired with Zaha Hadid, and Ves-el, in American white oak, is his response to her brief, which simply stated, “tableware.” Benchmark had to upgrade its CNC cutting software to make the design possible. Benchmark co-founder Sean Sutcliffe said, “I have been running my workshop for 32 years and this is the most remarkable thing we have ever made.”
Perhaps the most humble request came from Norman Foster who asked Norie Matsumoto to design him a pencil sharpener. “For as long as I can remember the pencil and I have been inseparable companions – sketching and scribbling are integral to my way of life,” he said. His brief was for “a pencil sharpener for three sizes, capable of sitting on a desk with a compartment to receive shavings.” Matsumoto also made a tray for each American tulipwood sharpener to hold a collection of pencils.
Xenia Moseley designed The Ladder That Likes The Wall for father and son Richard and Ab Rogers. Designed to lean against a wall with a person sitting comfortably at the top, it needed special feet to stop it from slipping. It was steam bent from American red oak.
Allen Jones dug out a tiny cardboard model of an idea he’d had more than 10 years ago for his brief to London-based designer Lola Lely. The recliner, which is made from maple and walnut veneer reflects the shape of the human form, and is fitted to the contours of Jones’ own body, while remaining deliberately androgynous.
“Rather than starting with the idea of commissioning a specific piece of furniture, I was interested in getting Studio Areti to explore the things you touch and use every day,” said John Pawson. “Things that are moments in the life of a place, as well as being objects – switching on a light, opening a door, hanging a shirt on a hook, taking a book down from a shelf.” The resulting collection of objects, made from white oak and walnut, includes a book shelf, a door, a light switch, and a set of hooks.
Alison Brooks was looking for a stool for her own kitchen, but also one she could put into production to fill a gap in the market. “The stool is always the most popular seat in the house. Stools offer a dynamic kind of seating. There’s a temporary quality to sitting on a stool – you don’t have to commit to sitting down. I’ve never been able to find a really clever, beautiful kitchen stool that is the right height for a kitchen counter.” Felix de Pass made A Stool for the Kitchen from cherry wood, which reminded Brooks of her childhood in Canada.
When Alex de Rijke originally commissioned Barnby & Day to create a large circular laminated-tulipwood dining / meeting room table that looks as if it had been carved from a single tree, they initially came back with designs for a coffee table, convinced that something on the scale he was looking for was impossible. By turning the table, which is made of 13 rings of three-layered cross-laminated timber (CLT), in three sections, they were able to achieve the desired result. The designers told me that pushing through to find a solution was their biggest lesson from the project.
Paul Smith’s brief to Natalie de Leval was “My shed.” Smith was just looking for “a shed,” but one with an entirely glazed end, and something that would rotate, inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s shed, so he could take advantage of the sun or shade at different times of day. De Leval, an independent furniture maker, spent two days on the base alone. “It’s all incredibly low-tech, which I like,” she said. “It’s a flat pack. But it was a lot of work. I did seven issues of drawings.”
And Conran’s own project? A “cocoon-like desk” in red oak and cherry for his office – a place where he would work with everything at hand yet without distraction. Sebastian Cox created Getting Away From It All, soaking wood in the Conran’s river to make it more supple and give the American import some local provenance, and using woven oak in the screens to add his own mark. “I have been making furniture for 60 years and I’m still learning from Sebastian,” Conran said. Quite an accolade!