Bodging Milano by Stephen Knott

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

A picture of the pole lathes (also made by Leitz and volunteers) in the context of the entire workshop

Down a small in lane and up a mud track in deepest Herefordshire, a white canvas structure emerges from Clissett Wood: an unplugged greenwood furniture ‘bodging’ workshop that hosted ten prominent designers during the wet week of March 30th – April 5th 2010. The designers had cut themselves off from the infrastructure of their respective studios, with straight edges, electrical power and machinery swapped for hand-made tools, local wood and fingerless gloves, in imitation the of bodging techniques of countryside carpenters.

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

Rory Dodd on the pole lathe

‘Bodging Milano’ resulted from a collaboration between artist and designer Chirs Eckersley; Rory Dodd of Designersblock, a London-based organisation that provides a platform for the exhibition of contemporary design through international design shows and festivals; and Gudrun Leitz, founder and chief instructor of a week-long greenwood chairmaking course in Clissett Wood. This connection was established in July 2009 when Chris Eckersley spent a week making a hand-made chair in Leitz’s outdoor workshop, an interest prompted by his experience designing the Arden range of contemporary greenwood Windsor chairs for the bespoke furniture company, Sitting Firm, whose manager David Green was also with the designers for the week.

This year Eckersley returned to Clissett Wood with nine designer friends, and, with the exhibition platform of the Spazio Revel in Milan secured by Dodd at Designersblock, engaged in a week of making greenwood chairs using traditional techniques under Leitz’s instruction. Her methods echo the processes adopted by Philip Clissett, the nineteenth century Hereford greenwood furniture maker who inspired figures of the Arts and Crafts movement, including Ernest Gimson. The same attraction that led Arts and Crafts figures to Clissett led to the fruition of this project: to get away from the machines and tools that define modern production and become familiar with the manually powered pole lathe (constructed from pieces of wood from the forest itself), shave-horse and an array of hand tools.

The influence of William Morris’s elevation of good workmanship was evident. Leitz straightforwardly admitted that the course was run according to a specific philosophy that stresses sustainability, quality craftsmanship from local raw materials, manual skill, and the retrospective reconstruction of folk traditions.

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

A shave-horse made by Gudrun Leitz and her volunteers with various hand tools

So how did the metropolitan designers mix with the bodging techniques? I arrived one day before the deadline to finish, and the workshop was a hive of activity, with the practitioners pushing tired limbs in an attempt to finish on time. All the processes – including cleaving, lathing, steaming, shaping, sawing and assembly – were powered by hand, a physical exertion that was taking its toll. The tools demanded a great deal from the human body. The pole lathe, which the designers learnt how to use on the first day, not only required repeated pedalling but also the need to cup the wood in the lathe with your hand to offer it up to the blade of the chisel. This offered greater manual control over the turning process and an intimate relationship between the body and the machine, but more muscles were involved in the making procedure than might be expected in a conventional machine powered workshop. This cohered with Leitz’s philosophy of making the body a craft machine, rid of all the technicalities the mind mulls over. But the consequences included aches and pains, too.

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Chris Eckersly cutting off the bottom leg of his Windsor chair

Designers were not only encouraged to be closer to the tools, but also to the material, selecting a piece of locally grown ash, cleaving it, and then shaping it into the integral elements of the chair. The Windsor chair is defined by the fact that legs and backrest are fixed into the seat. With greenwood this is done through mortise and tenon joints which, after being joined together, are dried. The mortise contracts around the tenon, locking it firmly in place. Steaming is done onsite too, with a kiln and steaming jig used to keep the bent wood in shape. Smoothing with sandpaper is forbidden because it obscures the grain.

Designers responded positively to the new experiences of using manually-driven machines and hand tools, and to the close connection between labour and the material. However, the lack of a straight edge in the haphazard workshop meant geometrical designs were hard to achieve, and uneven chairs resulted. For practitioners used to the accuracy of computer machinery this caused particular problems, relating to Pye’s hypothesis on the workmanship of risk: with hand tools there is greater likelihood of a misplaced intervention, which could ruin the desired outcome.

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

Carl Clerkin and Gudrun Leitz measuring up Clerkin's Windsor chair

When asked how the designers were different from the normal clientele of furniture maker enthusiasts, Leitz replied that they approached the course with ‘an image in mind’. For her this made the week more demanding, as the participants, with specific knowledge of furniture making, wanted to achieve a particular result. This was obvious to me while I was there: I only managed to grab a few sentences from her during a rushed tea-break before she had to go back and consult the makers.

The products that resulted from the week’s endurance were whisked away to Milan a week after. Like Clissett’s handmade chairs that made it to Heal’s in London in the early twentieth century, the chairs of these designers may well ignite a romanticism attached to local production and craftsmanship amongst a metropolitan crowd. In addition to this direct output, the bodging course provides a lesson in the value of craftsmanship without power machinery. But however pleasurable, interesting or eye opening this experience in the woods may be, it does not constitute a viable modern day production strategy. As David Green from Sitting Firm mentioned, his £8,000 machine can cut the same seat bottom in 30 seconds as it takes his hands to make in a day. These realities of production seem to limit’s the experiment’s scope. But using a different set of tools, materials and skills does have the potential to renew or reinvigorate furniture practice.

Stephen Knott is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum, writing on the theory and practice of amateur craft.

More images can be found here.

11 thoughts on “Bodging Milano by Stephen Knott

  1. The Milano Bodgers are a group of professionals who have dedicated their lives to art, craft, and design. Personally I find the term ‘amateur’ deeply offensive.

  2. I didn’t mean to suggest that the Milano Bodgers were amateurs. My PhD research concerns amateur practice but for this article I write as a researcher interested in modern craft processes.

  3. Hi there Chris, I am interested in your strong reaction to the term amateur appearing even *near* your work!

    Like Stephen, I wouldn’t suggest you or the other bodgers are amateur in your relations to furniture design and making. It’s the contrary, really: the Bodging Milano project is interesting because it’s a group of professionals who are intentionally de-skilling and then re-skilling themselves. It wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t pro designers out there in the woods.

    Independently of the Bodging project though – and Stephen may have an opinion on this – it does seem to me that even professionals with years of training do sometimes seek out ‘amateur’ situation or forms of practice (which could mean operating intentionally ‘without mastery,’ or perhaps ‘mainly out of love’ as in the original meaning of the term, rather than for professional gain) as a way of deflecting or altering their practice.

    Glenn

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  6. I’ve searched through the article and as far as i can tell, the word ‘amateur’ does not even appear (apart from in connection to Stephen’s research in the post text personal statement).

  7. Stephen turned up and when I asked him at tea break what he was doing, he said to the group he was doing a phD on Amateur Crafts. ‘What’s that?’ I asked, as none of us had heard of that before. It transpired that it meant ‘hobbies’. Amateur Crafts sounds like one of those newly invented phrases designed to baffle the rest of the human race and make us think we are missing out on something. Meanwhile, there already exists plenty of perfectly satisfactory words in the English language to describe crafts, hobbies, design and art etc…

    So the fact that he was researching Amateur Crafts confused many people that were there. His attitude came across in such a way that he did not know what he was seeing in the wood, or talking about as regards to crafts in general. None of the people there would have called this activity as amateur. There were in fact 10 professional furniture designers on the course, a Contemporary Greenwood Chairmaker & teacher, 2 experienced greenwood artists as volunteer assistants, and one full time foresty greenwood worker. All either there making a living or undergoing career development and research in some form, as professionals. None of the people there would call this activity a hobby, or themselves as amateurs, and in all seriousness this is why the term ‘amateur’ that Stephen bandied about was offensive.

    He went on to say that he thought he was coming to a place to see how people could fix and mend things in a general kind of way- (nothing to do with the woods or chair making.) Which is where he seemed to have misunderstood the word ‘Bodger’. I would suggest that you replace any instance of Bodging with
    greenwood working to avoid confusion in the future.

    So unfortunately he kind of got everyone’s back up from the start as we tried to explain that he was obviously in the wrong place. His whole reason for being there confused all of us.

    Personally, I have a major problem with the term Amateur crafts, it is a label that would attempt to segregate people into categories of skill. Whereas the beauty of crafts is that you are often welcomed to learn and encouraged to explore and develop without boundaries. What is the point of this term if it needs explaining?

    p.s your description of the use of the pole lathe is entirely wrong and the description of the chair joints is flawed too. Perhaps you need to get your hands dirty and know by doing also as part of your research.

    (I am volunteer cook and greenwood assistant for Gudrun Leitz, and see many individuals come to the woods with a passion for making, an interest in the woods, furniture, sculpture, and the outdoors. You can read my Greenwood Blog at
    http://www.greenwoodwoman.blogspot.com)

  8. Just wanted to reply to Glenn Adamson’s comment ‘It wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t pro designers out there in the woods. ‘ I actually think it’s just as amazing, if not more so to see all sorts of people make something from the wood. Greenwood working inspires people and connects them to their surroundings and natural materials in a very physical way. They tend to find their own style and are perhaps more open to what the trees have to offer rather than enforcing a design on the greenwood. Many of the chairs and benches over the years are just as successful if not better (sorry designers) than the bodging milano group. Try and work that one out!

  9. It’s refreshing to get two sides of the story. As Glenn points out, the turn to amateur practice is a well-established path for creative inspiration, not only in craft but in painting as well. But rarely do we hear the subjects of this attention express a point of view on this. It is similar in the field of philosophy where Paulin Hountondji critiques the way African thought is celebrated as a form of ‘ethnophilosophy’, where he would like it to be taken seriously alongside the traditions of Kant, etc.
    But the key is to keep this dialogue open. So given Elizabeth’s position, could designers take a similar interest in ‘greenwood’ makers, without casting them as outsiders (amateurs), however well-intentioned that might have been?

  10. First of all I want to stress that I did not consider the Milano Bodgers, or anyone else at the Clissett Wood workshop, as amateurs. In the article I do not make reference to the word amateur, and I mentioned it in the course of discussion when I was with the Bodgers only in the context of my PhD research. I saw the project as a group of professional designers learning skills and using tools that were different to those employed within the context of their normal practice.

    However, I am intrigued by the strong reaction provoked by the word ‘amateurism’ and the misunderstanding that I considered the Bodging project an example of it.

    There is an expectation that amateur practice is defined by poor skill and limited ingenuity, but my research attempts to interrogate this stereotype and think of alternative meanings derived from the Latin root of the word ‘amare’, which means ‘to love’.

    I agree with Glenn in that practitioners do occasionally ‘seek out amateur situations and forms of practice’ to re-invigorate their work or have the chance to ‘play’ again. The collective ‘We work in a fragile material’ (http://www.weworkinafragilematerial.com/) is a good example of this. The professional craftsmen-designers respect the boundaries of their discipline, but seek to broaden their practice by investigating alternative modes of practice.

    One alternative definition of amateur practice is that it demonstrates a resistance to the procedures of standardisation, regularisation and normal aesthetic judgments typical to professional practice. This gives the amateur a certain freedom. There is no need to meet deadlines, produce work for patrons or conform to a particular model, and a practitioner can start and finish when he/she so desires. Perhaps it is this freedom and openness of the usual participants of the chairmaking courses in Clissett Wood that result in works that are ‘as successful if not better that the bodging Milano group’.

    This does present challenges for the research. It is difficult to give a voice to amateurs of the past, whose work and practice are often not recorded or have since disappeared, and many amateurs today might use many other words to describe their practice, particularly as ‘amateur’ is a word with such negative connotations as highlighted during the course of this discussion.

  11. I noticed the reference to Philip Clissett’s chairs being sold at Heal’s in London. I’ve been researching Clissett for some time, and can’t find any primary source for this. If you know of anything, I’d be very pleased to hear it. None of the authors who mention it give any indication of where they get their information from – very poor practice.

    In the meantime, anyone interested in Philip Clissett and his work might have a look at http://www.philipclissett.co.uk

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