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.‘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.
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.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.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.