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Thomas Whittingham

by Angie Boyer

Published: March 2018

Thomas Whittingham Furniture

By Angie Boyer

There is a pleasing sense of balance in the gently flowing curves and contrasting geometric lines of Thomas Whittingham's beautifully designed and expertly crafted furniture. Couple that with his sensitive selection and use of timber and you have the award winning work that walked away with our prize at last year's Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair.

After the show, I asked Thomas to tell me more...

"I create furniture which explores the interaction between natural flowing curves and crisp clean forms. I've always had a passion for making things and a keen eye for detail. After finishing a degree in product design I sought out a career which would allow me to do both. After completing a taster course in fine furniture making I was completely hooked. I went on to complete a course with Williams and Cleal furniture school in Somerset and haven't looked back.

"My workshop is on the edge of Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. The area that surrounds me is both beautiful and inspiring and acts as a large influence in the curves I use in my pieces. I regularly walk my dog into the woods on my doorstep to clear my head when things get a bit hazy or too hectic. The workshop itself is quite modest. I work alone so don’t need a vast amount of space or machinery. The walls of my workshop are covered with hand tools and templates from previously completed commissions and, although I try to keep it as tidy as possible, it has the feel of an established, well used workspace.



Thomas uses both traditional and modern woodworking and design techniques learned during his university studies and cabinetmaking experience. "I work with both solid timber and veneer depending on the design and use a mix of traditional joint work and modern fixings to bring a design together. I take real pride in matching the grain well when selecting and jointing pieces of timber or veneer together. I think this is essential in setting my work apart from mass produced furniture. The curves I produce for my pieces are laminated from a number of strips of timber glued together over a former. This is both incredibly strong and very accurate when trying to duplicate a shape."

Thomas clearly has a natural skill for designing furniture which enhances and emphasises the beauty of the wood. Listening to him talking about his work, I was intrigued to know what went on inside his head in the very early stages of creating a piece of furniture - what comes first in his thought process, the design or the wood?

"For me the design nearly always comes first. If a design is complex with lots of elements, using a very busy, loud timber will detract from it instead of highlighting details. I will often choose contrasting varieties of the same timber to highlight the difference between the hard form of carcass work and the softer flowing curves I use.  

"However, on the odd occasion, I will see a board or bundle of veneer that I fall in love with and just buy. I have made a few pieces in the past solely with the timber I have in mind. I find when this is the case the design will be simpler and let the grain do the talking. My Drift Coffee Table in English Walnut is a good example of this."

With such a variety to choose from, I wondered which wood Thomas most enjoys working with.

"Walnut is lovely as it sands up incredibly smooth and has a rich scent when you machine it up. The grain tends not to break out too much and I’m always thrilled when a customer chooses it.

"It isn’t my favourite timber though, that would be Brown Oak. This is a brown coloured oak caused by the beefsteak fungus attacking a mature oak tree. Sometimes boards will have streaks of dark brown through the lighter browns normally associated with oak. It can be hard to work and sometimes even harder to get hold of, but it is well worth the effort when the first coat of oil goes on. These are both solid timbers, veneer is another thing altogether. 

"With veneer I love working with burrs and heavy figuring. There is a lot of work in matching and jointing them together, but the visual effect cannot be matched by solid wood (in my opinion). I've used Rippled Ash quite extensively and Burr Olive Ash to name a couple. I think veneered furniture has had a bit of a bad press over the years with the association with cheap furniture and kitchens, but when it’s done properly it’s stunning."

Commissioned pieces can play an important part in the working life of designer makers, especially when the work created will last a lifetime and beyond, and frequently holds a special story for both the maker and the client.

"I was commissioned to make two sets of double doors for a product designer a couple of years ago. They were all in Oak and really tested my ability at the time. The doors are solid frames joined with through wedged tenons, which is really strong and traditional. The frames then housed glass panels with my signature curved pieces running across the glass. The customer wanted to be really involved in the design process which was great and he inputted at every stage of the process. When I came to fit the doors he told me he’d hardly slept the night before as he was so excited to see them in the flesh. The whole project felt like a bit of a collaboration and I was over the moon with how they came out finished. I enjoy aspects of every commission I take on, but this one sticks in my mind!"

Bearing in mind that Thomas's furniture is destined to become 'antiques of the future', treasured family pieces, I had one final question for him -  what would he most like his work to be recognised and remembered for?

"I hope that in years to come my work will be recognised for both the standard that it is made to and the attention to detail regarding design. I like my pieces to sit harmoniously in a space. I want them to be striking without dominating the space that they occupy, I take real care when designing a piece to ensure it is both beautiful and unique, but also that it is functional. It is not enough for me for something to simply look great. If it doesn’t function properly I think it fundamentally fails as a piece of furniture."

Ian W. Wallace Craft Insurance

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