Alun Heslop's 'chaircreative' wooden seating

Alun Heslop - chaircreative

by Angie Boyer

Paul and I run from the car park, through the gardens, heads down against the driving rain. We’re heading for the long barn beyond the kitchen garden, where we have arranged to meet Alun Heslop in his chaircreative workshop. Alun throws the door open to welcome us in from the deluge. A warm golden glow comes from the recently lit stove, the earthy smell of burning wood mingles with the enticing aroma of coffee brewing. And there, on the floor between us and the stove, we see a huge, perfectly formed wooden ball, with an equally huge, hand crafted cricket bat resting on it.

The ball that has been turned to 460mm in diameter fits snugly into the underside of the oak bat. Together they become a beautifully proportioned seat, 3 metres long, which dominates the floor space in Alun’s workshop. This Cricketer’s Bench is a special commission that he’s working on, to be sited beside the cricket pitch at Belmont Park, the peaceful country setting where Alun’s workplace is located, surrounded by lush gardens and wide open spaces. Alun tells me that he usually cycles to this workshop, near Faversham in Kent. “I live about ten miles away and would rather be on two wheels in the open air that sitting inside a tin can!” He tells us about this substantial piece of craftsmanship, “I have designed the seat with an incline along the length of it for comfort and rain relief, it follows the line of the wood. It’s important that a piece like this works ergonomically, it has to perform its function as well as look good, it’s much more than just a sculptural object.” Like much of Alun’s work, this seat is made from oak. “I like to use air dried seasoned oak, which comes from Lenham oak saw mill, a place about five miles from here,“ he explains. “That means the material costs are fairly substantial, but it’s more dependable to work with than green oak, which in some instances can distort and move on outside pieces. Weather will degrade wood, sunlight and rain; oak is naturally resilient, but it does help to give it a basic weather seasoning treatment. The oak in any outdoor piece like this will eventually turn a silvery grey with age and weather,” continues Alun, “but that’s okay really, the piece is about form rather than fancy wood!”

Alun’s woodworking skills have a foundation based on his extensive knowledge and experience of green woodworking techniques. He tells me that “having recognised that maths and physics were not for me, I went off to do basic interior design, leaning towards product design as well. It was really good, but I soon knew that I didn’t want to be an interior designer, so I decided to study Fine Art Alternative Practice. For me, that involved looking at environmental issues, many of the things that are coming up again now. I realised then that art isn’t about what you do, it’s more about who you do with it, so that wasn’t for me either.

“I wanted more of a hand to eye element in what I did. So after my degree course I went more towards green woodworking. I still hold the ethics of that type of work today, it’s very important to me. I don’t do much pole lathe turning now, but I still use many green woodworking techniques in my work. More and more I want to create my own designs using traditional techniques, to make one-off sculptural pieces, a transition to much finer and sophisticated work that’s more suited to galleries and ‘exhibiting’ shows.” We visited Alun at a time when he was busy preparing for Origin in London, having already exhibited at shows like Craft in Focus and Art in Action earlier in the year. He showed us some of the pieces that he would be exhibiting at Origin; flowing, balanced designs that are not only pleasing to the eye, but also entirely suitable for their purpose. Sometimes a piece may have a hint of fragility, which totally belies the stability and strength of the structure, qualities that are created not only in the actual design, but also in the careful attention to detail in the making. I asked Alun where he found his inspiration for this delicate aspect of his chair designs, which are very different from his robust and sturdy outdoor seating. “My wife is an entomologist, so maybe it’s the images of stick-like insects that surround her work that bring these designs to mind, it’s probably why some of my interiors work looks frail but (like insects) the pieces are strong in structure”

A delivery van pulls up outside the workshop as we chat and two people from the local woodyard unload some rather spectacular pieces of wood, which Alun is drawn to like a magnet, checking its suitability for the work he has in mind. As the couple turn their attention to the magnificent cricket bat seat, Alun tells us more about his interiors work.

“I like making very dainty things that look very fragile with refined lines.” This quality may be echoed in the stick-like legs of a chair, or perhaps in the fine lines of his rather eccentric ‘Apple Holder � Waiting for Temptation’, a tripod-like arrangement, which temptingly clutches a polished stainless steel apple. That final touch, a shiny piece of perfectly formed fruit specially made by fellow craftsman David Meredith “accentuates the extravagance of it all,” says Alun about this delicate looking piece, the design for which was in reality inspired by the shape of the ventilation shaft at Dartford Tunnel!

“Inspiration can come from anywhere, civil engineering, rivers and bridges, landscapes as well as any entomological influences,” he says. “And I like to use local and native hardwoods such as ash, oak, cherry and elm, harvesting from sustainable, managed woodlands. I work with the grain of the wood using many traditional hand tools and techniques - it’s honest work, you can see the functionality of it. I like the whole sense of the integrity of the material as well as the making. Gradually people are waking up to that.” As Paul and I chat to Alun about the sentiment behind his work we realise that, at his invitation, we are sitting on one of his prototypes, a bench seat with the title of ‘Peapod’ “because the design is all about things fitting in with each other”. That sense of ‘fitting in with each other’ extends to the design and making of the Peapod as well; this is a collaborative project that Alun is working on with Sixixis from Cornwall. Together they are developing the steam bending of the wood to perfect the flowing compound bend that is at the heart of the design. “The shape dips in and rolls out, the edges roll and taper, it’s quite subtle; if it were flat it would not be so comfortable to sit on. Simplicity appeals.”

This notion of collaboration on projects follows through to another piece that Alun is making in the grounds of Belmont House. Once more dodging the rain, the three of us go out into the gardens to see the ongoing work on his Hedgehog Seat. Protected from the elements under a tarpaulin, the seat is at a low level, fitting over an old, but stable ash tree stump. Using traditional hand tools familiar to him from his green woodworking days, Alun saddle carves each section of wood into a hollowing to form comfortable seating before securing it to the tree stump with stainless steel fittings. “The whole piece is a continuation of form and line with a concentric dished hollowing, it’s very subjective, deciding when something does or does not look right,” says Alun. There are oak seating planes radiating out, creating a whole that, when completed, will have at its centre a bronze hedgehog, again specially made by David Meredith. “The hedgehog is part of the coat of arms for Belmont, so it seemed ideal for the design.”

Alun gives each of his designs a title, some appear at first to have been chosen in a fairly abstract way, but when he explains that these names are “poetic, descriptive of a location perhaps, or to do with word play and association” it begins to make sense. I get the impression that nothing happens in his workshop without reason. He continues, “I like it when pieces evoke emotions and thoughts - so they can ‘walk and talk’ on their own. Sometimes I make pure sculptural elements, to explore the relationships of shapes and curves and edges.”

The pieces we see at his workshop illustrate well the contrasts in Alun’s work; delicate chairs for indoors, sturdy seating for outdoors; some pieces made to commission, others made speculatively simply to suit himself � each piece always marked with his signature emblem and the date stamp.

“I’m working on more and more bespoke seating projects now and I really like the work I’m doing at the moment, big outside projects. The next piece is an 8.5 metres curvaceous flowing form to be placed near a pond at a private residence near Northampton. Each one is unique and a lot of fun. The bigger the piece is, the more impressive it becomes. But projects like this need to be balanced with a variety of types of work. The variation between large exterior work and finer interior pieces is a good balance. The buzz of it for me is to have the idea, bring up the drawings and see the manifest reality of the project. I keep pushing out the boundaries!”

Alun Heslop, chaircreative
The Workshop, Park House, Belmont Park
Throwley, Faversham, Kent ME13 0HH
T: 07740 644715

People thinking about pushing out their own boundaries may be interested to learn that Alun also holds chair making courses, which run for 7 days on a 1 to 4 basis. “I encourage and help participants to make pieces to their own designs,” he explains, “I don’t replicate a set pattern, it’s much more enjoyable for each person to think about what they want to make and where they’ll place it. The first morning of the course is the design assessment. I gauge it for people across the board, considering individual ability to what they’re proposing and work with them to fit it to the 7 days of the course. Working on their own individual projects, participants have a much broader learning and it’s ultimately really good fun - each chair can be as imaginative as the individual who creates it. Any teaching is exhausting, as you’re giving out so much, but part of the skill from the outset is fitting the participant’s ability to their design proposal and linking it realistically with the time scale of the course. People can stay at local B&Bs; or there is camping within the grounds.”

Full details of Alun’s chair making courses are available on his website

Where trees grow, so does the spirit of the imagination. Where inspiration flows, light, life and energy radiate in abundance. We move through space and time, dynamic and fluid. Occasionally we may rest or pause, and perhaps sit down for a while. And there is the moment of contemplation. A moment to deliver a truly unique experience; to sit and feel welcomed, comfortable, elevated and perhaps even astounded. A timeless elegance encapsulated within an innovative work of wonder. By its very nature chaircreative seeks to produce outstanding and unique chairs and seating whilst minimising the environmental impact of doing so. A grounding philosophy at chaircreative is ‘working with the wood � not against it’. We design and create with sustainability in mind, as a natural part of the process. Using and understanding the material properties of locally sourced native hardwoods. It’s all about choices! Creating single pieces, site-specific installations, ‘multiple’ chair family groups or bench type seating for interior and exterior spaces. Producing dynamic, sculptural centrepieces and focal points. A pure form, accentuated. Connecting life lines through generations, bequeathed. Just a chair? No, it is a reflection of desire.< br /> Alun Heslop

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