In early November every year we head down to the Cotswolds for a long weekend. It is mainly an opportunity to break up that long, dreary expanse of autumn, and to have some family time away from the pressures of everyday life. One of the highlights of these trips, for me at least, is looking at the furniture in the period cottages we stay in, as well as in the local pubs and eateries. I always find the moments reflecting on the furniture surrounding us on our Cotswold breaks to be instructive. I don’t have much time to look at furniture in antique stores, historic buildings, or any of the other places that you’d go to look at handmade furniture in the wild, so most of my interaction with non-mass produced furniture is through woodwork texts or the internet. Which is fine up to a point, but something is lost when you are left engaging with a tactile subject such as furniture at a distance. The other advantage of engaging with the furniture pieces when we travel is that very few of them are museum quality pieces – by virtue of staying in holiday cottages all of the furniture is there to be used, and there can be a pleasing variety on display. And finally, living with a piece for a few days gives you much more opportunity to become accustomed with it than a brief encounter in an antique store or lunchtime google search. These trips have therefore come to play an important role in my on-going quest to pry open my design eye.
This year’s trip away bought a bumper crop of furniture experiences, all of which seemed to highlight the unusual and unorthodox. It seems I can’t escape staked furniture at the moment, as the first piece I enountered was the little staked bench pictured above. This low bench was perfect for the Apprentice to use, being about 10″ high and featuring octagonal legs back-wedged with dirty great 1″ tenons through a 1.5″ top. Either the tenons have shrunk a little, or whoever made the bench wasn’t too concerned about flushing up the wedges as these were all quite proud of the top. But the bench was stable and solid, and the Apprentice loved pulling it round with her and sitting on it. The proportions of this bench are quite different to the staked benches currently on my workbench, particularly the thin top compared to the large tenons and wedges. But the beauty of seeing pieces in the wild is how they can vary from accepted norms of design and still provide good use.
The other great find in our cottage was the bathroom door, the tongue and groove boards for which had been secured by nail clinched battens. Even the latch was clinched in place. I confess that this is the first real world example of clinching I’ve encountered – previously it was a technique confined to the pages of The Joiner & Cabinet Maker, the Packing Crate project from that book, and also a blog post by Richard McGuire. So to unexpectedly stumble upon an entirely clinched door was a wonderful reminder that these furniture forms and techniques are not historical curios or academic exercises – they are genuine techniques that craftsmen have relied upon for generations.
The final memorable piece was a little more highend. Whenever we go to the Cotswolds I always steal and hour or two to browse the inventry of Christopher Clarke Antiques in Stow on the Wold – one of the leading experts in campaign furniture. Amongst the usual collection of gorgeous secretaries, folding bookcases, and campaign chairs, was this lovely chest of drawers. Two things set this piece apart from any other example of campaign furniture I’ve seen in print or at Christopher Clarke. Firstly, the dimensions are significantly smaller than most other pieces – this chest of drawers was roughly 3/4″ of the usual size. Secondly, this is the first example of campaign furniture I’ve seen which has used two primary woods; the casework is ash but the drawer fronts are quartersawn oak. This combination of timber is really striking, and with the smaller dimensions makes for a wonderfully compact yet stylish piece which has a very different feel to many of its campaign brothers and sisters. I always find a trip to Chrispher Clarke Antiques to be inspiring, and there are several items of campaign furniture on my “to build” list. But this unusual chest of drawers has opened up other possibilities for the form, and provoked synapses into firing. Not for the first time, I am amazed at how changing a couple of simple design decisions can dramatically alter the impact of a piece.