When you enter Jonathan Field’s east London workshop, the first thing you notice is floor to ceiling stacks of what appear to be slices of tree complete with bark, knots and all those features of wood that others would call blemishes or flaws. The very next thing my eyes were drawn to was a beautiful walnut desk, all curves and polished wood. My hand was drawn to it too: I couldn’t help but touch it. That is part of the beauty of Jonathan’s furniture: it begs to be stroked. Jonathan says: “I want it to be a cross over between a sculptural piece and furniture, something you get pleasure from just looking at,” or just stroking, in my case.
Jonathan trained as an artist and worked as an illustrator for 15 years, creating, among other work, book covers for Penguin. He had always “made stuff” for friends, he says. That area of work blossomed and became a business in 1995. Jonathan’s first commercial product was a plywood CD rack for Conran. He then made built-in wardrobes. But for the past few years he has concentrated on bespoke or limited edition stand-alone pieces, in particular tables, desks and chairs.
His clients include art collectors and galleries and interior designers. He sells one-off and limited edition pieces through the Connaught Brown Gallery in London. But many of his clients come to him through word of mouth, to commission a bespoke piece of furniture. He works with them, to conceive and design a piece of furniture that will be unique. Clients visit the workshop where they will see and choose the wood they want him to use. “They decide how far they will go with the character of the wood,” he says. “Some clients want a very clean feel, while others want to see the story of the wood, that link with where it has come from.” Jonathan will then work with the client on the design. This collaboration is a very important part of creating the piece of furniture. “Clients often lead me somewhere I hadn’t thought of going,” he says.
He uses reclaimed and salvaged timber which has been felled for forestry clearance or development and timber from trees which have been blown over or have simply come to the end of their life. The process of acquiring this timber can take up to a year. Jonathan visits a site and will choose a tree trunk which is then sliced and left to dry. It can be kiln dried to speed up the process. His favourite woods to work in are English oak, American black walnut and yew. “Yew is quite brittle,” he says. “Oak has more give to it and American black walnut is softer. It has a lovely rich quality, which once oiled is fabulous.” And I would have to concur. That desk, that I couldn’t take my hands off, was made in American black walnut.
And Jonathan makes the most of the natural elements of wood in his creations. He will often incorporate the waney edge – the natural edge under the bark – into his designs, pegging two pieces together to form a table with the waney edge as the table edge, or pegging two different types or colours of wood together with the waney edge creating a natural curvy edge through a table top. As he says, “the wood is the star”.
Jonathan is inspired most by art. The only furniture designer he says he is influenced by is American furniture artist Wendell Castle – often credited with being the father of furniture art. It’s easy to see the inspiration in the curves and Jonathan’s emphasis on the natural beauty of the wood. Other aspects of design also inspire Jonathan. The American black walnut desk ”owes as much to a BMW in its shape as it does to a piece of furniture,” he says. I imagine it with an engine, and it has the throaty purr of a sleek sports car.
His art inspiration is now taking his furniture in another direction. He has created one-off tables and room screens with hidden colour which shines out on to the table or the floor, in the case of the screens. The hidden coloured metallic strips or painted wood catch the natural light and project a coloured light which changes intensity and direction with the movement and strength of the sunlight. The man who grew up on the East Yorkshire coast says the quality of light has always excited him. “I’ve always been fascinated by the light which you get in wood,” he says.
Jonathan Field will be exhibiting at 100% Design 22-25 September 2011, Earls Court, London.