Alfred Newall, a furniture designer and maker based in Sussex, on the future of furniture.
It takes more time and imagination to make furniture that lasts a lifetime. Custom pieces help to promote longevity because clients are involved in the story from the start. The piece has an inbuilt attraction that, I think, helps to ensure it’s loved and looked after. That’s the difference between bespoke and the click-and-collect nature of buying today; having something made for you is an experience and the result is something to cherish forever.
As these pieces grow old, they show their age and improve, become part of someone’s life and gather an identity. Clients are sometimes alarmed when they see their new piece of furniture, but I explain to them that, like a new leather jacket that might be stiff and uncomfortable, furniture needs to settle before it fits in. That’s why we use historical finishes, such as wax and natural oil, which allow for the surface to change over time. Modern finishes look spick and span at first, but they don’t allow for an elegant ageing process and a piece will start to devalue in the same way as a new car. Good furniture, made to last a lifetime, is the opposite — it gets better with age.
What I think has been lost along the way is the deep knowledge of the property of timbers that, in the past, would be used for different purposes in the formation of a piece of furniture. For instance, a Windsor chair would be made using three or four types of wood to create strength. Once, this knowledge would have been universal among cabinetmakers, passed down from father to son or maker to apprentice. I’ve had to take a different route to acquire this knowledge and surrounded myself with the elder generation of cabinetmakers to learn from them directly.
My wife, Tess, and I are instinctively drawn to pieces of furniture that have had a previous life because they often tell a story. The design of our Orkney chair, for example, stemmed from the need of the islanders to protect themselves from the cold and the wind — we love that. Old pieces inform how I design my work — I often go to auction houses to look at items in order to get a greater understanding of how things were made in the past. Really good-quality things have an inherent timelessness of their own.
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Alfred Newall (020–7846 7314; www.alfrednewall.com)
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