Wednesday 02 July 2008
Liz McClair visits Trannon Furniture to try and make some ecological sense of it all
Trannon Furniture, located just outside Salisbury, was originally founded by David Colwell. It was his knowledge of design and his commitment to sustainability that created the concept which has now grown into a successful business employing a modest workforce. I visited Trannon to find out how they go about what they clearly do so well.
David ColwellDavid Colwell trained in furniture design at the Royal College of Art, and it was during this time that his first chair design was bought by the V&A Museum Collection. He went on to run his own design practice in London where he had the rudiments of a workshop in which he produced models and prototypes, working mainly in plastics and metals. "I've always been a fiddler - making things, mending things", he told me.
ChangesBy the mid 1970s David was aware of a change in the design world. "The modern movement was collapsing and, as far as I could see, we needed to turn towards the vernacular tradition to move on - it was the people who made and used the objects that had the greatest influence on their design, and it was that that interested me. I felt that it was the right direction for 20th century design to go in", he explained. "Above all, it was about people - and the relevant issues were therefore employment, sustainability, and use", he told me. "I needed to think about the main components - the material source, the energy consumption, and the capital involved".
This quest led David to decide on wood as his material - ash was chosen because it is self-seeding, has no sapwood, is more resilient along its grain by a huge factor compared to other woods, and it is not the most expensive - the faster the growth rate of ash, the better it is.
"Ash comes from the second thinning, which is beneficial to the forester - it is then sold as firewood, but is great for steam-bending. Traditionally, of course, it was used for tennis rackets and brooms but these are now made from metal and plastic so it means that the ash can be put to good use", David explained. "As a material it has flexure - most people think of timber as if it were marble - with a chair, that is exactly what you don't want!"
Steam-bendingDavid left London and set up his own workshop in Wales, under the name of Trannon, in 1977. Steam-bending allowed him a means of production that was less labour intensive than other methods - and the equipment for it could all be home-made. "The nice thing about steam-bending is that you can make all the equipment you need yourself - what I'm working on developing now is generating the steam from wood waste - I haven't quite worked it all out yet, but I'm on the way", he told me. There is a feel of the inventor at work about David - in fact the equipment he currently uses for steam-bending looks as though it would be happily at home in Frankenstein's studio!
FoundationsAt this stage he was producing small batch-production pieces - the well known Rattan Recliner was born around this time as were the C3 stacking chairs, both of which are still going strong and, along with other classic pieces, provide the mainstay of the business.
It was about this time that David won a competition run by the National Museum of Wales for seating for which he used steam-bending. These items proved to be so successful that he was invited to design similar seating for museums in Nottingham and Birmingham.
PartnersDuring the late 80s and 90s David was a design tutor at Hooke Park, part of Parnham College, and it was there, in 1991, that he met Roy Tam and Richard Foyle, both of whom were to become his partners - Richard set up the major part of the manufacturing side of things to the point that it is at present, but was then head-hunted and moved on to other things. Roy, who also trained at the Royal College of Art, has remained with the company and runs the marketing side.
Finding the marketThe three set up a workshop near Pewsey for a time before taking on the present site seven years ago in a rural setting just outside Salisbury. They introduced more designs and set their sights on the contract market of corporate work, believing that they needed this to cover their growing overheads. They concentrated on producing designs that they thought would be suitable. This was unsuccessful and they soon turned instead to small batch production aimed at the private client. It proved to be a good move and has stabilised the business well.
Throughout this time until the present, David has worked in Wiltshire for three days a week, spending the rest of his time back in Wales where he designs and produces prototypes.
Batch productionTrannon now have a workforce of six makers and the making process is largely independent of David and Roy. On average, they produce batches of around 60, but could go as high as 100 if need be. Each maker takes the whole batch from start to finish, working on all the different components and assembly, and finally marking each piece in the batch with his or her own initials.
The batch-production process has a direct effect on the way David designs. "The design of all the pieces is dependant on how a piece can be produced", he explained. "We are geared up to doing specific things here, which is why we don't make cabinets - it is quite a different activity and would call for a very different type of workshop."
The emphasis for Trannon has always been on chairs which has proved to be highly successful over the years. Since its inception, the Rattan Recliner has sold approximately 500 pieces - at the current price of £900 including the footstool, this makes good business sense.
MarketingTrannon attend about eight shows a year and, although this means a considerable amount of hard work, they regard the effort as worthwhile and an important part of their marketing strategy. "The shows produce 50% of our business - we can offer customers an eight-week delivery date from the time of placing the order - it's quite a different process to making one-offs", David explained.
A vital element of Trannon's success is their accurate pricing in terms of their target client-group. "We provide a service for the client who is not looking for the cheapest, but also not the most expensive item - we are not at the top end of the market", David told me, "Our chairs range from about £200 to around £400. A typical customer would be looking for, say a table with four or six chairs and would expect to pay about £2000 to £2500". David, like many designer-makers, recognises that selling is the key, and he believes that the partnership between himself and Roy is successful because Roy, whilst understanding design, also has an excellent grasp of marketing, "He's very good at seeing things from the customer's point of view," David told me, "and that creates a tension between sales and production, which is vital."
The late 90s have been a good time for furniture makers and Trannon have benefited along with many others - but this has not come about by chance, as David explained, "The business is very sound now - the last eighteen months have really consolidated things. We are no longer in recession and we produce unpretentious stuff - it's the first time that there has been a critical mass of people who want precisely that." And Trannon are certainly the people to provide it.