In the Workshop with Philip Koomen
Wednesday 08 February 2012
Derek Jones discovers there is as much going on outside the workshop of Philip Koomen as there is on the inside
Philip Koomen set up in business in 1975 at the age of 22 and
his early days were largely spent restoring antique furniture.
Not content with 'waiting for customers to make work interesting' he decided to do something himself to make the creative process more expressive and challenging.
He moved to Wheelers Barn, his current workshop in Oxfordshire in 1984, which at the time was a dilapidated farm building, thought to date back to the end of the 19th century. Nowadays it's showing all the signs of being a well-used workspace for the production of furniture.
There's a fine collection of old and not so old machines spread across the ground floor. The set up is dictated by the space available rather than consideration for efficient processing of timber. The ground floor also has showroom space which is used a number of times throughout the year for open days. For a location so far off the beaten track, Philip admits they do have a steady trickle of visitors, so the decision was made recently to open up an area to create an additional permanent showroom. Currently the first impression is far from attractive to anyone other than a woodworker.
With a cabinet shop on the first floor, it's not the most user friendly of set-ups. There's nothing unusual about this. Logistically the heavy weight machinery required for processing timber can only be sited at ground level in a building of this age and character. But in typical fashion he's adapted to the surroundings and accommodates the space with little resistance to what could be viewed as restrictions.
My overriding impression was one of a man who's a natural host to rational thought and calm persuasion. Nowhere in the Koomen handbook will it say 'go with the flow.' I rather suspect that the advice will be to make the flow work for you.
Leaving the Zen-like philosophy to one side for a moment, there's a common theme observed in the way Philip works. Concept, design and execution are all facilitated by a canny knack for observation and working smart. As locations go this is a gem. The typical country idyll that's had great influence on the way Philip has structured his thoughts to create a business model of old world inspiration and a 21st century demand for timeless craftsmanship.
Located on the edge of the Chilterns, close to chair bodging country and the home of the Windsor chair, it's no accident that Philip has taken inspiration from this classic piece.
Not though in the way you might expect. His furniture bears little resemblance to the Windsor chair. The reason behind its success is what has fuelled his creative desire to design and make furniture in the same way. "Vernacular designs such as the Windsor chair combine evolutionary design with the principle of unity in diversity."
Without doubt he's an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Having the ability to spot advantages when others might recoil from such limitations makes him the unlikeliest of maverick makers. Nearly all the material he uses is sourced from within a 30-mile radius of the workshop. A statistic that's echoed by his list of clients. The majority of which could be found within a stone's throw of the material. He recalls a period, a while ago, when his customers included the CEOs of M&S, Waitrose, Debenhams and BP.
About two years ago Philip reached his original goal. Six craftsmen all producing furniture, a long list of clients and order book to match.
As a consequence there was a huge amount of energy being put
into managing the day-to-day needs of a busy workshop.
Having arrived at the point he set out to reach all those years ago he decided to concentrate on what the business could become and not necessarily where the business he had built would naturally go. Part of his plan was to design furniture that could be bespoke but not entirely new every time - semi-bespoke, a core feature of his range since the mid-80s.
On the subject of customers Philip was transparent and direct with his analysis. "We provide a diagnostic service as much as anything else to clients. We're either the first or last stop." Inferring that either they know exactly what they want and where
to get it or have exhausted every
other channel. "It's important to understand where we fit into their buying process."
Around the workshop and showrooms there are almost as many maquettes and models as there are finished pieces, each one telling the story of development, improvement or plain old simple customers choice.
Model making is a major part of the design process here. Scaled models give way to 1:1s as the design evolves until a life size version is made suitable for templating. Discipline comes from having a clear image of the finished result before any material is cut. The confidence to do this comes from years of observing the material and an ability to predict the nature of the wood and its foibles.
One of Philip's most repeated designs is a chair with a cutting list of just 10 components. He uses it to explain the theory of adding value through design. The chair is different to anything you might find in the shop therefore adding value by its very appearance. The ten components, many of them interchangeable to suit a customer taste, are clearly designed with simplicity of making in mind.
The sum total is a product with complexity and gravitas. "If a design is strong enough and distinct from mass produced products it will stand out and justify the expense."
Conversely the craftsman's ethic is to add value through labour, sadly not something that is quite so easy to sell.
At the heart of a Philip Koomen piece is the selection of the timber of choice. From the moment a log is split the dialogue between maker and material begins. Ideas evolve from this dialogue. Conversion is a painstaking process. 3in, 2in and 1¼in are all that he seeks to produce. It can be wasteful but the thicker boards lend themselves to re-sawing should the need arise. Careful study is made of the material for chair legs and other structural components looking for signs of fast growth, which indicate strength but are noticeably harder to work.
Imported straight edged material is not dismissed. Used appropriately it makes perfect sense if he is to preserve the valuable source that is the inspiration behind each piece. James Willis and Steve Salt are the two full-time makers in the workshop now. Both supremely efficient and prolific in their output, they produce faultless examples of craftsmanship at an incredible rate without compromising the bespoke nature of the product. The need to downsize the workforce was hastened by the change in the economic climate.
For the last six years Philip has only had the tiniest of benches to work from - this is about to change to enable him to do more experimental and developmental work and I suspect, reacquaint himself with the process of working at the coalface.
Towards the end of our time with him he reached for a book of designer makers published 10 years ago.
Apart from being a who's who of the leading makers now, it could just as well have been a family album for any of the familiar faces that Philip cared to stop at and pass comment on. Makepeace, Grierson and Peters he respectively referred to as the elder statesmen. "I'm part of the second wave if you like that were inspired by them. We owe a lot to the work they did to establish a market at a time when none existed." The business as it stands now is 35 years in the making. "It takes at least 20 years to establish a name and a reputation."
The first, and what could be referred to as his signature piece, Pondlife Bench was made in 1998.
To date many more have been made, each one influenced by the first but in no way a replica. There are other designs that have proved popular but these are often limited by the availability of the material that inspired the piece. "Each time the piece is reproduced it will be a re-interpretation of the original but the overall concept remains the same."
Anyone thinking that handmade furniture isn't mainstream might be interested to hear that Philip's work appears regularly in popular media without much effort on his part. Along with two other makers he was interviewed recently for an article in The Independent. Today's designer makers receive more exposure and respect than was afforded the old guard and in the days when he was starting out, making him every bit a part of the establishment.
One client provided Philip with a windfall of walnut and commissioned a dining table to be made. On completion the daughter wanted a slice of the action and ordered something similar.
Finally the son, not wanting to miss out, commissioned a set of chairs, incorporating timber from the same tree. Needless to say, some judicial selection of timber was required to get the most out of the log.