Monday 01 June 2009
Andrea Hargreaves takes a look at the extraordinary career of Matthew Burt
Matthew Burt is an intriguing man, a complex mixture of business savvy and risk taker, the Richard Branson of furniture making you could say. We meet at the Crafts Study Centre of the University of the Creative Arts at Farnham, Surrey, which is the opening venue of a touring exhibition that is set to continue until 2012.
Now I wouldn't normally comment on a designer-maker's attire, but he shuns the normal garb of slightly sawdusty fleece and/or rumpled shirt and tie pulled hastily out of a drawer for a more studied but casual look, on this very cold day wearing what appeared to be three layers of Neapolitan icecream-hued heavy cotton and zipped tops which accentuate his youthful appearance. Like John Makepeace in his bright tailored shirts and adventurous ties, the man has style, a nd this style is personified in the challenging pieces that he makes.
With a workshop and apprentices who agree to work for him for six years, he must be doing very well, I suggest. And Matthew is nothing if not candid as he replies: "It's a lifetime's dance with debt, in so much as making furniture of an experimental and one-off nature is fraught with pitfalls and very difficult to do economically. You can't predict the time taken to make a piece and you're up against its perceived value. My hourly rate is based on my local garage - not a BMW one - because it has similar overheads to myself and has the same amount of machinery. I want to feel comfortable with myself. I'm not an art maker. I like my involvement with the market place. It makes me feel good in the morning."
He continues: "I thinking of writing a book where each chapter would start by stating my amount of overdraft. This kind of weird cash flow we go through is common to every business. That a piece of furniture might take 40-400 hours is what puts a value on it. It doesn't need a cautious approach, it needs a maker, a client and an idea to make it happen.
"It's a very subversive relationship. I love that danger."
The majority of his clients, he says, are dual-income professionals. "Not by any means super rich, they have values that make them want to invest."
Chicken and vegetablesHe says he and his family have, like many other makers, "survived on commitment and passion," then tells a story which emphasises the drive and entrepreneurialism that a maker needs if he or she is to overcome the odds.
"Once we were so overdrawn on every account we had that we couldn't buy groceries so I wrung a chicken's neck and dug vegetables from the garden and was accused by my daughter of being a murdering b*****d. Then I suddenly heard the rumble of an expensive car's exhaust. Its driver got out and said, 'I hear you make furniture.' We had diversified into making garden pavilions and he said 'I'll have one of those. How much is it?' '£6,000,' I said. Well, he went on and bought a £3,000 Silhouette table as well. That got us out of a hole.
"Most makers will be familiar with this. Most makers would find it difficult to command the hourly rate of their garage. We need to devise, make, administrate, market, sell and do after sales. Each of those has to be done with the same commitment as the making.
"We have a team. Celia, my wife, is strategically vital in managing the finance and helping with marketing.
The Matthew Burt, Idea to Object book which accompanies the current exhibition of that name contains his essential philosophy. He says there: "As a designer-maker I am culturally committed to the magic that is making and its frequent habitat, the shed/workshp. I'm a lifelong fan of our heritage of 'people in sheds'. Such people, their ideas and the things they make, have been, and continue to be, a cultural force in our nation. Arguably their post enlightenment philosophy and curiosity kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps a blog from the suburbs will set us a path through global warming. From John Harrison and his clocks, Josiah Wedgwood with his pots to those who don their anoraks and dedicate themselves to the reinterpretation of the dovetail, I take my hat off to you.
Collective efforts"My furniture and my workshop seek to emulate their independence of thought and action. It is fed by their collective ideas and efforts. The cracks and crevices of our economy in which they flourish is my habitat. Their intermingling with science, engineering, mathematics, aesthetics and metaphorics is vital to my continued wellbeing."
The exhibition features 23 pieces from 13 makers, seven including himself from his own workshop, four ex-apprentices who now run their own businesses and two from workshops he respects.
"All have been designed by me in response to speculative design briefs that reflect my current response to the philosophical, ecological, cultural, financial and practical parameters that frame my designing. All of them seek to add something to design evolution. I aim to draw the user/viewer into the 'preciousness' of the material, its intrinsic strengths, quirks and beauty. I also seek to do this with environmental responsibility, often using smaller pieces of timber that are more economically and sustainably harvested, reconfiguring them through stacking, laminating or texturing, drawing the eye and finger towards the jewel-like surface or looking straight into its time and growth end grain."
Sitting among the pieces, he says: "An exhibition like this allows you to reassess creativity and channel it to what one is interested in doing and can make profit from.
"Speculative work is where I cock my leg. One, I work in response to a client's brief and two, I work where the response to a brief is set by myself. The two inform and feed each other. What I have done here is say this is what I'm interested in now."
The exhibition started in November two months after Lehman Brothers went down. "We noticed a decline in approaches from clients. We've sold two or three pieces and the Craft Study Centre here has bought a piece for their permanent collection, and we've had spin offs. It has enabled me to explore thoroughly areas that are of interest to me.
"Essentially I see timber as recycled sunshine and rainwater. Thirty years ago I was infatuated with timber. Now that has developed into a deeply held love-affection for timber."
Apprentices for futureMatthew enjoys a close relationship with his apprentices, as evidenced by their contribution to this exhibition, but has just had to make two of them redundant.
"That was very sad", he says, going on to explain that as well as his own workshop in Wiltshire he can draw on satellite workshops started by ex-employees.
Of his apprentices he says: "I'm 100% investing in my future as well as theirs. We have to invest in youth. You have to be reckless, ready to rattle antlers up on the hill and as you approach 60 prepare for others to rattle on our behalf.
"Perhaps the most interesting part of the journey has been persuing excellence and dealing with firms that don't understand but we now have a complement of contractors that enable us to get closer to our aspiration."
So what has he still to achieve? "In future I'm hoping to build a workshop in a wood nearby and build it from the wood, and build furniture from it and combine a showroom too. I'm investigating how to finance this. We will have to use our imagination. It'll mean forming a partnership with the local landowner and forging partnerships. I'm very excited by it. I'd like a regenerative woodland project alongside it and an estate sawmill may be moved as well." He also envisages a woodchip burning system which would heat the local community.
"There's a very indulgent side to furniture making, which may be bling for bling's sake, but I'm interested in producing relevant and appropriate pieces that reflect the needs of our time.
"I may be fortunate and be able to add to design history. I've always wanted to take the Arts & Crafts baton and run with it into the 21st century."
On the strength of this exhibition and the work he has done over the past 30 years, I don't think that there's much doubt that he'll be running for a good few years yet, and in some very stylish, head-turning but practical footwear.