20 Minutes with Rupert Phelps archive
Wednesday 27 February 2013
Rupert Phelps is the brains behind Uncle Furniture, the company he established after graduating from the Chippendale School. Now, based in London, Uncle Furniture is synonymous with beautiful handcrafted pieces for commission and exhibition
Uncle Furniture operates with the utmost respect for the satisfaction of its clients, producing tailor-made functional art forms to be enjoyed for generations. With a penchant for clean minimal styling and a love for the natural contours of its timber, Uncle Furniture's unique signature is well and truly embossed on the
world of bespoke design.
F&C: What are you working on at the moment?
Rupert Phelps: I am currently building a Captain's bed with matching bedside cabinets - requiring a lot of drawers and dovetails. I'm using locally sourced sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus); the grain in the wood creates a beautifully elegant mix of meandering lines and ripples. The detailing is in American cherry (Prunus serotina) to contrast and highlight the sycamore's gorgeous natural colours. I am also working on new concepts and designs for the 21st Century Furniture exhibition at MillineryWorks, Islington, which runs from 10 Feb-10 Mar, 2013.
F&C: Why did you become a furniture maker?
RP: I've always had a passion for great-looking functional furniture and was drawn to the versatility and natural form of wood. I'm one of those later-in-life career changers and moved from a sedentary laptop lifestyle to become a furniture maker. I haven't regretted the change and love the creative buzz of the entire process from conception to completion.
F&C: What inspires you?
RP: I love the geometric design aesthetic of Midcentury Modern; the likes of Eames, Mies Van Der Rohe, Peter Womersley and Finn Juhl. I also get very energised when I see unimaginative furniture or pieces manufactured from cheap materials, particularly when they end up in highbrow stores. I had a look around the Harrods furniture department a couple of weeks ago and was amazed by the amount of chipboard on display. It's an incentive to go on and make beautiful, well-made, natural pieces - if a client has been involved in the design from the outset they will have a much stronger emotional bond with the finished article.
F&C: If your furniture were music, what kind of music would it be?
RP: Sufjan Stevens meets The Beastie Boys meets Amii Stewart.
F&C: What do you admire in the craft at the moment?
RP: There are some amazing designer/makers working now, with really interesting ideas. It means we all have to raise our game, to create our own unique voices and styles.
F&C: Who has been your greatest mentor/role model?
RP: Anselm Fraser, the principal at the Chippendale School of Furniture. He gave me a brilliant platform for starting out in the industry and for getting excited about what materials are available.
I work in a busy workshop, and there is a terrific rapport amongst all the cabinetmakers, for discussing design ideas and techniques.
F&C: What comes first: design or technique?
RP: Usually design. Having said that, when I'm not working on a commissioned piece, I love the freedom to experiment and create interesting features as I go along. I recently built my 'Square' coffee table from hundreds of box-sections made from reclaimed wood. The initial design layout was there, but I didn't really know what the final outcome was going to look like until I'd finished. When it works, it works really well, and is a very rewarding experience. One of my designs, 'The Hungarian', used a distinctive single plank of olive ash (Fraxinus excelsior) bent through 360° to form a continuous frame, and this was meticulously drafted in CAD before I'd even touched a piece of wood. However, I only settled on the method for kerfing and steaming the piece during the construction phase; often it is the timber itself that will dictate and inspire the most appropriate manufacturing solution.
F&C: Are we too obsessed with outdated modes of work?
RP: I think chiselling and manual planing are never going to go away. The physical skills and ability to manipulate materials are too important to the craft. But you do have to move with the times for speed reasons, so the likes of a biscuiter or Domino machine are great for quick and strong construction.
F&C: How or where do you exhibit your work?
RP: I find the best exhibition areas are people's homes. Within this industry, you can try and sell a piece from a photo but in reality it is very difficult to get the total experience across. For well-crafted furniture nothing can compare with the ability to see and experience its texture and form.
I recently exhibited at the Celebration of Craftsmanship & Design in Cheltenham and will be back for the 21st Century Furniture exhibition from 10 February-10 March, 2013. If you haven't been to one of these fine furniture shows, you should really take a day out and go; the standards of craftsmanship are seriously extraordinary.
F&C: How comfortable are you with working at someone else's design?
RP: One of the things that I enjoy the most is working in tandem with a client to realise their vision for a particular piece of furniture. Understanding the space that the piece will occupy in the house, the aesthetic and functionality that they're after and how this particular item of furniture will react with the environment.
F&C: What's your creative process like?
RP: Sometimes natural, sometimes complicated. I like to live with a brief for a while before I even start on the design - I find inspiration and ideas surface when I least expect them to.
F&C: Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?
RP: To be a successful furniture maker you need to be both, and it's important not to define yourself as one or the other.
F&C: What's the practical process you undergo when moving through
the stages of a project?
RP: Tea, design, tea, construction, tea, tea, apply finish, tea, deliver, tea.
F&C: Do you think furniture making is in danger of disappearing?
RP: Never. There will always be a demand for unique and bespoke items of furniture, just as there will always be a demand for mass-manufactured pieces as well.
F&C: What advice would you give to someone starting out?
RP: Very few people get rich in this business, so make sure you really love what you're doing and good luck!
F&C: What irritates you about the industry?