Right from the outset the Bodging Milano project attracted considerable interest among fellow designers, and much attention from the design press. On their arrival at Clissett Wood the team were met by Grant Gibson, editor of the Craft Council's 'Crafts Magazine'. Grant had come down from London that morning to interview Gudrun Leitz and her new recruits; he then returned at the end of the week just as the final pieces were being finished.
Here is the article Grant wrote for the May/June 2010 issue of 'Crafts' :
The Bodgers' Parade: A group of leading designers went on retreat to Clissett Wood in Herefordshire to be taught the craft of green wood turning.
Grant Gibson went along to kibitz.
Photography by Jason Orton
The whole future of the crafts turns on the question of design. If designers will only come to recognise it the crafts can restore to them what the workmanship of certainty in quantity-production denies them: the chance to work without being tied hand and foot by a selling price: the chance to design in freedom. There is nothing more difficult or more necessary for the modern designer to attempt.
David Pye, craftsman, thinker, teacher and writer, in 'The Nature and Art of Workmanship'
It would be wonderful to report that Pye's theories on the relationship between craft and industrial design - the workmanship of risk and certainty respectively - is the topic of conversation as my taxi rumbles along the country roads of Herefordshire and up the muddy track to Clissett Wood, but Jerry, my driver, has other things on his mind. 'I'm really keen to see this place,' he tells me, genuinely excited. 'I've heard it's a bit hippie.' And as he pulls up, it's not hard to see why the local rumour mill might be churning. Led by Gudrun Leitz, the venue runs six-day workshops teaching the craft of bodging (or green wood turning).
The site is dominated by a pair of tents held in place by a framework of curving timber. The larger, open-sided one acts as the workshop. A series of pole lathes run along its perimeter and a set of shave horses through the middle. The smaller one is more enclosed, holding a kitchen (with a kiln-cum-oven) and eating area. Further into the woods is a clutch of lean-tos complete with plastic tarpaulin roofs where hardier souls attending the course can sleep overnight if they so desire. A compost
toilet is housed in a shed a little way down the track. Hi-tech this most definitely is not.
I'm here to watch a group of designers - Amos Marchant, Carl Clerkin, William Warren, Gareth Neal, Gitta Gschwendtner, Chris Eckersley, Rory Dodd, Suzanne Barnes and Dave Green - step away from the milling machines and CAD programmes to learn a new skill. Unlike the usual pupils at Clissett Wood, however, they will be learning in public. Not only am I here, shoving a tape recorder under their noses as theyre trying to concentrate on turning a chair leg, but their completed products will be taken to the most important design exhibition in the world, the Milan Furniture Fair, as part of Designersblock's show at Spazio Revel, a week after they leave here.
The project started when Eckersley was commissioned to design a seat for Dave Green's Coventry-based furniture manufacturing company, Sitting Firm. 'I kept telling Dave he ought to do a modern take on a traditional Windsor chair. Eventually he agreed that if I designed something he'd make it and that's what we did. Then I thought I'd research the whole thing a bit more.' An internet sweep led him to Clissett Wood, where he attended a course. 'When I was here I thought all my pals would like this, so I just started telling people and everybody wanted to come,' he says. One of the names in his address book was Dodd, the co-founder of Designersblock, and the idea of taking the pieces to Milan was forged.
As I arrive a number of the group are drinking tea in the kitchen and, while jokes are being cracked, a sense of tension is palpable. Marchant is nervously fingering a plastic folder of tools. 'I didn't know what we'd need, so I brought some measuring instruments along,' he explains. Clerkin, Neal and Warren are debating their knowledge of green ash. And then the formidable Leitz enters. Originally from south-west Germany, she started her professional life as a modern language teacher. 'I knew I wanted to do craft when I was young,' she tells me. 'But I allowed myself to be pushed into becoming a teacher. I decided in my mid-twenties that it wasn't right.' By the mid-80s she was attending furniture making evening classes, subsequently working for a company in Bath. 'Then I went on a leisure course in Wales with a chap called Tim Wade and I realised that I wanted to work with trees not with machines. I didn't like the pressure of being quick and the materials being mainly MDF.'
She and three other partners bought Clissett Wood in 1994, providing her with an opportunity to combine her teaching and traditional making background. 'We only use hand-tools here. I have a chainsaw but I don't have cordless jigsaws - you could easily sneak back into using powertools,' she says. 'I love the peace and quiet. When you're working by hand it is a sort of slower rhythm. It's very therapeutic. You start relaxing and your mind is on the work. It's very special I think.'
Before a tour of the facilities begins, the designers are asked what their expectations of the week are. Most appear to have a vague notion of tweaking a Windsor chair in mind but are unwilling to commit until they discover more about the process. Perhaps ominously for the assembled throng, Leitz warns: 'You may have to leave your ideas of perfection behind.' This message is amplified as she shows an example of the country seat made by Phillip Clissett, the local craftsman this wood is now named after, created using the same wet/dry techniques they'll be employing. It's created from straight poles of ash, split and turned on a pole lathe, and she points to the timber. '[It] wasn't great. Either he didn't have very good ash at the time or he bought a certain quality and it didn't matter to him. Clissett also didn't fuss because if you measure up you find there's a quarter inch difference in the major components.'
After this we're escorted down the track to investigate the wood on site and view a vernacular timber-framed barn she and a team of pupils constructed over a three month period. Once again she highlights the slight flaws in the craftsmanship, alluding to blemishes created by an inadvertently wielded axe. 'It doesn't matter a hoot. In fact it adds something to the whole because you see the way the piece was made - history hasn't been sanded away and eradicated.' And from there she starts getting into the nitty-gritty of technique: how to use a bow saw correctly ('Blades will often wander - at the moment Im checking the cut and not the frame'); the position to adopt when cleaving a log so the axe doesn't slip and go through your leg; adjusting the frame of the shave horse; using the draw knives; and manipulating the extraordinary pole lathes. There's a lot of information to take in. I turn to Clerkin and, as casually as possible, ask him if he's feeling confident. He stares into the middle distance and, barely audibly, whispers simply: 'No.'
After lunch they begin to work. From an amateur psychologist's point of view it's fascinating to see how the members of the group respond to a new, slightly intimidating situation. Warren and Neal jump straight on the shave horses joined rather more cautiously by Green, Barnes and Gschwendtner. Marchant is the first to brave the pole lathe, while Dodd and Eckersley join forces to saw and then cleave a log. Watching them struggle through the timber with a bow saw immediately makes everyone realise how easy Leitz made this look and exactly how difficult the next few days are going to be. Clerkin meanwhile elects to do the washing-up in the kitchen. The noise inside the camp noticeably lowers as they concentrate on the task at hand. It's time for me to leave...
In principle the distinction between the two different kinds of workmanship is clear and turns on the question: 'Is the result predetermined and unalterable once production begins?'
David Pye, 'The Nature and Art of Workmanship'
On my return things are very different. It's obviously been a long week and Leitz, who spends the final afternoon shuttling from maker to maker solving problems as she goes, confirms there have been occasions when they've worked 14 hour days. From her point of view it's been 'great, challenging, really interesting. They have such high motivation and came with such clear ideas.' Hold on. Clear ideas? When I was last here, there was lots of talk of discovering what they could do with these traditional techniques. 'We all talked very nobly on the first day about listening to the materials and finding what the processes can do,' confesses a slightly stressed Warren, who is straining to get his chair glued and finished in time. 'But in a week there really isn't enough time to take all that on board. I'm forcing ideas about Windsor chairs onto the process and it's a stubborn fit sometimes.'
But I'm quibbling. Some fascinating and very different chairs are emerging, the majority with at least a faint echo of a Windsor. With the clock ticking down all of them are making last-minute adjustments. Aesthetically, Warren's and Neal's would appear to be the most ambitious. The former has, in his own words, elected to 'pervert' the Windsor chair, by making the spindles and back come off the legs rather than the seat. The latter has made a sinuous two-seater. Inspired by the archetypal pub chair, it has beautifully detailed legs, with a traditional back and a radiused seat. Both, it seems, took to the pole lathing like a politician to a dodgy expenses claim form. And I sense too that all of them have discovered a new appreciation of the workmanship of risk. 'It's really nice not to have any time to make decisions,' opines Neal, as he shaves an arm for his bench into shape. 'It's quite satisfying - you just have to get on with it, commit and do it. If it's not right, so be it. Whereas in the studio I often spend hours on a sketch book.' While many of the designers, it transpires, came with a plan, most were forced to revise them. Marchant had been experimenting with double-curvature steam bending, only to discover the piece didn't have time to fully dry and cure. As we speak he's busy changing the bow that was going to be his back into his rocker, and his rocker into his back. 'It's really been about being flexible,' he says. 'It's not the same as being in the workshop. You're using live material and it's got its own ideas of what it wants to do.'
Clerkin, busy trying to work out how to fix the back he's made on to the chair itself, confirms: 'It's been brilliant. I wouldn't say it's always been enjoyable though. It can be really frustrating.' Perhaps this sense of frustration has been magnified by the group's inability to heed Leitz's warning about seeking perfection. A few are busy using illicit pieces of sandpaper in an effort to get the perfect finish; Warren is fretting about how to prevent the spindles of his frame touching the back of his seat; and Gschwendtner has suddenly realised she's put her back rest on the wrong side of her bench.
As they rush to finish their pieces, it's probably too soon for them to assess what they've learned from the experience but it has obviously given a few some food for thought. 'I've learned what a valuable commodity timber is because every bit you split is used,' says Neal. 'One bit becomes a rail, the next becomes a spindle, even the shavings go on the fire to keep you warm. You get so much product out of a small bit of wood.' 'I'm sure it will influence the choice of our projects... possibly our work... possibly our lives,' chimes Marchant a little wistfully. 'I've always had to try to explain why my work is London-centred. And if it isn't London-centred this would be one way of doing it. You appreciate the sustainability of the traditional methods - rediscovering the intelligence of those methods is a lesson in itself.' At a time when design has never been so removed from making, perhaps the fightback starts here.
After all, as David Pye once wrote: Workmanship and design are extensions of each other.