To Infinity and beyond!

We’re on the cliffs above Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight. Behind us, to the north, the skies are bruised and heavy with the threat of approaching rain. But before us, the glass top of a table — part-silvered by the autumn sun — reflects the passage of billowing clouds as they catch the wind in their huge sails and trail their shadows southwards over the mirrored sea, over the horizon, and over the edge of the glass. From up here, you’d swear that you can see forever.

Bright outlook
The table, Infinity +1, is the work of Jason Heap. Just 21, he recently graduated from Lincoln University’s BA Furniture course, and has now been shortlisted in the furniture category of the 2007 Wood Awards (see p46). “I’m just starting out, so all the attention’s really taken me by surprise,” he says, with the look of a man about to pinch himself. But the Wood Awards are known for their focus on contemporary work and originality, so their attention is no accident — which is more than can be said of Jason’s choice of career.

“I started out studying Sports Technology at Loughbrough,” he explains. But instead of a course that combined his interest in sport and design, he found himself in a more academic environment than suited him. It was time for a rethink. “I asked myself, ‘What did I really enjoy at school?’ I’d always loved Design Technology,” and Lincoln attracted him because the degree was new and sounded exciting: his is only the second graduating year, and the first crop of graduates produced a finalist in Cabinet Maker’s Young Designer of the Year awards.

Jason Heap interview 1 Jason Heap interview 2 Jason Heap interview 3
It’s a sad reflection on the way that woodworking is taught in schools, though, that Jason felt poorly prepared for his course: “I went to university never having sharpened a plane, and barely having picked one up. A lot of the machinery was off limits at school, and the actual making of things was only a small part of the work.” Despite the curriculum’s lack of practical encouragement, Jason experimented with different tools and materials by himself. This creative curiosity found a ready outlet at Lincoln, where there was no shortage of opportunity for experimentation. The focus, he explains, was on exploring ideas: “They just said, ‘Go play’.”
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Paper planes

It was this atypical approach to teaching that gave Jason the courage to attempt something like Infinity +1. The design was sparked by seeing leaves of veneer stacked on a shelf. That started him thinking about laminating and wondering, ‘What if?’ Fiddling about with strips of paper produced the woven planes of the original Infinity — six conjoined figures-of-eight made from ply and veneered with maple. Dissatisfied with the physical and aesthetic strength of the design, he returned to his trusty bits of paper and came up with the five-loop design of Infinity +1, the culmination of two years’ work.

The form is both complex and simple: made up from 0.8mm aviation ply, bought in 4 x 4ft sheets and knife cut into strips, laminated and formed, and veneered with American black walnut. The only machine Jason uses in the construction process is the bag press, if you can call that a machine. There’s only one jig involved, too, because the five loops are made of 10 arches joined in pairs, and each arch is identical. Part of the cleverness of the design, then, is that it’s more replicable than it might at first appear, and in spite of its slender lines, the plywood gives the form a remarkable strength.

Jason Heap's shortlisted glass top table
The Wight stuff

I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the photographs taken up on Blackgang Chine and wondering, “But where’s his workshop?” Well, inspiration doesn’t come from the workshop. At least, not for Jason. An islander born and bred, he had what he calls a traditional upbringing. From his father — who works for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) — he’s inherited an appreciation of tradition, conservation, and harmony; values that his woodwork has allowed him to recognise, explore and express.

At university, one of the tasks he enjoyed most was constructing ‘mood boards’ — montages of images that had a resonance for him and which created a sort of mind map. “I thought I was very diverse,” he laughs, “with lots of different sources of inspiration,” but the boards were always full of nature, animal life, landscapes — and lots of water.

So no, Jason doesn’t find inspiration in a workshop. It’s easy to imagine that, like the reflexive form of Infinity +1, the source of his creativity is both complex and simple — that he sees a world reflected in the glass of that even upbringing which has taught him to value nature, and that his response to what he sees is made through the medium of wood.

Though he steers clear of misleading terms like ‘eco-friendly’, he assures us that he’s sustainably aware. His third-year dissertation asked whether it would be possible for him to work exclusively with sustainable British timber. The answer, he admits, was, ‘No’, on the grounds of the restrictions it would impose on his freedom to design and to earn a living! However, he does believe that he can compromise between design and conservation provided that his materials are sourced carefully, and that their production helps local communities.

That’s all very well on an individual basis, but does Jason believe that woodwork can change the way that others see the world? “People say, ‘there’s something about timber’. That’s because wood is a living thing, and woodworking is an extension of that process.” His furniture, then, is a type of celebration of the life of the material itself. To be a woodworker, it seems, and to appreciate woodwork, is to take part in a conversation that describes a sense of things.

It’s certainly a cosy idea, but when so many people are happy to unthinkingly take the benefits of mass-produced products, why would they be willing to give the appreciation that’s due to the design and construction of his furniture? “That doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm,” Jason insists. “I love the thought of my furniture being out there, of people using it, and I know that there are those who’ll appreciate it.”

Happily, he’s probably right. Infinity +1 attracted plenty of attention at the New Designers show in the Oxo Tower, and has certainly been appreciated by one contemporary antiques dealer who bought the original Infinity prototype for his ‘future antiques’ collection.

Jason Heap looking out to sea
Back to the beginning

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. Having leapt ahead creatively thanks to the inspiration and freedom afforded by Lincoln, Jason now feels the need to consolidate his practical skills. He’s taken a job with Litton in Dorset, where he’ll be working as a cabinetmaker and draftsman producing high-end commercial furniture. “I’m delighted with how things have gone,” he says of the eventful summer, “but there’s definitely a need now to go back and practice and polish all of the woodworking skills.”

The skies are dark all around us now, and the glass of the table top is empty. It’s time we were packing up and getting on. But you know, for a while there, it felt like we could see forever.

David Coke
David Coke, art historian, lecturer and founder of Design Factor, is one of three judges in the furniture category
Wood Awards

Now in their fifth year, the Wood Awards are best known for promoting outstanding design and craftsmanship in wood in the field of architecture. Last year, however, a furniture category was added in order to widen the scope of work being recognised. “There are very few national awards for furniture,” says David Coke, one of the three furniture judges, who hopes that the new category will encourage a greater appreciation of British design innovation.

manufacturing techniques in wood are happening here at the moment,” David maintains, “but appreciation of British work seems to be lacking a bit compared to other countries. I’m convinced, though, that these awards will raise its profile.” With the possibility of several additional furniture categories in next year’s awards to encourage even more entries, the future certainly looks promising. “And if we can get more young people like Jason Heap interested,” David enthuses, “that will be great. We were hugely impressed by the simple brilliance of his piece, as well as the green credentials.”

Jerwood Sculpture by Andrwe Trotman
Made in Warwickshire by Andrew Trotman, the Jerwood Sculpture Park seating set is made of English oak and sweet chestnut. Exploring relationships between mass, balance, and strength, the work features curved forms with unusual strength produced by steaming and springing techniques. Designed to be both thought-provoking and playful, the set is not only shortlisted in the furniture category, but is also a finalist for the Best Use of British Timber award.
The lightbox bench designed by Alum Heslop
The Lightbox Bench set is the other entry shortlisted for the furniture category, and was designed by Alun Heslop from Surrey. Made with European oak, the paired units are connected by stainless steel and their arrangement is intended to stimulate interaction between sitters. The slight angle of the seating boards allows rain to disperse easily, preventing pooling on the surface.
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