New Age of Reason

It’s Saturday in High Wycombe. In 96 hours, Peter Rolfe’s writing desk has to be finished and in Cheltenham, ready for the opening of the Betty Norbury — the familiar shorthand for the annual Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design exhibition of which Betty is the curator. It’s a deadline that Peter can’t afford to miss: the exhibition is arguably the premier showcase for handcrafted furniture in the UK, and it’s his chance to show his work alongside luminaries such as David Savage and Martin Grierson. The trouble is that the desk is far from finished, with 11 drawers still to be made; worse still, he’s just broken one of their delicately curved ebony handles. Worst of all, though, is the late afternoon light that’s slanting through the workshop windows. It has given GW’s photographer, Justin Lambert, a fresh creative charge and ended Peter’s hopes of getting back to work.

It’s Betty minus 93. The tension, however, is only barely perceptible beneath what I suspect is Peter’s habitual air of quiet and studious intensity. Instead, it’s Carl Handy — Peter’s collaborator and, to some extent, his alter ego — who paces between the benches, bristling with the static of ideas waiting to be realised.

workshop Their friendship and working partnership is an interesting combination of pragmatism and idealism. Looking back, for example, you might say that Peter, now 33, came to furnituremaking by a very direct and logical route. A two-year HND in furniture design which — though Peter maintains that, “it didn’t really fit me for the real world” —led to his first job with Stewart Lindford in High Wycombe. Working for Stewart on traditional designs made from solid timber gave Peter that ‘real world’ apprenticeship he needed. And when he moved on to join Stuart Groves, where his work has involved veneering and lamination, that apprenticeship was renewed: “It’s been a good progression,” Peter says, “from the traditional to the modern.”
box closed box open
I’ll stake money that, one day, there’ll be a Rolfe retrospective, and that this jewellery box will be one of his signature pieces, not least because its fluid curving organic flower-form combines with the almost obsessive precision of Peter’s style to produce a surprising hybrid, a sort of mechanical botanical. The petals are made of oak with burr veneer on the outside, and open on brass hinges (that Peter had made, but then finished and shaped himself) to reveal a rich interior of bubinga and macassa ebony. Turn the tip of the bud, and a spindle in the core of the flower rotates, presenting magnets to the back of the maple drawers, whose backs also have concealed magnets; the like poles repel, and the draws slide open in a sudden, well...flowering! The box represents 180 hours of Peter’s time, but I’m afraid it’s too late to buy yourself a future Rolfe collectable — the box was also sold at last month’s Betty Norbury.
Carl meanwhile, who’s a couple of years younger, didn’t so much choose woodworking; instead, it rather seems as though woodworkingchose him. “I spent four years studying Applied Art, and came out thinking that meant I had to apply art to everything!” His aptitude would probably have lent itself to many disciplines, but wood seemed to be his natural medium: his grandfather was a site carpenter, and he’s always worked with wood. “It just seemed the best material. It has a life of its own — it’s natural and varied, but it can be shaped and worked. It’s a limitless material; it has soul and beauty. But then,” he admits, “I have a very romantic view of the woodworking trade! I don’t see it in clinical terms, as just a business.”
Despite their different approaches, as a team they’re working towards the same destination — their own workshop. “It’s about freedom: we want to work on things we want to do.” For Peter, that means being regarded not only as a craftsman who can make to order, but as a designer who can create. Though he mightn’t put it this way, the difference lies in being an artisan or an artist. It’s the age old problem of searching for genuine satisfaction and reward, and in this regard both Peter and Carl are part of that long garret tradition of artists who keep off the chill of necessity with the warmth of idealism. They even have a patron of sorts in the form of Stuart Groves, for whom they work by day, and who gives them space in his workshop and the facilities to pursue their own projects in their spare time.
broken draw
Broken draw “It’s just one of those things you have to contend with,” shrugged Peter, examining the broken handle. “And a good cabinetmaker is a good problem-solver. The skill, though, is to find the easiest route through a problem.” In the case of the handle, then, the easiest route is a dab of PVA; when it comes to dovetails, he reckons that the best solution is the router. It’s partly a question of time — “I machine dovetails because it takes five times longer to make them by hand” — and partly because the precision matches his style. “I defy anyone to make a crisper job of a dovetail working by hand. So no, I don’t feel the need to stick to traditional techniques. Besides,” he laughs, “what we’re doing now will be traditional in 50 years time when we’re using our laser-cutting hand routers.”
Enlightenment And time is the key. The desk already stands Peter in at more than 200 hours, an investment hidden in its design, which is deceptively simple (“I like to think of it as mature,” says Peter). Inevitably, though, the simplicity brings its own complexity because it shows up any flaws. MDF, biscuits and Dominoes, however, provide the machined-from-billet planes that make a perfect base for the desk’s macassa ebony veneer, its ebony stringing, and inlaid patterns of stained tulip. “A modern material and modern construction,” says Peter, running a hand over the 24 leaves that cover the top. “You couldn’t make this out of solid” — though in fairness the 11 wedge-shaped drawers running on their dovetailed sliders are made of oak.

This willingness to adopt modern materials and methods is central to his very rational approach to fine cabinetmaking: unlike Carl, who talks about the melody of working wood with hand tools (see p50), Peter says that he tends to use hand tools when power tools won’t do the job. Their different approaches, however, again find common ground in a view of their craft as a type of enlightenment. For, just as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment broke the hold of the Church by rejecting its traditional ideas and values in favour of the human paradigm, so they’re using their very real abilities to kick against the secular trinity of the twenty first-century ‘Church’ – consumption, consumerism, and commercialism.

For his part, Peter is defying a society in which mass-manufacturing is better remunerated than genuine creativity: “In the small circle of my existence, creativity is important,” and for his reward he has the thrill of designing something that provokes a reaction. “What pushes me on is the feeling of appreciation; listening to people’s comments gives me a buzz.” There’s a price to be paid for creative independence, of course: “I see myself always having to work as hard as I do now. It is all-consuming, and it’s definitely not about the money — though it’d be nice to earn a living,” he adds. Is that so unrealistic? “Yes. Not once you’ve got a name, perhaps, but breaking into the market” — actually getting people to look long enough to recognise the value of his brand of fine furniture — “that’s the problem.”

And that’s where Carl comes in, bucking the tide of unreasoning consumerism. “When I’m a consumer,” he says, “I look for the things that are made with skill and care, even if it means buying second-hand.” In the same way, he wants to produce work that will make people stop and think about the skill and craft that’s embodied in the thing itself. And that’s why the impending deadline is so important; that’s why the desk has to be there when the doors of the Betty Norbury open…

Postscript: Betty plus 24

The drawer was repaired, the drawers made, and after 260 hours of work the desk was finished and delivered to the show — and sold! What’s more the buyer has asked Peter to make a stool to match, and another desk has been commissioned, too. It’s even been suggested that the desk should be submitted for a guild mark – a Michelin star, if you like, conferred by the Worshipful Company of Furnituremakers. “Best of all, I got a lot of positive feedback on my design skills. I couldn’t have hoped for better!”

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