Country & Garden: Sit down. Make yourself at home

This man's barn is full of adandoned objects - all the better to make beautiful garden furniture with
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The Independent Culture
We have finally carried the garden benches inside under cover. I can't remember actually sitting on any of them all summer. But the idea of sitting is relaxing, even if it never happens.

A garden without seats does not give out that air of quiet repose which all good gardens should have. But at this time of the year, when the leaves sweep down from the beech trees to gather in sullen heaps, the seats take on the abandoned aspect of lonely vagrants.

Seats are for sitting on. That's what my favourite dictionary, Mr Bailey's 18th-century Interpreter of Hard Words, tells me at any rate. But, in a garden they are for more than that. They decorate the place. Or should. There is no excuse for buying an ugly bench when there are so many good- looking ones around.

For a while, it seemed as though gardens were never going to escape from the Lutyens lounger, the expansive, curly-backed bench that the Edwardian architect, Edwin Lutyens, designed for the terraces, gazebos and vistas of his rich clients. When the formal style came back into fashion, with box-edged parterres and borders in out-of-focus blue and pink, the Lutyens bench made a big come back. But there is life beyond Lutyens, especially now that there are so many designers and craftsmen turning their attention to the garden and ways to embellish it.

The last garden seat we acquired was made by a young bodger, who worked in various local hazel coppices. During the autumn and winter, he cut green hazel sticks. Then, using nothing more high-tech than a pole lathe, he magically transformed the sticks into chairs and benches, the thickest trunks making the legs, with thinner branches bent and splayed to form decorative stretchers and backs. The seats are straight hazel poles, slightly thicker than bean poles, nailed lengthwise along the frame. It fits comfortably into our ragged landscape.

His benches work because the form that they take leads seamlessly from the materials he uses. That is also true of the very different pieces produced by the furniture maker and designer, Steve Handley, at his barn workshop in Leicestershire. The shape and style of his quirky tables and chairs are dictated by what he describes as the "unending need to resurrect abandoned objects" (often agricultural) and give them a different function, a different meaning.

Heeaavvyyy! you might think. Must a garden seat be symbolic? Do we have to take recycling this far? Do we have to think Art with a big A when all we want is to slump in reasonable comfort outside with a cup of coffee in our hands? No to all those questions. But Mr Handley's way with furniture is pleasantly capricious and I'd prefer to look at the mighty chair he calls "16 Hands Irish Draught" than a production-line teak number any day.

His chairs are throne-like in their dimensions. He doesn't make them with gardens specifically in mind, but the materials he uses - wood, willow, rush - are robust enough to survive an outdoor life and some of his pieces are eclectic enough to rate as sculpture as well as seat.

He trained first as a sculptor and taught for a while, but in the dangerous year he hit 40, he abandoned education and art and set himself up as a dealer, buying and selling clothes (pre-1960s), agricultural implements, anything that took his fancy. His barn is still stuffed with the things he picked up at this period: old lace-up boots set surreally up in the rafters, pots of wooden spoons, ladders from the Lincolnshire wolds, bits of wooden hand carts.

"I got the scavenging habit early," he explained. "I used to go with my Dad, on Saturdays, foraging on the tips in Stoke-on-Trent. We'd come away with quarry tiles which he used to make our garden path or wood to make a shed."

That was before the word recycling had entered the language, but it gave Steve Handley a kind of direction that, in different forms, he's taken ever since.

As an artist, he'd say that his heroes were Samuel Palmer and Marc Chagall. But allotment sheds and pigeon lofts are what's in his mind when he's making furniture. At the time, he remembers being faintly mortified by the expeditions to the tip he made with his father. Now he salutes the resourcefulness, the untutored creativity, the gifts that were taken for granted by people of his father's generation.

He's not nostalgic for Stoke-on-Trent though. Home is now this patch where Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire meet, where he can look out of the barn window and see ploughed fields rather than waste tips. "You know how dogs circle before they sit themselves down," he said. His terrier, Samuel Digger Barkston, happened to be doing just that on an old armchair in front of the pot-bellied stove. "That's me. This is my dog spot."

To see Steve Handley's furniture or to commission a piece, contact him at 24 Rushworth Avenue, West Bridgeford, Nottingham NG2 7LF (tel: 01159 820427)