Bend me, shape me

Crispin Forster and Gemma McGregor-Davies hit on the idea of curved furniture by accident, says Cayte Williams
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Crispin Forster and Gemma McGregor-Davies had one particularly strong impetus for setting up their furniture design business - their north London house. "We bought it two years ago. The builders had abandoned it half-done - I think the architect had run out of money - and it was basically a concrete shell," explains Forster.

Forster and McGregor-Davies, who studied sculpture and painting respectively at the Slade School of Art, saw their new house as a blank canvas. "I don't think the estate agents knew what to do with it," he says. "As soon as we walked in here, we saw that the light was amazing. If we hadn't found this building we wouldn't be making furniture, I'm pretty sure of that."

In two years, they have built up a successful business making brightly coloured curved furniture, a project that started in their kitchen. The lower part of the house consists of a two-storey-high studio, where light floods in from a south-facing wall of glass tiles. Jutting out half-way across, on a mezzanine level, is the kitchen floor, and from the breakfast table you can look down on the half-finished furniture in the workroom below. The effect is of eating croissants in a huge white gallery.

"There wasn't a kitchen and we couldn't afford to buy one," explains McGregor-Davies, "so we decided to build our own. It was a fantastic training ground. It's so functional and you've got to get everything right." Both McGregor-Davies and Forster worked as specialist painters, creating decorative effects in swanky houses. The work was occasional and well paid. "That's when we set up a workshop downstairs," says Forster. "Because of the studio we could work on site."

The reason why they started making curved furniture was completely accidental. The first kitchen unit was right next to a window and it wouldn't fit unless they rounded off the edges. It was a painstaking effort at first but they persevered, and now all the kitchen fittings have smooth, round edges. The effect is soft and welcoming in what could have been a cold, clinical space. When they realised that curves could be done, they made a "Rocket" broom cupboard, which still sits in the kitchen. It's a wonderful airforce-blue construct with tapering curved edges.

"This is that first piece of furniture we ever made," says McGregor-Davies proudly. "We thought, well, we made the kitchen, so what's to stop us carrying on throughout the house? We discovered a few techniques and realised we could do anything with these shapes. We did a series of prototypes over eight months just for ourselves, but it only became commercial when some friends saw our kitchen and asked us to build them one."

Forster and McGregor-Davies are unusual in that neither had any experience of furniture-making before they started. At Slade, Forster made abstract sculpture out of latex, aluminium and wood based on everyday functional objects, and it was here that he discovered the paint finishes that they use on all their furniture. Add McGregor-Davies's grasp of colour to his sense of proportion and you have a recipe for success. "People are always asking us exactly how we do it, but it's a trade secret" says Forster. What they will admit to is using ten layers of pliable birch wood to make the curved edges, which they varnish and glue together. Finally, they apply a special car polish on top of several layers of paint, which results in a dense, rich colour on smooth, sleek curves.

Once they realised what was possible they launched their company last year at the London trade show, 100% Design. "By then we had already sold a few pieces to real clients, not just friends," continues McGregor-Davies. "We made prototypes for the show and built up contacts from working in interior design. We started building up a client list and then a really steep learning curve began about the business."

Their house is full of wonderful first attempts. "Bongo" chests of drawers, "Bagel" tables and "Molar" wardrobes, in pistachio green, soft lilac or a soothing sea blue, turn functional furniture into something far more gentle on the eye. An S-shaped "Windswept" filing cabinet sits in the living room next to a rounded stand for the TV. None of these products were the result of market research or consumer testing. "We initially just wanted something different for ourselves," explains Forster. "We wanted free-standing furniture that counteracted the linear world we're all forced into using - A4 paper, square televisions, rectangular video-recorders. We wanted to balance curves between what is aesthetically right and what is functional without losing too much space. It's a balance between something different and something useful."

Even the prints and paintings on the wall - by McGregor-Davies and her family - are huge, colourful canvases marked with straight lines and curves. The duo's talent for all things circular has even spread to the "curtains" in the bedroom. The windows are too deep-set for conventional drapes, so McGregor-Davies has made big circles of foam and wood which attach to the window frames with Velcro. The whole effect is of a light, airy space punctuated with bright blocks of colour.

Apart from their sales to Liberty, Forster and McGregor-Davies prefer working directly for clients, as the labour they put in makes the furniture costly. Add to that a shop's mark-up, and the prices hit the roof. "We offer any colour," explains McGregor-Davies, "and often visit people to give them a colour consultation."

Forster and McGregor-Davies's furniture is quite expensive - from pounds 600 to pounds 1,600 - but you can pick up a "Molar" birch lamp stand for pounds 130, original models for which are scattered about the house. The only thing they've made that is strictly angular is their huge bed. "It's such a massive thing that any curves would make it even bigger," says McGregor-Davies. Even so, even their friends are hooked - they're starting to commission them, too.

You can catch Crispin Forster and Gemma McGregor-Davies at 100% Design in October. For details, call 0181 240 5070. For private commissions, call 0171 226 8074.

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