I used to be a solicitor: Philip Hughes tells Jonathan Glancey how he walked out of his office and into the world of art school and workshops

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AFTER taking a degree in law and social sciences at Sussex University, Philip Hughes put on a suit and entered the legal profession. He lasted not quite a week. Eight years later, at the age of 29, Hughes is an inventive furniture designer on the brink of critical success. He is still learning craft skills and only just beginning to flex his pent-up imagination. He is living proof, however, that if making things - as opposed to administering - is in your blood, it is best to go where your heart tells you.

So, today, his 'office' is a nondescript, but well-lit, carpenter's workshop in Kilburn, north London. There, with plywood, forms, planes, saws and yacht-glue, he is shaping intriguing families of plywood chairs - 'furniture to go round corners' - characterised by swooping arms that soar from seat to seat.

'After the solicitor's office, I took off to New York and got a job working on the Brooklyn Bridge,' he says. 'I've always loved bridges and it was a lot more interesting helping to maintain such a great and practical design than planning how to do as little work for as much money as possible in London. But what I really wanted to do was to make things. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, so perhaps it's in the blood. I came back to London, slogged my way through a City and Guilds course in cabinetmaking and then got a job with Andrew Kindler, who had trained at Parnham and had a workshop in the East End.

'I wanted to develop my own ideas and needed time to think. Luckily, the Royal College of Art took me on to its postgraduate training course. I'm not sure what I learnt - I found the criticisms and theoretical side of the RCA rather heavy going - but I did enjoy being able to mix and work with artists, designers, architects and makers of all sorts of backgrounds and ideas. I suppose I learnt more about imagination than skill.

'After college, I came here to Kingsgate Studios, a co-operative for artists and craft workers, and rented cheap space. I've had to turn out some pretty conventional work to make ends meet, but this has let me buy time to begin making the furniture I want to.'

The first distinctive piece Hughes made was a 'Love Seat', a pair of American white oak plywood seats that hold hands in a courtly gesture. 'That was last September. The 'Love Seat' made me think that it would be interesting to link pieces of furniture. I imagined chairs that would link arms around a tree in a park and, from there, I began to think of groups of chairs that would turn corners inside buildings. So the latest are designed as architectural elements. They would be fun in public interiors instead of production-line reception seating.'

The calligraphic group of three chairs that starred in his first show (at Thomas Neal's in London's Covent Garden) is the starting point for the cabinetmaker's pursuit of furniture that invades architecture. The piece is easily taken apart for moving; its construction is practical and painstakingly difficult to get right.

'The curves of the long arms have to be stuck with yacht-glue, then bound tightly with inner-tubes from car tyres. It takes two people to bind them. The excess glue is squeezed out and, as it dries, the arms begin to hold their shape,' says Hughes.

'Now, I'm trying to improve my skills as a carpenter as well as looking at other materials. I admire furniture makers such as Andre Dubreuil who are always teaching themselves how to use different materials. Just now, I'm beginning to work with ceramics, as I want to mix materials in future designs where appropriate. My wife, Vanessa Hogg, is a ceramicist, so I'll have something of a head start.

'After that, I hope to be able to work in public spaces, using tougher and more expensive materials, working with architects as they design buildings, rather than adding bits of furniture at the last moment like token works of sculpture.

'Last year, before I was commissioned to make the 'Love Seat', I must admit to having gone through a bit of a panic. What was I doing making repro-furniture in a workshop in Kilburn for barely enough money to pay the bills? Was my father right, after all? Should I have become one of Mrs Thatcher's children and stayed for more than a week in that solicitor's office as he wanted me to?'

Panic over, Philip Hughes is on the way to becoming one of the distinctive furniture makers of the Nineties and, hopefully, well beyond. 'I can't imagine wanting to do anything else; it's taken me eight hard-up years to find my own feet. The other month I was at a party where someone said 'Oh, you make furniture do you? I know someone who gave it all up to do the same thing'. I didn't reply, but what I wanted to say was, 'I haven't given it all up; I've left a past that didn't make sense and I'm going forward doing what comes naturally'. '

Philip Hughes, Unit 15, Kingsgate Workshops, 116 Kingsgate Road, London NW6 2JG (071-328 7496).

(Photograph omitted)

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