With the metal to succeed: Martin Ovel, a former lorry driver, wants recognition as a designer. Jonathan Glancey thinks he will find it

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The letter was straight to the point. 'Could you please tell me, do you have to be a Freemason or part of the Royal Family to get the press to take notice of you? Why do so many talented people go unnoticed, especially in the world of design?'

The writer, Martin Ovel, of Brentwood, Essex, describes himself as 'probably one of the best furniture designers in the UK and Europe', and the fact that he has not been featured in design publications obviously galls him.

'I have been told by many retail outlets,' Ovel continued, 'including Oscar Woolens, the original prop suppliers to the James Bond movies, that my work is too futuristic for the British public to accept. I pity the British public.

'I intend to go to America this year. I have been told that they would readily accept my style in design - perhaps the Americans have good taste, unlike the Brits? Did you know that the Anatomia Centre in Euston Road thought one of my chairs was unique and was interested in displaying it in their window?'

But Ovel even had a complaint about the Anatomia Centre. It wanted to buy a chair for pounds 575 and sell it for pounds 1,350. 'After producing the chair, I would make pounds 300 before tax. They would make pounds 775.'

I sent Ovel a postcard and asked him about what he did. He sent me back an envelope stuffed with photographs of his work. Much of it was interesting, and some of the metal pieces were


Martin Ovel began designing and making metalwork pieces four years ago. Then a 27-year-old Essex lorry driver, he made some candlesticks in his garage - more as hobby than anything else. He had been a welder before taking to the road, and had worked on prototypes for bullion carriers and on computer tables and trolleys for a local Essex company. He was pleased with his creative efforts and bought an old stone-chip forge to set up in his garage.

In February 1989, he was working at the forge when one of the white-hot stone chips fell into his boot. It burnt through the tendon and ligaments; Ovel spent three weeks in hospital and the next six months convalescing. Far from putting him off, the accident made him even more resolute, and his convalescence gave him plenty of time to work on his designs.

He gave up lorry driving and, when he was well enough, started hawking his candlesticks around in a huge suitcase. He sold to Liberty, Harrods and Tiffany and to Candle Makers Supplies of West Kensington and other specialists. Robert Plant, former singer of Led Zeppelin, also bought one.

But although Ovel eventually sold more than 200, he could not make a living from the candlestick venture and had to go back to lorry driving in the spring of 1990. He lasted less than a year: encouraged by a woman working at the Design Centre, whom he had shown a few one-off pieces of metal furniture, Ovel invested pounds 6,000 of his mother's savings in welding equipment, which he set up in a shed on a pig farm. His wife, a data control operator at a stockbrokers, supported him and by June 1991 he was working on the pig farm almost every day.

Ovel says the ideas for each piece came to him very quickly. 'Every time I started nodding off in bed I began to see a new design and would rush out to the pig farm and spend all night welding,' Ovel says. 'I did this for a year and then started to think about why I wasn't earning any money or getting any attention. I went to see some important design business people in London, but they were mostly unpleasant or dismissive.

'One really unpleasant man said my work was 'crap; bits of muck welded together'. Even if he was right - I'm still learning - it made feel that there was a lot of design snobbery in London.'

Now the public can judge Martin Ovel's work for itself. Several of his pieces are on display at the Beardsmore Gallery in Prince of Wales Road, London NW5 (071- 485 0923). These include 'Dear Sir', made from a Ford Escort bonnet and described by Ovel as a 'prim and proper chair'; the 'Skeleton' chair, which speaks for itself; and the 'Pipe Dream', made from welded steel tubing. The pieces cost between pounds 250 and pounds 800.

Giving up lorry driving in favour of furniture design and turning out metal furniture from a pig shed in deepest Essex require considerable determination. Martin Ovel might believe that he is facing an uphill struggle - and many would agree with him - but has the imagination, determination and single-mindedness to get somewhere close to the top. And that is part of the answer to the question he posed in his letter.

Designers such as Ovel are not deliberately ignored. Journalists can only discover so many new designers by themselves. There is a two-way process - of journalists working to discover new talent and of designers letting magazines and newspapers know what they are doing.

If certain furniture designers - Tom Dixon, Andre Dubreuil and Ron Arad, for example - have received a good deal of attention over the past five years, it is because they are extremely good at what they do, they are interesting people and their work is continually developing.

Designers do not become well-known because they went to a smart or popular college or because they come from wealthy backgrounds or speak with a certain accent. Ovel's broad Essex should be no more and no less of a hindrance to his career than Dixon's hip slur, Arad's guttural Israeli-English or Dubreuil's comic-book franglais. Ovel made the point that he has 'no academic qualifications' and has 'never seen the inside of a design college'. But many of Britain's best industrial, product and furniture designers were trained in other disciplines or were completely untrained. Both Dixon and Dubreuil are self-taught, for example. Sir William Lyons, who designed the Jaguars so beloved of Dixon, Dubreuil and Arad, had no training whatsoever.

Training can produce a good technician, but it can never instil imagination into an unimaginative student, and it could not have taught Martin Ovel to do what he does so well.

Martin Ovel works under the name of Metal Image, and can be contacted on 0277 212995.

(Photograph omitted)