inside ... Isn't it good, natural wood

The indefinable beauty of reclaimed wood - from old railway sleepers to pitch pine floorboards - is inspiring furniture creations that are ancient in essence but modern in design. Lesley Gillilan reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Venturing into Totem Interiors in Crouch End, London, is like stumbling upon an ancient shipwreck. Luxurious old fabrics, urns and enormous busts provide the perfect backdrop for the elegant solidity of the shop's furniture: simple, sanded dressers and ornately pedimented chests stand beside and yet do not detract from one another. Coffee tables, some smooth, some plain, others hinged and bolted, stand below mirrors hung on thick pieces of rope. "There is something indefinably beautiful about old wood," says Richard Hempsted, who builds all Totem's pieces to partner Lynne Sephton's designs. "It doesn't try to be anything, it just is."

Whether it's pitch pine floorboards, redundant Zimbabwean railway sleepers, oak rafters, elm joists and remnants of flattened French barns, salvaged timber is the preferred material of a growing number of furniture makers. And aside from the recycling angle, the thinking behind it is essentially pragmatic. Original pine furniture of the pine dresser ilk is not only tired and over-stripped, but is in short supply and what remains is often pricey. Fresh-forested new pine, on the other hand, is generally of poorer quality and less interesting grain and colour than old, and it doesn't look good in the raw.

Salvaged timbers not only look more convincing in neo-period mode, but they also enable cabinet-makers to make viably affordable pieces in a wider range of woods (new hardwoods are hideously expensive) and to add an age ingredient to creative modern design. "The stuff we use has got a lot of depth and soul," says Sephton. "Buying from us is the equivalent to ordering an antique to your exact specifications."

Mark Salamon, who makes simple, "modernish" tables and mirrors from reclaimed wood (the latter sell through Liberty) agrees that there is something very appealing about using material with a history. "Bits of old paint, grooves and marks left by hinges are part of the wood's life story," he says, "they show what it was used for before and there's an attraction in knowing that the wood in a piece of furniture used to be part of, say, a mill in Northumbria. He is less enthusiastic about the practicalities of using materials that can be tricky to work with ("you can't order it in any dimension and you have to cut it yourself") and, in his experience, difficult to get hold of.

Supply, however, is a current strength of the Nick and Moira Hankinson's business, based in redundant farm buildings adjacent to their Somerset home. And not only do they have vast stores of salvaged timber, but also their products make use of other recycled materials such as lead, glass, cast iron - as well as some new ones. The timber tops of their coffee tables, for example, sit on legs made from 200-year-old, terracotta, land drain pipes salvaged from the Somerset Levels, where they were laid, apparently, by Napoleonic prisoners of war.

Drain pipes are also niftily employed to make the stems of standard lamps, with shades made from Somerset-grown willow woven into basket shapes around a reclaimed hardwood frame. Willow weavings are used again in the headboard of old-oak beds. "Most of our designs are stimulated by the materials available," says Nick. In business partner and cabinet-maker John Edmonds' nearby workshop, he shows me an elm cupboard with a bowed glass frontage made from a hotel-style revolving door, and a glass-topped table supported on the cast-iron frame of an original Victorian-Gothic window. These are one-offs, but standard issue designs, such as the Ocean Drift and Terracotta Coffee Table, are surely subject to finite resources and are therefore in danger of extinction. The Hankinsons, after all, have only 600 drain pipes and the demand for increasingly scarce factory floorboards is already pushing up prices.

Age is, of course, a progeny of the materials, but when the "Somerset Tradition" collection won the Best Product award at the recent Living Design exhibition (part of Chelsea Design Week) the designs were judged to be "innovative, original and exciting". They are inspired, says Moira, "by things from the past," but they are modern interpretations, not reproductions. She admits that Somerset traditions have little to do with their products, but around 30 local craftspeople make a contribution.

On an upper floor of Laurel Farm's barn workshop, I am introduced to an example of what they call a "Tall Ocean Drift Cupboard." Solid, robust and, indeed, tall, the piece is dressed in heavy-duty ironmongery - whacking great hinges and one of those little swivel catches - and features a bleached finish, reminiscent of washed- up driftwood. The cupboard is available in a more curvaceous "waisted" version with a nipped-in midriff, or as a short, dumpy model, and they can all be acquired in a natural "honey" finish with brass fittings. The collection also includes chunky picture frames, coffee tables - vaguely butcher's blockish - and "gutsy" sofas and beds. All have the rough-hewn, untailored quality of primitive country furniture, with a hint of Arts & Craft Movement styling, and are made from "time-honed softwoods" and other timbers which have been ripped out of old, invariably industrial, buildings in the process of restoration and demolition.

Inevitably, examples of their ranges stray into the Hankinson's delightfully rustic farmhouse. But although that would seem to be their natural habitat, the success of the Hankinsons' enterprise - they have developed a healthy export trade as well as a growing following among London buyers - is down to the fact that the Tall Ocean Drift Cupboard and its honeyed sisters look equally at home in modern, urban, loft apartments as they do in quaint rural cottages.

The Somerset Tradition is based in Westham, near Wedmore in Somerset (01934 712416). Totem Interiors is at 81 Tottenham Lane, London N8 (0181 340 5607), Mark Salamon can be contacted on 0958 511195.

Additional research by Chloe Fox