Design: Made to measure

Had your fill of flat-pack furniture? Time to invest in the lovingly made bespoke alternative
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The Independent Online

Maybe it's an age thing, but it seems that, sooner or later, many of us can't face buying any more of that cheap mass-produced Scandinavian furniture. Some of us don't even like the expensive mass-produced stuff either. But, as most of us are in the same class as Michael Heseltine, so memorably sneered at by the late Alan Clark for having to buy his own furniture, we need to find a solution.

In these days of increasing environmental responsibility, there is a third way: bespoke furniture. It is expensive but it's also responsibly sourced, it hasn't been mass-produced, and it hasn't travelled thousands of air miles. And, hey – at least your children won't have to buy their own furniture.

Just as the high street is beginning to notice a backlash against cheap mass- produced clothes, so are the nation's cabinet-makers. As consumers become more aware of the sustainability of forests, so many of them are prepared to pay more for something ethical as well as beautiful.

Google the phrase "bespoke furniture", and there are pages and pages of craftsmen using traditional methods on environmentally friendly timber. The Bespoke Woodworkers co-op is one such group. Made up of five craftsmen in the West Country, they send their work out nationwide, and will make anything from timber-framed extensions to staircases, and from kitchens to chairs.

Set up four years ago by five men who were all working alone in their respective workshops in the middle of their respective fields, they decided to form a co-op so that they could spend a little more time marketing their wares, as well as giving each other mutual support and advice.

Pete White, who makes kitchens and staircases, says: "We all work alone, some of us seven days a week, so it's a bit of a social thing as well.

"It's primarily about marketing our products, but we have the odd meeting in the pub, and if I have a question I can ring one of the others for advice."

All five of them are united in their love of wood, and their desire to use environmentally responsible timber, which, for the most part, they source locally.

Colin Foxhall, who makes Windsor chairs, uses local wood from hedges and buys English timber certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).

"There is a real backlash against this cheap mass-produced furniture, and a lot of my customers are a little older so they don't have to spend every penny on direct debits. They want to see real wood, not that chipboard from the Seventies and Eighties," he says.

"I use English wood, and although 80 per cent of my business is conducted over the internet, I don't export. I am trying to run an environmentally friendly business so I don't see the point of sticking stuff on aeroplanes.

Furgus Parsons makes tables, and mourns the decimation of English forests: "The timber industry has gone through a complete change. There used to be a plentiful supply, with sawmills all over the place, but the supply of English timber has dwindled – Dutch elm disease and development have taken large pockets of forest, and now there are only small woods and you are not allowed to cut them down.

"That partly accounts for the high price of bespoke furniture. If I make an oak table, 6ft by 3ft, it costs £800 for the wood alone. My rates are £15 an hour – but I know a plumber who charges £32."

This means that, while it might seem a luxury to commission bespoke furniture, it's practically a luxury for Parsons to make it for you. "I can't afford to make furniture for the working man, which is what I would dearly love to do," he says.

Pete White understands this dilemma only too well. He started off making furniture but quickly realised that creating kitchens was the more commercial option. Currently in the middle of making a completely circular one, he will spend about five months on it and charge £50,000.

Barry Mays, who makes extraordinary sculptural chairs, also works with wood for the love of it. He gave up a job in IT to pursue his passion. Unlike the others, he won't make the same object twice and feels strongly that each chair is a work of art that should remind you of the tree from which it came. Put like that, £600 doesn't seem a lot of money.

"We are all mad about wood, and quite knowledgeable," says Mays. "Most of us work seven days a week and it can be quite lonely. But being part of the co-op makes a big difference, and we all help each other out."

Completing the group is Nigel Harrison, a timber-framer and gate-maker. He could build your extension, into which Pete could then install a kitchen, for which the other three could provide the tables and chairs.

"Today's clientele is much more aware about where their wood is sourced Eight years ago, when I bought a sawmill, I thought I had made a terrible mistake because nobody cared where their wood came from and they were happy to use European timber. Now I need to take on more staff because we are so busy," he says. "People have more disposable income and they are prepared to pay for local wood that has been responsibly sourced."

So, while Alan Clark may not have needed to purchase his own furniture, it's a safe bet that his ancestors probably commissioned skilled local craftsmen, much like the Bespoke Woodworkers of today, to make some of the fine pieces that were then passed on for future generations to enjoy.



To contact members of the co-op, visit www.bespokewoodworkers.co.uk

Other hand-crafted furniture designers

Sasha Lacroix

Lacroix is a London-based furniture designer who makes eco products. He prefers to use English hardwoods, and is not afraid to steer his clients towards more environmentally responsible choices. If they won't budge, then he won't work with them. In addition, for every piece commissioned, Sasha gives the client a CarbonNeutral Company voucher so that they can plant a tree in a managed rainforest or an English forest. This oak chair (left) costs £900 (www.sashalacroix.com; 0770 944 6799)

Guy Martin

Martin works with ash, regarding it as the most sustainable of the English woods. Having studied sculpture at St Martin's, he worked with Anthony Caro for several years, and his artistic background is evident in the highly stylised pieces that he makes. All the wood he uses is locally sourced. The Tula chair (right) costs £754 (01308 868 122; www.guy-martin.com)

David Colwell

Having set up Trannon furniture 30 years ago, Colwell is considered a pioneer of sustainable design. For him, eco-design is just about the wood. He uses young, fast-grown ash, which means the forester can grow more and replant more quickly. It is steam-dried, which uses less energy than kiln-drying, and results in stronger, more flexible, hence more comfortable pieces. Prices start at £350 for a chair. The C10 (left) is £390 (www.davidcolwell.com; 01686 430 313)

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