Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge advocate of true sustainability. But so often designer / makers tout environmental sustainability while completely ignoring great design and true craftsmanship. And that makes no sense, since shortchanging design and craftsmanship means that someone who buys the so-called “sustainable” product is more likely to get rid of it early (wasteful and less sustainable) … or at minimum just not get as much use and pleasure out of it.
So imagine my delight in discovering award-winning UK-based Sebastian Cox a while back. He is more sustainable than the majority of so-called “sustainable” furniture makers I’ve come across; his design and making chops are impeccable; and he continues to innovate both process and product by using contemporary tools such as CNC machines. As a bonus, he’s figuring out how to broaden the reach of his sustainable/artisanal ethos.
Seb is probably best known for his use of coppiced wood, which he turns into beautiful and distinctive tables, chairs, and cupboards. He’s recently worked with UK’s Benchmark furniture to put together a line of sustainably harvested pieces, and has also done collaborations with the Heal’s department store.
For those of us not grounded in English forestry and woodland management practices, coppicing is way of creating an abundant source of timber while also encouraging forest biodiversity. In coppicing, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. In the next years, new shoots emerge, and, after a number of years the coppiced tree is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again. Coppicing can also help prevent wood from becoming diseased and dying off by renewing constant fresh growth and removing old wood. This allows the tree to live longer than if it were left un-coppiced. (For more on coppicing, look here.)
Most woodworkers and furniture makers talk about a tight connection with material, but Seb goes further than most woodworkers: he hand-harvests the coppiced wood (he favors lesser-used British woods such as hazel). In some sense, you can feel this in his work: there’s an intimacy – a caring and connection – with the wood, that enlivens whatever piece he makes.
Beyond his focus on sustainable materials is his truly simple design, so rooted in traditional country English furniture design, so modern and perfect. Soon upon graduating with his Masters in Art and Design from the University of Lincoln in 2011, he created the Suent Superlight chair, made of steam bent hazel, woven hazel and lacquer finish. It weighs 1.8 kgs. It’s simple, unobtrusive yet somehow more powerful for its essentialness. Lovely.
It was this chair that brought him to the attention of Sean Sutcliffe of Benchmark, a venerable English furniture company. The two began collaborating, and in 2014 released a line of furniture called Chestnut and Ash using coppiced wood. It includes the Lath chair, a coffee table and bench, and the Shake cabinet and sideboard.
The challenge was to take Seb’s existing process – artisanal, singular – and scale it to Benchmark’s higher levels of production. He trained Benchmark’s master craftsmen, working with them to develop their own ways of working with what was to them an unfamiliar material.
In place of using hand-coppiced wood, the team found a place where that was already producing coppiced chestnut at an industrial scale (for fencing). The chairs and bench have cleft laths for rails, and the sideboard has a cleft shake front.
The thoughtful combination of environmental sustainability, artisan touches and state of the art technology makes for furniture that’s timeless but iconic, and both hard-wearingly functional and worthy of being called art. Nicely done, and hopefully, the inspiration for a greater movement.
I love what Seb’s been doing, and can’t wait to see what this designer / maker / leader does next.
Images all courtesy of Sebastian Cox unless otherwise noted.