By Meghan Urback.
This fall, students at California College of the Arts (CCA) have the privilege of working with furniture designer David Colwell from the UK. Colwell joins the CCA community for a few months as a visiting scholar and craftsman, sharing studio space and advice with students in the furniture and graduate fine arts departments.
Colwell recently had a chance to interact more broadly with the Bay Area DesignCraft community when he gave a presentation to the public on October 17th as part of CCA’s Design and Craft Lecture Series. I was fortunate both to attend his lecture and to chat with him one-on-one the following afternoon.
David Colwell has enjoyed a rich career as a designer and maker and has designed custom furniture for museums, parks, and parliaments, as well as creating several of his own furniture series. He’s set up multiple workshops and works with UK manufacturing companies to train craftsmen to produce his chairs and tables.
Currently, Colwell has latched onto steam-bent ash as his construction method and material of choice. He proudly trumpets ash’s resiliency, strength, widespread availability in the UK, and ability to absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon. He is equally proud of the simple, minimal-waste methods of processing that the wood undergoes en route from tree to chair. For example, Colwell minimizes the planing and sanding that wood is subjected to. (These processes create lots of sawdust and mildly unpleasant working conditions for furniture factory workers.) One of Colwell’s favorite mottos is a quote from Richard Buckminster Fuller: “Do the mostest with the leastest.”
The A Chair, part of Colwell’s signature O Range, exemplifies all of these material choices and methods of construction. Light, springy, and strong, it relies on a triangular geometry and the tubular rivet construction that Colwell pioneered.
Although it is obvious that Colwell could happily talk for hours about steaming, bending, and clamping, he is equally keen on chatting about his inspirations and the broader implications of his designs. As someone who has been part of the European design community for a few decades and has had the privilege of studying with big names such as famous design thinker and woodworker David Pye, Colwell possesses a rambling, poetic, and opinionated way of speaking about his work and opinions on design and craft.
“Structure is the grammar of making,” Colwell explains. When designing a chair, his favorite furniture object, he starts by sketching the posture that he wants someone to adopt while sitting in his chair. He still likes to work by the 1950s axiom “Form follows function.” Comfort, a type of function, is something that Colwell takes seriously. Too many furniture designers, he thinks, don’t pay any attention to comfort. He, on the other hand, prides himself on making each new chair more comfortable than the last. “A chair is really close to a good pair of boots,” he says.
Colwell has a refreshingly grounded way of thinking about making work. He mentions in the course of his lecture that “reality is much more interesting than what’s in your imagination—or at least what’s in my imagination,” he clarifies. He believes, as do I, that getting your hands dirty and working with a material often leads to new discoveries that would be impossible to dream up before actually making something. I ask him if this sense of a material generating new ideas has always been with him, and he says that it has. He remembers being a kid and realizing that he understood how physical things were put together, how the material world worked, and that the physical world was something to be excited about. “I’m a nuts and bolts sort of person,” he explains.
This sense of the importance of making goes hand in hand with Colwell’s process of designing furniture. When planning out prototypes of new pieces, Colwell begins by sketching and making models by hand. He heats small pieces of wood in a casserole pot over his stove to approximate steam-bending and uses miniature G clamps and superglue to hold all the parts together. In addition to making models and prototypes of his furniture pieces in his own studio, Colwell has personally trained many of the factory workers who are currently back in Wales building A Chairs.
In his ideal world, Colwell says that there would be no separation between the artist and the manufacturer. He would apply this continuity between thought and physical skills to education, too. Colwell believes designers should be able to collaborate with manufacturing factories and that education should incorporate apprenticeships. The making and designing are so much one,” he says, “if it stops being one, it gets a bit devious.”
Perhaps my favorite of Colwell’s explanations of his work comes during the Q&A after his lecture at CCA. An audience member asked him what sort of stress testing or ergonomic testing he does of his chairs. Colwell responded, matter-of-factly, “I put it in the kitchen and invite people over for a glass of wine and have them sit in it.”
All photos courtesy of David Colwell.