As happy crafting with a humble chisel as conducting a 6-axis CNC robotic arm as if it were his own limb, Gareth Neal makes the most of, well, everything at his disposal as a designer and maker of contemporary furniture.
Brodgar chair, Gareth Neal
Whether he's using the "waste" wood of a tree, or exploring how we can better reduce the carbon impact of objects, Neal is constantly on the lookout for better way of doing things. His efforts over the past 20 years have resulted in a body of innovative and exciting work, including collaborations with the likes of Zaha Hadid. We sat down with the designer/maker to talk about everything from collaboration to woodworking:
You make furniture using a combination of traditional hand tools and digital fabrication. What do you think are the most interesting new tools, technologies and processes out there for working with wood?
The evolution of manufacturing processes or tooling is a slow process. Rather than the question of what machinery is out there, I'm asking questions about what I can do with processes to talk about the relationship between hand and machine. So I'm looking into machines that help me make some sort of connection or continue this dialogue between the distance you get on a CNC machine or a digital technology and that close relationship you get with hand tools, and trying to find machines that enable that.
My latest work is perhaps my fascination at the moment with what I can achieve with these robotic arms. I feel that they're relatively unexplored because there's not that much access to them.
You've said one of your missions is, "To explore how digital technologies are perceived and how they do have craft within them". Do you think the CNC will be looked back on in decades, centuries or perhaps millennia as fondly as the chisel, or do you think we overly romanticize the chisel?
At the end of the day, things are superseded continually. We want the latest iPhones and the latest computers because they offer us the best ability to do things, and I think it's the same with tooling. You want the latest tooling because it opens up more opportunity with what you can achieve and the speed you can do it, and often the accuracy. CNC is just an extension of the toolbox—they just happen to be very big bits of kit.
Gareth uses a 6 axis CNC robotic arm alongside traditional tools. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
So what role and benefits are there to being taught and retaining hand-making and drawing skills when it comes to being a designer/maker for the future?
The most powerful tool is really the pencil. That's where it all begins, and it's the simplest of things. What I've experienced is there's absolutely no point in going straight to a CNC machine with an idea. That's not necessarily going to result in a new and fresh perspective on furniture by using the latest technology, because with all tools it's about understanding how they work. You get really good at using a traditional tool, and it takes years to master certain tools, so I think it's the same with a CNC machine. I think they're all just as valid tools, and ultimately the most important thing is to have a go at mocking these things up and sketching them and trying to do it as cheaply and efficiently as you can.
I'm not interested in owning a CNC machine. I'm more interested in owning lots of hand tools so I can mock up and play around and computer model, and when I'm ready I'll do some sampling on a CNC and then I'll commit to making it.
The subtle art of timber selection. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
You've explored making furniture in the woods, through the craft of Bodging and Windsor chair making. It may seem utopian, but do you think it's possible to make products and furniture at a production scale in woodland in a way that's sensitive to nature? Or is "making at source" only the reserve of small scale batch production or one-offs?
If you look at some of the Swedish factories, they're based right next to their woodlands. It's slightly romantic to think we'll all be using pole lathes again, but actually to be able to base your factory in the center of your well-managed woodland is a very sensible idea because it cuts out so many of the trappings of the production line—the raw material to the processing plant, it takes out all of those equations.
But it takes somebody with a lot of capital to achieve that with any degree of running a successful business. And I do hope making will return to that kind of way. I do think there is a passion for reducing the carbon footprints of objects and finding ways to do so. To build at source is a way of doing this.
Gareth Neal turns his designer/maker talents to stone
You don't currently use synthetic materials in your work, but would you be open to using new, responsibly made and environmentally sustainable synthetic materials in your work?
Yeah absolutely. I think I only got stuck using wood. I wanted to be a furniture designer and didn't necessarily want to be a woodworker—that just happened to be the byproduct of the course I did, and some of the skills I picked up. And I had a bit of a natural ability to make things. I wouldn't say I'm a great maker, I just happened to pick up that set of skills. I'd absolutely love to play with other materials. I've just done some stone and cast metal things. What I don't want to do is things that suddenly stick out like a sore thumb.
George cabinet, Gareth Neal. Photo credit: James Champion. Video here.
You often blend or juxtapose traditional and contemporary aesthetics. You've developed that theme in a number of your pieces including your early Anne table and George chest and Hack Chair. Both evoking a strong sense of the past and the future. As a designer looking back, what are the most interesting periods and pieces in furniture making through the ages?
I don't understand why papier-mâché furniture didn't kick off and why we didn't continue with that. I've always thought that would be a great one to get back on with because it's essentially recycled wood pulp. There was a big period of papier-mâché furniture you can see at the V&A museum, and they're beautiful objects, super strong, really lightweight, made of paper. What could be a better credentials package than that? So that's one area I've thought I'd like to do something around.
Egyptian furniture, obviously they made some groundbreaking bits. The first chair, that's always exciting isn't it. I really dislike heavy oak solid furniture. For me English furniture design only really started to get good after 1730 because it became lightweight, less chunky and more delicate.
Hack chair, Gareth Neal. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
Your latest series "Hack chair" explores the past and the future. You mentioned previously that, "This object is like a glitch in history. It questions and challenges technique, the future and the past". Can you tell me how that project came about and why you chose the process you did?
What I discovered is that the furniture industry and the material we use on those chairs is the most undesirable bit of the tree, which is actually the heart of a tree. Flawed with splits and often used for firewood. So what you get in these timber yards are these knotty, gnarly pieces of timber that people don't want to turn into planks because they're not very clean and they're full of flaws. So they are the discarded bit of furniture making in some ways. So I thought there was something quite poetic about that.
Strikingly scorched. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
And by buying it green you're completely removing the drying process of the carbon equation, so that's another nice element to it. Green wood has got a very high moisture content. It's very wet, so while you're CNC'ing something it's moving. Or after it's been CDC'd it moves. So it basically takes a process that is all about perfection and introduces imperfection. That's what I wanted to capture—that relationship between the unknown and the known, so the object has those flaws and those glitches and those moments when actually you can't really think, "How did they do that? Was that really done on a CNC machine because that's not square that's not straight? That's flawed. Why would you do that?" So all those little bits are what drove me to doing it. When it comes off the machine it still needs a lot of handwork, and it changes when it comes of the machine. It's matured in a way that's quite special.
I like the idea that the imperfections are where the beauty lies, and are one of the ways to make a connection with people.
Ves-el, Gareth Neal and Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
Ves-el, Gareth Neal and Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
You enjoy collaborating with other designers and brands—architect, Zaha Hadid for a tableware project, and a chair for Glenlivet. What have you learned about yourself as a designer working in collaboration?
There was a time when I was slightly more ego driven, thinking that I knew it all, and I wouldn't want anyone else's input because I thought I knew. And then I realized that I didn't and that the more you open yourself to others working, you can actually create better things.
Glenlivet is different, that's a commercial project with me doing something for the cash. But the Zaha one was definitely something I questioned whether I should do or not, but of course if Zaha Hadid offers you an opportunity then you do it. But these objects wouldn't be, and wouldn't look like they do, if it wasn't for that input or for that contact. The Ves-el wouldn't be the Ves-el if it wasn't for using their computer technology and me sitting in their offices. It adds extra dimension to your work. And it's really enjoyable working with others when you've been working with yourself for such a long time. The Orkney chair wouldn't be the Orkney chair if it wasn't for Kevin Gauld.
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Ves-el, collaborative project with Zaha Hadid. Photo credit: Dan Medhurst
The creative constraints and benefits of working with someone else is fine. But there's a point at which control ultimately has to sit with one individual. Do you find you need that?
Yeah I think you probably know that most of the projects are where I think I've got the bigger say. I think I'm well equipped enough as a person to communicate that to them in order to get it to the place that I'm happy with it.
Jack cabinet, Gareth Neal. Photo credit: Petr Krejci
When you were just starting out, who were you looking to as a designer?
I guess Ron Arad and Tom Dixon were very much in the limelight of furniture at that time around 1993. Philippe Starck was there and of course I came across John Makepeace. I didn't like John Makepeace's work, but I was aware of it.
But I like to think that I wasn't necessarily inspired by furniture, but would get more inspired by creating a feeling or an emotion or picking up on architecture. I mean I loved Calatrava when I was at uni, and I liked hippy values of people building green properties, and I read books like Places of the Soul. I was getting a lot from that, but it's not really furniture.
If you get into studying too much furniture you end up copying it, which I suppose is inevitably what I've ended up doing with some eighteenth and seventeenth century bits of furniture.
Orb salt and pepper grinders, Gareth Neal
Tableware for Case, Gareth Neal
Do you have any other pieces of furniture that you've seen or you hold up as great pieces?
Loads of them. I'm continually envious of other people's work. From production designers to the dead to the living, there's so much good design out there. Hans Wegner is obviously someone that when you look at those chairs you just think, that's perfection.
Max Lamb, my contemporaries, I think they're so good. Peter Marigold. Amazing thinkers with materials. There's so many and I get excited when I look at other people's work. Even look at Russell Pinch, he's a big brand but very well designed stuff. Very simple, very pure, very lovely.
Some of Gareth's sketches of the George cabinet
What's on your drawing board right now?
I'm mocking up a sideboard for the New Craftsman. We've just prototyping an extension to the straw furniture range. We've got some more CNC Ves-el and a couple more pieces from the Hack series we're looking at. A few things on the go.
What advice would you give to any designers who are starting out around now?
Well one of the things that I heard from Wendell Castle actually, now that he's passed away, he always said "the lazy dog finds no bones". I think that's a good one really. You've got to get out there and get on it.