The joy of commissioning your mates.
We’ve got some extremely gifted mates, and there’s nothing like the feeling of asking them to make something for you which employes all of their skills, plays to their strengths and makes you the thing you need while maybe, hopefully, testing them a little bit.
I don’t get to collaborate all that much in my day-to-day work — with art directors yes, via email and phone, and if we’re doing something on a wall, some help there too. But pooling your ideas and desires to make a new piece of furniture, a garden sculpture, something stitched for the home, or even the architecture of your new home and studio, is quite different, and the pressure’s on someone else to deliver — which can be really refreshing!
Spencer Jenkins, who lives with artist partner Alisha Miller in Warwickshire, has been a friend for the best part of 20 years and during that time has eased his creativity into a unique space which embraces woodcraft, weaving, alchemy (I mean, the man pickles oak you know?) and complex self-supporting structures coaxed from nature’s shapes using patience, pondering and drawing. Carved and steamed wood forms complex, thoughtful and reaching pieces; they’re aspirational, comfortable and sometimes challenging, but they’re all uniquely Spencer, and are commissioned by the RHS, Gardener’s World, Chelsea Flower Show, Hampton Court, Vertigo Records, gardens and institutions the length and breath of Britain…and Black Sabbath.
We have long needed a big sofa to go into the room on our top floor; a long, pointy room which along with the rest of the house is on a skewed rhombus; not a right angle to be found. Pretty much all furniture and storage has to be custom made, and the top room — my studio for ten years — has additional challenges as it is at the top of a winding, steep, narrow, staircase — you can’t get anything up there without huge struggle, least of all a sofa. And we need a sofa — the whole of the ground floor is studio and office, middle is sleeping and washing, which means the top floor has finally become our dedicated TV, movie and film space. When we finally put pens/mice down and chill, we need to feel work’s over for the day.
The studio as it was. There’s just a big telly there now!
This ‘thing to sit on’ needed to be wide, deep for Leigh’s long legs, and capable of being assembled on-site. No flat backs or right angles. We briefed Spence on all this, Leigh driving the direction with his idea around a metal park bench with slats, like this one he saw on a trip to New York:
Spencer started with drawings of 50s-inspired space rockets, all Festival of Britain angles and aspiring points:
His cardboard and wire maquette was extremely cute too:
This blog will massively simplify the many processes Spencer undertook, and what can’t be communicated is the incalculable amount of thinking, problem solving and man hours that went into this beast. But we shall begin here; once all feeding-back and chipping-in and discussion had concluded, Spencer enlarged his drawing of the profile of the sofa and laid it on the ground of his workshop, starting to lay the metal bar over the top:
after which it was a case of ‘Let Bending Commence!’ (which by all accounts was Bloody Hard Work); for those into detail, the metals are a hybrid of round solid steel bar, hollow steel tubing and flat steel bar:
This centre strut was created to make a frame for the wooden slats which would form the sofa:
The sofa’s four dainty feet began to emerge, delicately en pointe where they would meet the new black sheep’s wool carpet:
and suddenly, the final form of the piece made itself known at full size:
At this point there was the opportunity to powder-coat the structure, which had been done to slick effect on some of Spencer’s other commissioned pieces. We thought about it, but were so enamoured of the texture of the metal and the polychroming of the welded areas that we decided to leave it, the evidence of its construction, and seal it in with lacquer.
Spencer picked up on this and experimented with varying levels of heat treatment along the bar:
Perhaps a little giraffe-like, the effect was appealing, and the colours gorgeous, but we felt it yelled a bit over the simple, clean lines of the structure:
Here are the arms being made, in Spencer’s Hellraiser-esque bending improvisation:
Once the wooden arms, metal feet, legs and back — in one piece — were created to bookend the structure, the wooden slats were cut and shaped, one at a time. Calculating the spacing was crucial, so that gaps were consistent. This is Ash, and the arms are made of steamed ash (to allow the bend):
And quietly, towards the end of July, the finished 2m wide construction appeared in Spencer’s workshop. We couldn’t wait to go and bounce on it; Spencer couldn’t wait to get it into our loft and out of his space! It had occupied huge chunks of his brain and workshop for months on end, and although he was pleased, I think he was happy to…
…take it apart and build it again. Because of course, the constructed version in the workshop had to be disassembled and taken up to our loft room, one section at a time, and rebuilt there.
Our beautiful sofa is now upstairs on its black sheep’s wool carpet, with only a light, little table and big telly for company (oh and my massive book cover archive which I’ve yet to decide what to do with). The next step is getting removable upholstery made, but meanwhile it’s home to our small but growing collection of Japanese-inspired textiles — a Dan Kitchener cushion and throw, a Tenugui print by Nomoco (currently being adapted into a large soft cushion by my Mum, resident guru of the needles) and a grumpy, squishy Gudetama who’s in a constant state of judgement — along with three other creatures and assorted bung-it-all-on-there blankets and soft things.
It’s a nice place to be, and it’s a one-off — we’ve told him already, but here’s a large and fulsome public thank you to Spencer for his problem solving, inventiveness and dedication during a period of total Sofa Rocket immersion.
It’s great to commission a mate.