Tom Raffield works up a head of steam, Crafts Magazine, May/June 2017
All copy as provided to the publication.
Cornwall-based furniture designer and maker Tom Raffield is pushing the boundaries of steam bent wood to create a sustainable business on his own terms.
In 19th-century Germany, frustrated with the painstaking process involved in hand-carving furniture, Michael Thonet discovered a new way to shape wood – by immersing solid rods of beech in steam, he realised he could push the material beyond what anybody thought it was capable of, creating previously impossible forms and curves. In 1842 he relocated to Vienna and was granted a patent ‘for manufacturing chairs and table legs of bent wood, the curvature of which is effected through the agency of steam or boiling liquids’. Thonet’s Model No.14 chair, a staple in cafés the world over, became the most popular design manufactured in the 19th century, and steam-bending techniques barely changed for over 150 years. That is, until Tom Raffield came along.
In 2003, in his second year of a 3D Design for Sustainability degree at Falmouth College of Art (now University College Falmouth), Raffield started experimenting with steam bending. He was instantly smitten. ‘There is something absolutely magical about using nothing but steam to bend something as solid as wood,’ he says. ‘The honesty and simplicity of that process was addictive and I’ve been steam bending ever since.’ But like Thonet, eventually Raffield became frustrated with the limitations of a traditional craft handed down to him from generations gone by. ‘When you take the wood out of the steamer, you have about 30 seconds to bend it before it cools, so there’s only so much you can do with each length of timber,’ he explains. ‘I loved steam bending, but I wanted to do so much more with it.’ Inspired by techniques used in the local boat-building industry, Raffield developed a new method of localised steam bending using a bag instead of a fixed chamber. This allowed him to bend the wood around a bespoke free-standing jig system while still immersed in steam, section by section. ‘I wanted to create really wild three-dimensional shapes with bends in multiple planes to mimic the drawings and models I had made,’ he says. His graduate project, a chair made entirely from one continuous length of wood, achieved exactly that.
Fast forward 14 years and not only does Raffield’s eponymous company sell almost 70 different steam bent products, both direct and through retailers such as John Lewis and Heal’s, but he and wife Danielle have just built a steam-bent house, featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs in October 2016. ‘This place has the potential to be Tom’s masterpiece; the summation of his life's work,’ said Kevin McCloud in the programme, but given how hardworking, creative and entrepreneurial Raffield is, it’s more likely to be just the beginning.
Raffield grew up on Devon’s Exmoor and jokingly describes his childhood as ‘feral’. ‘We lived a very outdoor life. We were next to the River Exe and surrounded by moorland. There were more animals than people, and I grew up thinking that was all quite normal.’ Struggling with academia due to severe dyslexia, he excelled at art, metalwork and sport. ‘Everybody else seemed to understand things I didn’t,’ he says. ‘But then I could see things in a different way. Dyslexia just means you process things differently and, creatively speaking, that often puts you in a stronger position. You only have to look at people like Richard Branson, Eddie Izzard and Jamie Oliver, all of whom are dyslexic, to see that.’ After a year working in European removals followed by a BTEC in 3D Design, he finally found a learning institution that enabled him to thrive. ‘I just fell in love with Falmouth Art College,’ he says. ‘It felt so creative – and the tutors there made me believe I could do or make absolutely anything.’ A materials- and process-led approach embedded in sustainability encouraged students to find their own way of working. Many students embraced computer-aided design and made their way towards careers in industrial design, but Raffield found ‘learning through making’ suited his learning style and he flourished. ‘They had a massive workshop filled with brand new tools and I was like a kid in a sweet shop,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to try everything, so I had a really fascinating time playing in there. And because I was so interested, the technicians loved me – they used to spend evenings teaching me new techniques.’
Looking at things differently and finding his own way are themes that have underpinned Raffield’s career. On graduating, he realised that there were few employment opportunities for experimental steam benders so he set up his own business, at first with two fellow Falmouth graduates under the name Sixixis, and eventually on his own. The first Tom Raffield product was the No. 1 Pendant – a lampshade made from lengths of steam bent ash, oak or walnut strips that were coiled and twisted around one another in a small steamer in a shed at the bottom of his garden. The shed soon became a workshop in his mum’s garden and then a rented space in a converted grammar school in Redruth – eventually demand was such that his then girlfriend Danielle (now wife and mother of their three children) left her job to help out. When the business grew to the extent that the steady stream of delivery lorries was starting to cause problems for their neighbours, they knew they needed to find their own premises. Their first child, Beauregard, now five, arrived on the scene, and they decided a live-work space was the answer. ‘To start with, it was just me and Danie working 80-hour weeks and it was just amazing,’ he says. ‘Then we had our first baby, but I wasn't going to stop working 80-hour weeks – I love what I do and those sort of hours are part of growing a business – so we had to find somewhere we could live and work.’ Once they started thinking about combining the different parts of their lives and business into one space, the idea occurred to them they might be able to find some woodland, enabling them to grow their own timber too – and that’s exactly what they did, buying a tiny gamekeeper’s lodge in 2011 – it had no indoor bathroom, but it did come with seven acres of woodland. They hired their first apprentice and built a workshop from trees that had fallen during a storm.
The products that came out of that workshop earned the fledgling design firm a Lighting Design Award, as well as the accolades of being named one of Kevin McCloud’s Green Heroes and one of Walpole’s Brands of Tomorrow. But the impact of those things on the business pale into insignificance in comparison with the ‘Grand Designs effect.’ Having outgrown the cottage when baby number two, Bearwyn, now three, came along, the couple decided to build a home for their growing family that would also demonstrate the potential of steam bending. ‘I have always wanted to do things that push the boundaries of process, technique and material to show people what steam bent wood can do,’ says Raffield. They hired contractors to put up the building’s frame, but did the rest themselves, with help from friends and family. ‘As soon as we started bending wood around the frame it looked like nothing we’d ever seen before – it was just beautiful,’ says Raffield. When the programme finally aired in October 2016 after a gruelling two-year build, the couple (Danielle by now heavily pregnant their third child, Lamorna) invited the whole team down to the house to watch it. ‘Someone had a laptop open as we were watching and the response was incredible,’ says Raffield. ‘We had thousands of email enquiries and our social media feeds went crazy, but the best thing was people saying they were inspired by the possibilities of steam bending to think sustainably, to take on a project, or to build their own house. That was really lovely.’
The team, now numbering 30, has barely stopped work since that evening. They have built room sets and installations for John Lewis and Peter Jones, created a new collection due to launch during the London Design Festival in September, and are about to start work on a twisting 12-metre bench for a skyscraper in London. Inspired by Tom and Danielle’s new house, they are finding new uses for sawmill waste to create interior cladding and have recently launched steam bent exterior cladding made from English oak. While all that’s going on, they are putting the finishing touches to a lighting installation set to appear at both London Craft Week and the Chelsea Flower Show in May – 80 Scots Lights, Skipper Pendants and Butterfly Lights hanging from trees will light up Orange Square just off the Pimlico Road and the Artisan Retreat at the flower show, where they will also be showcasing their new steam bent summerhouse concept. With all that going on, it’s no surprise that Raffield is looking for another Cornish woodland he can sustainably manage to provide raw material – and move production into. ‘We’ve got a lot going on, but it’s really fun,’ he grins. ‘I bent my first piece of wood almost 15 years ago and I am still as excited about it as I was back then – the possibilities of what bent wood can do are unlimited.’ The same could be said for Mr Raffield.