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Design for Life

Published on 2nd September 2015

From the moment you drive up the steep ‘put-it-in-first-gear’ track to Tom Raffield’s Helston workshop, there is a sense that you are embedded in the woody vale around you. It would be impossible not to be inspired by the cyclic growth and regeneration of nature here. As Tom puts it, there are no straight lines in nature – neither are there in his business, which has grown organically from his first chaise longue to today’s array of wooden homewares.

Tom Raffield’s sinuous bentwood forms are becoming familiar throughout the country and are turning up all around the world. His lampshades are slender strips of wood bent into myriad loops and curls to create lighting that is more 3D sculpture than shade. Unlit, the eye- catching adornments are both natural (mostly unstained and unvarnished) and highly complex. Lit, they create shadow plays and diffuse the light in unusual ways.

His chairs have the ergonomic simplicity and softened lines that bring to mind Eames furniture, or Michael Thonet’s bentwood chairs that litter the cafés and streets of Europe.

The essence of a Tom Raffield chair, though, is something closer to nature. There is a sense of the outdoor-indoor in his work – as though garden furniture has been refined, given a sculptural tweak and brought into the home. His tables are functional objects, smooth and tactile and evidently hand crafted, with the addition of classic Raffield twists – a curvy loop of wood connecting the base to the legs that draws your eye to its quirkiness. Log loops – slim pieces of oak bent into a circle large enough to contain a stack of log – and coat racks with surprising bends sticking out of the ends are all in the ever-growing portfolio of his work.

Tom is all about nature, and being a part of the exceptional region of Cornwall in which he has made his home. The workshop is a giant wooden cabin, dappled by sunlight that easily penetrates the widely spaced mature oak, ash and beech trees. Below is a tiny Georgian gatehouse and two structures that will eventually form a state-of-the-art eco-home, interconnected by glass corridors, clad in steam- bentwood from the local forests and covered in grass roofing. The composting toilet, next to the workshop, is just a hint of the environmental passion behind Tom Raffield Designs. Tom and his wife Danielle, with their two young boys, have been living in this bucolic valley for three years and it was no easy journey. “It was a real struggle – there was no bathroom in the house for two years,” says Tom. “But although the gatekeeper’s lodge is tiny, it had eight acres of woodland and we just fell in love with the place.”

The couple are tied to the environment not just through being embedded in the outdoor lifestyle, but through their joint belief in sustainability. Tom trained as a 3D designer in Sustainability at Falmouth University and speaks ardently about his responsibility. “The designer has the biggest environmental impact on society – they are the ones designing the plastic bits and pieces that litter our beaches – and I think we have a responsibility to design things so that they’re made to last, not just in terms of their durability, but in terms of the relationship they have with a person.”

Joining forces with Danielle – whose Spatial Design qualification is also from Falmouth – was an inspired decision. Not only do they obviously work well together as a couple, but Danielle complements Tom’s slightly scatty take-on-everything creativity with excellent organizational skills. “She does all the bookkeeping, and she sorts out our systems,” Tom explains. “She can do all sorts – she even helps to make the lights, too.”

The workshop belies an incredibly prolific cottage industry, which produces large numbers of handmade items for brands as diverse as Pizza Express, Nando’s, The Dorchester Hotel and countless interior designers buying up lights and furniture for homes and businesses around the world. “Sometimes, I’ll hear that one of my pieces has been spotted in a place in New York,” says Tom. “Eighty per cent of the time, I don’t know where our stuff goes.”

John Lewis and Heal’s retail his items, with John Lewis choosing to dedicate a whole room-set at its flagship Oxford Street store to Tom Raffield Designs,
in order to showcase a ‘Made in Britain’ concept. The current fashion for buying locally – whether it’s organic food boxes, clothing or any number of household products – fits in nicely with Tom’s principle of making sustainable creations. “All of the oak we use is English – it comes from Cornwall or West Sussex. The ash tends to come from our own woodland or elsewhere in Cornwall.” Tom ruefully admits that growth as a business has meant looking further afield: “We are starting to source some wood from Europe, and walnut can only easily be sourced in the US, but we make sure that all of it is sustainably sourced – we pay extra and get the FSC (Forestry Council Registered) mark.”

Like many designers and makers in the West Country, Raffield benefits from the region in many ways – and he also gives back in spade-loads. He’s a keen proponent of the apprenticeship programme, bringing in local people and training them up for three years. They spend one day a week on a carpentry course and the other four working for fairly low income at the workshop. They are genuinely learning on the job – most apprentices start off with no relevant skills – but by the end of the three-year period they are not only qualified, but are fully engaged in the business. Tom is committed to offering full-time work to the apprentices once they complete their training, which means he has a growing team of experts who know the business inside and out. More importantly, they care about Tom Raffield Designs and have as much passion for the environmental and creative ethos as its owners.

It is inspiring to hear how democratically Tom and Danielle run the workshop. “It’s a case of empowering them to do what they think, and then we can have a look at it,” Tom explains. “You can see that people aren’t going to be rewarded by massive bonuses here, but if they feel like it’s partly their business, then it’s worth working hard for.” So the sustainability aspect doesn’t just apply to the wood that’s used, and the impact on the geographical environment, but in the people who are part of the process. “The ethos of the business is based around Cornwall,” says Tom. “It’s the seascape, the landscape and the people.”

The impact of nature is woven into every aspect of Tom Raffield Designs. He takes inspiration from the forms that he sees around him: the shape of a leaf, the opening of a bloom or the curl of a fern. These forms and patterns are what drew him to steam-bending wood in the first place. As a product designer, he was initially obsessed with metal – loving both its malleability and fluidity, as well as the rigidity of it. Discovering that wood, too, had that kind of flexibility was an eye-opener for Tom as a student. The physics of it had him slightly stymied for a while, though. “You only have about 30 seconds to bend the wood once you pull it out of the steam chamber.” Like a true creative, he came up with a solution: “I made bags that allowed me to steam and bend the wood whilst it was in the bag. This gave me more time to create really complex 3D bends.” His inventiveness leads him into a variety of design alleyways: from bentwood chaise longues to delicate and complex lighting, to working on a project to create a huge bentwood-clad summerhouse for a property in Knightsbridge.

Danielle pleads with him to take a break from new projects, but it is obvious that this will never happen. Tom has a hunger for design and unusual projects
– it’s all part of the organic growth of the business. With the team’s genuine passion, combined with boundless creativity, there is little doubt that Tom Raffield Designs will become a household name in the very near future.