There can be few smells more universally appealing than the smell of wood. Fresh-cut wood shavings. This is the scent that accosts you when you walk into Henry Swanzy’s workshop on the docks in Falmouth. The senses are in heaven here – not just this aroma, but above Henry’s workbench is a window overlooking the glittering water and gently swaying yachts of a peaceful marina. And then there are the pieces themselves. In varying stages of creation, there are planks of wood, half-turned legs and completed stools, benches and tables. Eminently tactile, everything invites you to reach out and touch, stroke and rest your hands upon it. This, I realise, after talking to Henry, is what happens when you look at hand-finished work. You are drawn to the character and personality in the wood – it is the natural imperfection, both in the material itself and in the human intervention. Production-line furniture, no matter how exquisitely designed, just doesn’t have that visceral draw...
Henry Swanzy first started making furniture 17 years ago, spending many years creating bespoke hand-made pieces for commission in workshops in London before setting up and running his own studio in Wiltshire. This is a man who knows his business. Looking at the sketches littering his desk and printouts of prototypes, it is obvious that there’s a marksman’s precision in the way he creates furniture, too. “I have a real love of simple physics,’ he enthuses, explaining in detail how a small wedge inserted into the top of a table leg can hold the entire thing together with no movement and no need for any other attachment. He turns to the Bareppa coffee table: essentially a glass top slotted into three large wooden pins. The tapered oak legs are tilted outwards at an angle and the glass sits perfectly into the ‘heads’. A black bungee is looped between the legs – giving the table a functional aesthetic. “It is the simplicity which really pleases me,’ says Henry, demonstrating how the table can be assembled in less than a minute. “The angle of slot on the legs is what provides the strength, the bungee cord just holds the legs in place.”
The combination of simplicity of form and functionality is evident in all of Henry Swanzy’s work. The handmade element is fundamental, too. “There’s a Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi which really explains the way I see my work,” he says. “It’s based around the acceptance of transience and imperfection.” The challenge for artists and craftsmen like Henry is the mass production of pieces – particularly those made in China - driving prices down and making hand-worked furniture more difficult to market. But there is still a vital element which is missing in production-line furniture, Henry explains: “I would like to think that what we produce is fairly readily identifiable as not having the very crisp machine-made manufacturing line aesthetic, and there’s just little subtle elements which give it this character. I’m not into indulgent craft for indulgent craft’s sake... but if you can give something a unique character by making it by hand, then that’s time well spent and that does mark us apart.”
He leans on a large glass-topped trestle table, explaining its growth from idea through several prototypes to the final product. “I’ve really scrutinized the trestle – I thought, what’s the minimum it needs to be? And, having identified that, how can I make that minimal thing a thing of beauty?” Pointing to the three splayed legs at each end of the table, he adds, “So you take the trestle down to three legs – because you can. And if you put one of those legs pointing inwards, then the person sitting at the end has really good leg-room.” There’s an artist’s drive in all of Henry’s work. His inspiration, he says, is hard to pin down – but being in Falmouth definitely has an impact. “It’s the sea, the view. The pace of life. I suppose inspiration comes from the frame of mind that being in a place puts you in. I really don’t know where my ideas come from. I do a lot of thinking while I’m driving – which I do quite a bit of in the West Country – so I often pull into a service station and sketch. I find that it’s really good, clear thinking time. Then you just inject that element of unknown-ness – which is all about your frame of mind and your surroundings and the silence and the birds and whatever it may be... and that determines how you process an idea.” He lives with his young family in a cottage in a remote woodland outside Falmouth – the bucolic location of the forest images that feature in his website. There seems little better place for a self- confessed ‘woody person’ to live.
Falmouth is renowned for its art school and it was when Henry had “fallen out of love with making bespoke furniture” that he decided to do an MA in furniture design at Falmouth University, and he fell in love with the environment of South West Cornwall. Seven years later, he cannot imagine moving anywhere else – and it’s not just the scenery that has held him here. His workshop is in a typical marine dockside. To one side is a swanky new development of residential flats overlooking the harbour, yet surrounding the workshop is a tumbledown collection of industrial buildings containing everything from recording studios to marine engineering businesses. Henry’s passion for simplicity and his artistic aesthetic is balanced with his business acumen and appreciation for the mechanics of making furniture.
“What is brilliant about Falmouth is the amount of small industries that there are kicking around, particularly because of the marine industries,” he says. “Falmouth is fantastic for small-scale manufacturing solutions. I know people who can do all sorts of stuff – like good precision engineers, or someone who could give me advice on making one particular element, or a branding guru to help me develop the business. The stainless steel that I use is all produced in local marine- based studios or workshops.” He also appreciates that, in this part of the world, “People are prepared to do things for a few quid, rather than saying, ‘you’ll have to go and speak to the operations manager, and no we’re not really interested and you can wait a week and it’ll cost you £300’, it’s, ‘yeah – I’ll do it and slip us £20, and job done.’”
Henry may be in the “arse end of nowhere” as he describes his idyllic location, but he is outward looking. While taking his furniture up to shows in London and selling to clients all over the country, the West Country provides inspiration, contentment and a community that helps to develop and build his ideas. But with his eye on the future and the production of pieces that combine ergonomics, aesthetics and ethics (the oak is sustainably sourced from France and carries Forestry Stewardship Council certification, and the ash is all English), the business can only expand. The challenge is to keep making furniture that is hand made – which means employing more people in the same vein as his current employee, Adrian, who is (literally) honing his skills after completing a joiner’s apprenticeship and was ‘rescued’ by Henry from an uninspiring job as a site chippie. Another challenge is to sell furniture that is by its very nature so tactile – in a world that is becoming dominated by online purchasing. While Henry Swanzy’s pieces are exquisite to look at, it is still the unique character - the wabi-sabi - of the hand-turned legs on a stool, the varying hues of a wooden seat or a thin layer of cork that holds a glass table-top in place that catches the eye and draws you in.