Renowned for his innovative steam bending techniques, most recently featured on Grand Designs, Tom Raffield transforms solid wood into artistic, flowing pieces. He speaks to our writer, Amris, from his remote studio in Cornwall, to discuss a love of nature, his new furniture collection and the future of design.
Amris Kaur: Do you remember when you first knew this is what you wanted to do?
Tom Raffield: At university I developed my own way of steam bending wood, and I became completely obsessed by it. I couldn’t believe what you could achieve with solid timber – it’s an incredible process! And it’s very sustainable, which is fitting as people start to realise how sustainability is a crucial part of anyone’s design philosophy.
AK: What inspires the flowing forms of your pieces?
TR: I see nature as my source of inspiration, and with steam bending I've found I can mimic natural forms and turn them into beautiful products. Having a brief that’s inspired by nature makes you feel as though you can do anything.
AK: What’s your most challenging piece to make?
TR: Probably the Arbor armchair and the Gwelsen screen. The Arbor armchair has a 3D band, and it’s so challenging to bend and twist the wood in such a short space of time. Half of our battle is selecting and sourcing the timber to make the product, because there’s no glue or veneers, it’s all solid timber. So we always source high quality timber from several different woodlands in England.
AK: What about the Pendant No.1 light?
TR: Every month I try and analyse how we can make this faster, and we can’t do it! I've got a love-hate relationship with it! But honestly, there’s nothing like it. It’s a beautiful light and when it’s the only light on in the room, it creates this incredible lighting effect. I’ve got so many in my house and we love them.
AK: I guess that’s what makes it so fascinating to people – the thought and time behind it.
TR: Yeah, and that’s the nice thing about the Arbor armchair too, I think people can appreciate the skill that’s gone into it. That’s so important with our products – to try and get an essence of how they're not mass-produced but made with care and attention.
AK: Do you have a favourite piece?
TR: The Skipper light is so simple but works in so many different spaces. But not only that, it can transform a space too. I think because of the shadows it creates, and its size makes it almost feels as though it floats in the space. We’ve got quite a few of them in our house too!
AK: What’s your all-time favourite piece of design, or your favourite designer?
TR: My favourite design ever is something that you probably see every day: the No.14 cafe chair by Michael Thonet. It was the first product I studied at college, and it shows how something that was made probably about 160 years ago is still used today. It’s timeless.
AK: How do you see the future of design?
TR: I truly believe that sustainability should be synonymous with good design – much like quality and function are – and that this is the answer to environmental challenges we face. It’s great to see consumer expectations changing to recognise this. I hope more designers will realise that adopting sustainable design principles isn’t a barrier to creativity and design, but rather opportunity to explore and do incredible new things.