We featured Tom Raffield’s stunning steam bent No 1 pendant a while ago, but as longstanding fans of his beautifully crafted furniture and lighting, we thought we’d find out more about this talented British designer, so we caught up with him for a chat…
Tom’s fascination with the traditional practice of steam bending began while studying at Falmouth College of Arts, where he discovered the traditional technique of using a chamber wouldn’t allow him to create the complex 3D bends he had envisaged. Years of research and experimentation allowed him to develop a new steaming method to turn his design visions into reality.
Tom was co-founder of the award-winning collective design company Sixixis, recognised for unique aesthetic, forward-thinking designs and now, through his own company, Tom continues to create spectacular, ecologically sound, innovative furniture and lighting from his studios in Cornwall.
In 2011, he was Winner of the Lighting Design Association’s Lighting Design Award.
What made you want to work in design?
From a young age I was much better at putting things together and crafting things from wood than academia. After university I studied 3D design where I worked with steam bending a lot and developed my own methods. I realised the environmental benefits of this process and felt passionate about combining it with locally sourced sustainably managed timber.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of behind your pieces?
Steam bending is a traditional process steeped in history and culture. It was once a vital practice, paramount to the production of weapons, tools and water vessels. Sadly, with the advance of technology this practice has been replaced and become less common.
With little time and a lot of practice, I have developed my own way of using steam, which has reinvented this traditional process and brought it into the 21st century. With the new tools and the methods I’ve developed, I can twist and bend wood as freely as you use a pencil for drawing. Having such a good understanding of the material and the process ensures there are no restrictions on my creativity; believing anything can be achieved is extraordinarily liberating!
Why furniture and lighting?
This is what I always wanted to do: to be my own boss and make something completely new and different from scratch. I’ve always been driven to design and wanted to make things that people will cherish and keep forever. Furniture and lighting in recent years have become a disposable commodity. I want to challenge this by creating the antiques of the future.
What would your ideal project be?
Designing all of the furniture and lighting for a boutique hotel or unusual, extraordinary residence would be incredible. Somewhere people come to stay and see all the endless possibilities that steam bending can achieve. Furniture, lighting… even parts of the structure of buildings. That would be the ultimate project.
What inspires you?
I grew up in the extreme wilderness, tranquility and natural beauty of Exmoor. This environment stimulated my imagination and gave me the freedom to be adventurous with my designs. For the last 9 years I have been living and working in Cornwall. I’m incredibly passionate about the Cornish environment and community and often find inspiration from the shapes and lines of the sea, the windswept shores and craggy woodlands. The aesthetics of the Cornish countryside have certainly played a heavy influence on my work.
From weathered tors to windswept beaches, there is no shortage of beauty and inspiration here. The weather can change from clear and blue to hard-grey and wet in a matter of minutes, it’s all very humbling.
Which piece are you most proud of?
I am in love with our new May Table (above) which is part of the growing furniture range. It is called the May Table, named for the uplifting changes of this month. This piece uses the design principle of creating robust, strong and functional pieces with an artisan element. It also pushes the boundaries of what steam bending can achieve. I always aim to craft pieces that combine a special beauty with function. The complex wooden twist beneath the table is both beautiful and integral to the structure. Without it the piece would have no strength.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you do for a living?
I’ve never really thought about this much as I have always know that I wanted to make things for a living. However, I love travelling and exploring the world. Can I say an explorer or an adventurer? The likely hood is that I would ultimately end up being inspired by things found or seen on my travels and would be making anyway.
What piece of recognised design do you love?
It would have to be the No. 14 chair made by the Thonet chair company. It was designed in 1859 and was an affordable, simple design made utilizing steam-bending. Made from six pieces of wood, 10 screws and two nuts. It was a revolutionary design for the era.
And finally, what’s coming up next for you?
We are looking towards the London Design Festival where we will be launching a new chandelier which is exciting for us as it is encapsulates what our core values are. Now that the business has grown I have more time to step away from everyday workshop tasks and get back to the drawing board, literally. Doing what I love to do. Creating original designs, inspired by my surroundings.
To find out more about Tom’s work, visit his website >