Hidden behind a row of Georgian houses in a suburb of north-east London lies furniture designer Gareth Neal’s workshop. Once an old printing factory, the studio is a secluded retreat for him to focus on his designs, with plenty of space to make noise with large machinery. Just outside the small but perfectly formed studio, he adds the finishing touches to the latest of his unique pieces of furniture – the Hack chair.
Gareth combines digital and traditional techniques to produce conceptual pieces of furniture that take inspiration from the cultures that preceded them. Whether it’s a fresh take on a George III chest of drawers or a contemporary edge on a Roman vessel, each functional sculpture that comes out of the workshop stands by his personal mantra: people, process and place. These empower Gareth to approach each new project with an appreciation of fellow craftspeople, a greater understanding of historical techniques and a respect for the natural environment. It’s this commitment that makes his statement pieces really special – and the V&A certainly agrees. The Brodgar chair, created in collaboration with Orkney furniture maker Kevin Gauld, can now be seen on display in its permanent collection. This is in fact the second of his pieces to be exhibited, after his George chest of drawers was acquired back in 2013.
From a young age, Gareth dreamed of pursuing a career as a furniture maker. ‘My mum gave me some school reports from when I was nine, and I had written that I wanted to be either a potter, a furniture maker or an actor.’ Even though the idea of engineering pieces of furniture was always there, other creative outlets were a consideration. ‘I really wanted to be a photographer, but as a friend pointed out to me, photography can be a hobby, but furniture is much harder to turn into a hobby.’
Gareth decided to study furniture design and craftsmanship, a discipline that melded arts and crafts, as well as traditional carpentry. ‘Right from when I graduated, I started to sell my work. I had some really unique exhibitions with the likes of Sotheby’s, prior to starting my studio in 2002,’ he explains. Soon after, Gareth began to think carefully about the type of work that he wanted to create. ‘My brother did a degree in sculpture and I didn’t see the functionality of it. I see my furniture design as a form of sculpting that creates something practical,’ he says.
From the get-go, Gareth has tried to make his designs as environmentally friendly as possible – his Hack chair uses discarded wood from the timber industry. ‘They tend to cut the trunk out of the tree and then the crown or the stump is not used as it is deemed valueless. We take these fairly unwanted elements of the furniture industry and cut out a form’.
Telling a story
Passion, precision and telling a story are at the foundation of the pieces that Gareth crafts. ‘The ability to create a narrative behind my work is vital,’ he says. ‘It’s important to find the story in order to give the piece of furniture something more than just being nice to look at.’
Every project has its own individuality, but once the brief has been set, the process is quite consistent. There are countless steps that go into the design of each of his works, such as the use of 3D drawings. ‘The computer can be an amazing tool to develop works. Things evolve so much faster and you can really refine an idea.’ In the case of the Hack chair, a 7-axis CNC machine does the initial hard graft of carving out the design.
In with the new
Throughout Gareth’s expansive career, collaborating has been a constant – and it remains to this day a primary source of inspiration. ‘The collaboration with [architect] Zaha Hadid is very precious to me, as is the work I created with Kevin Gauld up in Orkney.’ His most recent collaboration with those champions of British craft, The New Craftsmen, is scheduled to be revealed at the London Design Festival in September.
So, what’s next for Gareth? Recently, he has taken a step away from wood and is now embarking on digitally printed sand vessels. ‘I’m really proud of this work, and it’s getting an amazing response,’ he says. Beyond that, he will continue to craft beautiful sculptures from his little slice of countryside in the big city.
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‘I first came across Gareth’s work before I knew I was going to be co-founding The New Craftsmen. He is a trailblazer in the modern craft movement. It was because of the Bodging Milano project, which Gareth was a part of in 2010, that he was the one I wanted to collaborate with to launch the Brodgar chair when The New Craftsmen started. He has a real sensitivity and understanding for the tradition of vernacular furniture. There was great ingenuity and curiosity, and a sense of design to reinvent a piece of furniture that feels modern, but still very much rooted in its heritage. He has a great respect for skill and he wants to make sure his design response has the perfect blend of people being able to bring design, imagination and making skills together.’