Inspired by his natural surroundings, craftsman Tom tells us about his hands-on approach and why originality and sustainability are important
Designer Tom, aged 33, studied at Falmouth College of Arts where he first learnt about steam bending. After co-founding the collective Sixixis, Tom along with his wife and business partner Danielle, founded the Tom Raffield studio in 2008. Their biggest project to date is their own steam bent house in Cornwall where they live with their three young children. It was recently featured on TV show Grand Designs.
Where were you raised and how has your childhood influenced your work today?
I grew up surrounded by the extreme wilderness, tranquility and natural beauty of Exmoor, England. This environment stimulated my imagination and inspired an adventurous freedom in my designs. My fascination with the traditional practice of steam bending first began while studying, where I discovered the traditional technique of using a chamber wouldn’t allow me to create the complex 3D bends I had envisaged.
Can you tell us all about your workshops in the West Country?
We built our workshops out of the timber from the woodland. Along with my team of crafts people, I believe it’s important to live and work somewhere which reflects who we are and what we love doing. It’s so far west that the weather and landscape is quite extreme. We are close to the sea and feel this landscape inspires creativity.
What drew you to working with wood?
I’m a designer at heart and just fell in love with processes that transform materials into seemingly impossible shapes and objects. Once you start working with timber, I think you fall in love with it because each piece is different and behaves differently. Some of the timber we use comes from our own woodland, however we have to import some specific woods such as walnut from Europe and the US, but we make sure everything we use comes from sustainable sources.
What makes the process of steam bending interesting?
The steam bending process dates back to the Romans, which I find really intriguing. The process has been used in different ways over the centuries, but like many craft processes, it’s still relevant today because of how the crafts person uses it. I always relate it to drawing; an artist will use drawing as a form of expression, the same can be said for steam bending. Anything is possible once you know you are only held back by your imagination!
What fascinates you about lighting?
Transformation – lighting has the power to completely change a space and the atmosphere. I love the idea of using wood in lighting; wood touched with light is beautiful and can really make a space feel very special. I like to create lighting with the dedication and design as you would a fine piece of furniture. Our lighting and furniture is made in the same way; all handmade and created with exceptional quality and craftsmanship. This together with the unique aesthetic I hope will make timeless pieces that will be around and cherished for years to come.
How important do you think originality is in design and how do you aspire to keep your designs fresh and interesting?
I think it is the single most important thing. It’s what makes your design valid, relevant and sets it apart from anything done before. As a designer, I feel in part responsible to not just recreate the past to suit a certain trend or fashion, but rather strive for originality. This is where a design process is so intrinsic in succeeding. I always start with getting into the workshop and just experimenting in 3D to produce a shape or idea I want to develop. Through making and trial and error, a finished design is produced. Designing through making suits the way I work but more importantly helps me to create original products.
Can you tell us about your sculptural collection?
This new collection is a marriage between the inspiring area where we live and work; the nature that surrounds us and pushing the boundaries of the process we use, steam bending. The process of steam bending is the perfect way in which I can recreate designs which have been inspired by nature... they go hand in hand and the new pieces reflects this union. The new collection incorporates three stunning pendant lights, an armchair, wood bent screen, contemporary wooden bench and stool.
If you could have designed any product that’s not your own, what would it be?
The No.14 Thonet chair. It’s elegant, simple, functional, steam bent and most importantly, timeless. It was first put into production nearly 160 years ago and is more popular now than ever before.
Do you have some exciting future plans coming up that you can reveal?
Ah, so much! My wife and I have just finished building our new house, where we steam bent many walls and all of the timber from the interior cladding, furniture, lights and exterior cladding comes from our own woodland. I am passionate about sustainability, nature, design and hand-making things in England. I really want to make a different approach to design, one that I hope will lead me to all sorts of wonderful, innovative conclusions over the years to come.
You can view the full collection here.
Article by: Emma Foale