If you go down to the woods today you may, just possibly, run into Sebastian Cox. Together with a group of his friends, a pocket full of sandwiches and a flask of tea he may be gathering the raw material for his simple, elegant and increasingly sought after furniture.
When Sebastian was a student he spent a year immersing himself in the ancient art of making furniture from coppiced hazel. Coppicing is a traditional practice of cutting young trees to near ground level so that they regrow from the remaining stump. Done properly, coppicing is completely sustainable. In fact there is a net environmental gain in terms of captured Co2. But while this is an environmentally positive form of production there is nothing of the glum, devoutly serious or hair shirted self-righteousness that marks the caricature of the green extreme here.
When Modenus talked to Sebastian recently we started by asking him about the starting point for his furniture. Is he motivated by the drive to create something that is sustainable? “For sustainability to work’” he says, “we have to create furniture that is interesting and appealing. Sustainability isn’t ugly or austere, it needs to be beautiful.” Sebastian is just as sophisticated in his approach to the market. “To take products to market I had to make sure products appealed to the contemporary consumer”.
It all starts with the wood. Like other creators we have spoken to Sebastian has an almost personal relationship with his chosen medium. “There is an inherent beauty in so many natural materials which have been on our palate for so long, we are naturally drawn to them. You start from the material and what it can offer. You design well from understanding the material. You must make sure the material speaks for itself and keep the design simple.” He describes the rarely used Hazel wood as a “beautifully strong, light material”. And then adds, significantly, “very marketable”.
Sebastian spent over a year immersing himself in traditional skills, using traditional tools and learning from the revered members of organizations as the splendidly entitled Association of Polelathe Turners and Greenwood Workers. These are masters of the art of ‘bodging’, traditionally turning the locally available material from the woods and forests where they live. “Some of their members are,” Sebastian confides, “ rather purist. I’m not sure what they will think of me using machinery. But I need to do that to make it financially viable”. And there, again, is a glimpse of Sebastian’s business acumen that is such a valuable tool in his skill set.
I ask Sebastian Cox about the possibility of mass production of furniture made from coppiced wood. “I am focusing on batch production for the contemporary design market.” He says confidently. “ There is no reason why it cant be moved into mass production, but I enjoy making. There is also an issue with the harvesting. The raw material is rarely wider than two inches. “So you get a chair out of a tree.” He explains. “It is not so much energy intensive but requires judgment. It requires a person.
Sebastian pays an annual fee to take as much material as he needs from the forest near his workshop. The only limitation is that he isn’t allowed to use power tools, so two or three times a year he heads into the woods with an axe and a billhook. “It is heaven, completely idyllic.” Says Sebastian. “Going into woods with flask of hot tea and sandwiches and some friends, it’s a great part of the process”.
The good news for American readers is that Sebastian is talking to partners about making his work available in the States. His business acumen is as impressive as his aesthetic creativity. Lamps, for example, are to be exported without wiring which will be completed Stateside. British manufacturers who have wrestled with the cost and red tape involved in US electrical certification will recognize this as a particularly elegant solution.
We will be hearing a lot more from Sebastian Cox. An absolute delight to talk to, he impressively combines his love of the natural world, a focus on the needs of the consumer and business acumen, all with a refreshing enthusiasm. But most of all, take a look at the lead picture from this post. When a man is this at ease, and full of joy, sourcing the raw material that both inspires his design and is the substance of his work, then you know something rather special is happening here.