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In Conversation With Furniture Designer Will James | Artisans Stories

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In Conversation With Furniture Designer Will James | Artisans Stories

Will James’ elegant furniture, crafted in a studio in central London, would look equally at place in a design museum as in a modern home. That is to say, with a recognisable 20th century influence, elegant design, quality manufacture and unique design detailing, Will has managed to create a style which is both distinct and timeless.

“Stylistically I take a lot of inspiration from Scandinavian and Nordic furniture of the mid 20th century, but my influence for individual pieces can be very varied.  I like my furniture to have broad appeal yet still have the traditional engineers view of function above everything, so often I will look to incorporate a design idea into the detailing, rather than the piece as a whole."

Table, Furniture

Signature Design Details

"I try to make these playful without becoming gimmicky. Some recent examples would be the legs on my Avery tables, inspired by a coil of fishing ropes on a harbour wall and the drawer pulls on my Spero tallboy unit, inspired by the ribbons on a birthday present.  Although I never set out to trick the eye, both of these are skeuomorphic - they often look like they should be made from other materials (in these instances rope and ribbon) and possibly couldn’t be made out of wood; but on close inspection they indeed are. If those details alone make someone smile then I’m very happy with my work.”

It is perhaps Will’s experience with a wide range of materials that has led to an unpredictable and a fresh approach using this ancient material. Will grew up experimenting with whatever he could lay his hands on be it lego, clay, paper or cast metal. Interestingly it was rarely with wood. His interest in assembling things by hand was probably further fulled by Will working in a metal shop before University.

I was fascinated with how things worked and how they were put together.”

Table, Furniture

“...mostly milling, turning and welding, and whilst the material itself didn’t intrigue me much, I loved the idea of turning a piece of blank stock into a functional item.”

Starting Furniture Design

Functionality seems to drive Will’s approach to design as much as the aesthetic. After university Will was flooded with engineering job offers but none of them excited him. So understandably, swayed by the allure of living the London life, friends nearby and making money as a graduate, Will took the surprising turn of going into a career in international energy markets. Then a need for functionality brought Will back to his design roots.

“I forgot about my creative urges for a while until my daughter was born. Needing to buy furniture for her as she grew, I realised a lot of what was available was of very poor quality and was essentially made to be disposable.  When she grew out of her cot, I decided that I would build her a bed myself.  It wasn’t technically very accomplished, and looked nothing like the pieces I make today. Maybe there is demand for rainbow painted beds out there? I was so proud of what I had made and the look on her face on seeing the new bed, is one of my happiest moments in life.”

Table, Furniture

From that first rainbow cot everything grew. It started off with furniture for the house, then furniture for his parents, then siblings and friends. It was only when Will received a request from an Instagram follower for a dining room table, that he realised this could be, not just a hobby, but a career.

“For a few years furniture was made to commission in my spare time. I eventually quit my job when it dawned on me how much I resented going to the office each day (OK - it was 2 years after realising this).  I had been almost completely self taught until this point so one of the first things I did was to enrol at Waters & Acland furniture school in the Lake District to hone my core skills and to learn more about fine furniture making and design."

Table, Furniture, Wood

"From there I’ve never looked back and Knot Design was launched last year to showcase a small range I have been designing.  I still take on bespoke work, but these pieces often serve as a really good starting point for a conversation about what the client is really after.”

Designing the Range

"The initial point for me is now in deciding on a piece that fits best to expand the range (cabinetry, seating, specific room, etc.).  Before that my designs were mostly in response to client briefs or occasionally making speculative pieces for exhibitions.”

Once decided on a piece for the range, Will starts the design process on the computer.

Drawer, Furniture

“I’m not a great sketcher or artist so head to CAD earlier than many would.  Given my background I find it much simpler from there to hone my designs even if I will end up modelling 10-20 different versions to get one that I’m happy with. As I get to the later stages I’ll work on scale or full-sized mockups of individual details or joinery arrangements.”

From design to manufacturing, this engineers mindset is invaluable when creating designs which are efficient to craft as well as functional and accessible.

 “I’m hardwired to be constantly thinking about how each design would be made, and what potential pitfalls there are. I don't wan’t my furniture to live in a very narrow niche (and that means financially too) so I need to ensure that the components don’t take forever to make.”

Shelf, Furniture

“My favourite part is still the making - if Knot grows in the future, I definitely won’t take a complete backseat on the making side. This is what drew me into this world in the first place and I would never want to part with it. The satisfaction of shaping each piece and seeing the wood grain change as you do, is incomparable to me."

Making and Mental Health

However the making process isn’t just an enjoyable part of the job, for Will it has become something more than that, as he candidly shares:

“I have had mental health issues for most of my adult life.  Episodes were sufficiently rare that I didn’t pay it much attention. I thought I was just having a bad day, and had been brought up with the mentality of the stiff upper lip. However the stress levels of my job ramped up to the point that I struggled to cope with anxiety and depression, which manifested itself in a number of unpleasant ways.  After a period of therapy I have got better at reading the warning signs and attempting to deal with them.  I’ve developed techniques to address unwelcome thoughts, postpone them in my mind until I am able to, or releasing the thoughts over which I have no control.”

“I have learned as I’ve got older that I need to find pursuits to give my brain the chance to decompress. For me that has been running and furniture making.  Both of these have the essential qualities of grounding you in the moment, focussing on exactly what you are doing there and then, not what has come before or will come after. Having a career I love has made this easier - I worried that making this my work would layer pressure on and may take the enjoyment away, but that has not been the case.”

For Will, it seems Knot Design is not just a means by which to create beautiful and well designed objects, but a way of making objects which serve a purpose in the world - giving satisfaction and joy to the eventual user, and to the maker himself.

Discover more of Will's work at Knot Design here.

Also read "In Conversation With Furniture Restorer Julia Walton | Artisans Stories