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Culture
Philip Koomen's Pondlife bench at Bourton House

From forest to furniture

Oxfordshire Artweeks director Esther Lafferty on the timeless magic of a walk in the woods, a magic that we can take right into our homes with us with the careful choice of hand-made furniture
Quality and design are crucial for Koomen and, all too aware that local woodlands are now in a state of ecological and economic crisis, Koomen is passionate about the provenance of his wood.

"Koomen was first acclaimed for his cutting edge design twenty years ago with a series of sculptural forms of furniture which have become iconic, in particular his original ‘Pondlife’ series"

A fine old tree is beautiful to behold: organic yet majestic, humming with life and yet imbued with a natural tranquillity, and as its life-cycles ends, it can be transformed with craftsmanship and creativity into an object that lives on whether as furniture, for example, or a piece of art, saving the soul of the tree in perpetuity. After a lifetime above our heads, it has a whole second life inside our homes.

This story was told recently when an iconic oak tree which grew where an acorn fell naturally in the grounds of Blenheim Palace grounds and 222 years later reached the grand old height of 80 feet. When this tree was felled, it became one of the most studied in the UK forming the basis of an environmental project ‘OneOak’, which encompassed both scientific research, conducted by the Sylva Foundation and the University of Oxford, and social history: the story of British forestry and wood culture.

Koomen's Pondlife table

 

Woodworkers have been at the centre of civilization building, from the first settlements over 10,000 years ago to the present day, and master craftsman Philip Koomen is the Oxfordshire furniture maker chosen to work alongside the scientists, creating furniture from the old oak’s wood.

 

Koomen’s workshop is nestled in the most glorious countryside, in the Chiltern beech woods where the hills descend through open farm land to the Thames valley at Checkendon, near Wallingford, a village that shimmers in late April with the purple of some of the best bluebell woods in South Oxfordshire, and it’s hard to imagine a more inspirational spot.

Koomen was first acclaimed for his cutting edge design twenty years ago with a series of sculptural forms of furniture which have become iconic, in particular his original ‘Pondlife’ series, described as ‘organic’ and ‘wildly eccentric’ by The Independent and which resulted in commissions from Beatle George Harrison and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. The original was made from cedar of Lebanon and sweet chestnut thinnings, giving a sustainable life to wood otherwise destined to be burnt. It has since been re-created in many different interpretations.

Other of Koomen’s designs, in contrast, are far more structured and take an almost architectural approach to wood, and his projects have ranged from flowing modern creations to classically-styled pieces ornate with fine detail, and he relishes the challenge of more elaborate commissions.

“I was commissioned a couple of years ago,” says Koomen, “to design and produce new choir stalls in Oxfordshire oak for the fifth century Abbey in Dorchester-on-Thames. They needed to be easy to move for events and concerts, as well as functional so that choir members could be comfortable in very different postures — sitting, kneeling and perching. They also had to be classical yet current, and enduringly beautiful.”

The final design incorporates the medieval, 18th century and Victorian elements of the abbey, with a carved roundel design that fits perfectly amongst the stained glass and medieval paintings. With his workshop team (James Willis and Dan Harrison), Koomen is currently working on a furniture commission for the new Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. The furniture, a range of tables and chairs using oak originally from the university’s Harcourt Estate, Nuneham Courtenay, is to be located in a ‘Window to the World’ space, a perfect view for an ecological dreamer!

Inspired all his life by the richness and possibilities of nature, Koomen is also driven by his value for the environment and its sustainability, and is excited by creativity and the exploration of new forms, from the most organic to a more structured architectural style.

Quality and design are crucial for Koomen and, all too aware that local woodlands are now in a state of ecological and economic crisis, Koomen is passionate about the provenance of his wood. He has become an enthusiastic advocate of the ethical use of native timber which he sources from local woodlands within a thirty mile radius of the workshop, often using pieces that have unusual character, seeing the importance of sustainability as an integral part of what he produces. Over the last decade, he has created a local cycle for sourcing and processing timber and developed a forestry project which promotes greater collaboration among woodland owners and sawmills, showing the active impact a contemporary craftsperson can have in a rapidly changing, innovative but environmentally challenged world.

Philip now tends to choose timber which has no obvious market, and air-dries the pieces at his workshop, a process which takes several years, after which they are ready to be hand-crafted into enduring furniture. “The journey to find the right wood starts with a visit to a woodland or timber yard. It is only when a log is being cut at the sawmill that the grain is revealed and the potential known,” explains Koomen, ‘”and it’s often the wood stock itself that inspires a particular piece or design."

Koomen has always been keen to experiment with different approaches to working with wood and furniture-making, pondering whether it is art, craft or design, and trialling new ways to cut, shape and join timber. Working at the interplay of wood and creativity, he never loses sight of the essence of the woods he uses as, and enjoys the journey of creation with each individual piece.

With a research degree (PhD) in Sustainable Furniture Design, and awards under his tool-belt for exceptional professional practice and creativity for advancing the field of wood science, last year Philip was funded by The Arts Council to look at ‘Ideas in the Making’, an opportunity for further experimentation outside the confines of furniture making and he is now putting these most recent learnings into practice, testing them out as educational tools with students in GCSE years and undergraduates, and creating new pieces that have the purity and appearance of sculptural forms.

Philip Koomen welcomes visitors to his Checkendon workshop between and 9-5pm on weekdays and at weekends can be arranged by appointment.You can see more about him and his furniture at www.philipkoomen.co.uk

Dorchester Abbey is open to the public daily and has a wonderful teashop.
For further information visit www.dorchester-abbey.org.uk

 

- Esther Lafferty

 

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