Wood Workers of Dorset

Simon (left) and John (right) wth the raw material of their craft

Simon (left) and John (right) wth the raw material of their craft - Credit: Archant

In a quiet corner of Dorset, Simon Thomas Pirie and his team are continuing the legacy of craftsmanship brought to the county by legendary designer John Makepeace.

In recent years Dorset has developed an exceptional modern tradition of furniture making and woodcraft. From Guy Mallinson’s back-to-nature greenwood courses in a Dorset wood to Petter Southall’s trendsetting gallery at Sladers Yard in West Bay, the county is alive with creative woodworking. Much of this flourishing industry is due to the quiet influence of international furniture designer John Makepeace.

Back in the 1970s, John Makepeace established Parnham College to train furniture makers alongside his own studios at Parnham House in Beaminster. The college rapidly gained an international reputation with alumni including Lord Linley and a host of other now eminent furniture designers and makers. In the 1980s Makepeace founded nearby Hooke Park College, which had a more radical vision to train and inspire a generation of craftspeople to work with native English woods using sustainable methods.

Many of Makepeace’s students stayed in Dorset and went on to establish their own studios. One of the most successful is Simon Thomas Pirie, who designs and makes beautiful contemporary furniture for people across the UK and further afield.

Visiting Simon’s workshop in a farmyard just outside Briantspuddle, you immediately sense an inspiring combination of dedication and enthusiasm. This is a typically unpretentious Dorset set-up, reached via a bumpy track; a workplace of saws and machinery with a small studio space attached, set in a quadrangle of weathered Edwardian brick.

One of the first things you notice is the delicious scent of wood shavings and then the sight and sounds of men working with great vigour to make and create. Like as not you’ll find Simon and his small team energetically whacking pegs into a jig to steam-bend a piece of oak for a bench, precision fitting joints of pale ash to make an elegant dressing table, or scorching lengths of wood with a blowtorch.

Scorching provides a natural weatherproofing as well as striking artistic effect for outdoor furniture. Simon’s outdoor pieces are currently very popular with those who want something subtly modern but made of traditional materials. Last year he used the scorching technique for public seating in Dorchester’s Tudor Arcade and this year Liberty’s of London are stocking his Floating Bench.

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“The Floating Bench typifies our approach. It’s made of scorched and scrubbed oak, it’s very simple and strong and yet it has a twist,” explains Simon, who trained originally as a sculptor.

“The idea came to me while we were working on the Tudor Arcade seating, which is made of the same materials. The floating arm and back is a nice trick and it makes you look twice. It has lightness and simplicity,” says Simon. His design ethos, he goes on to explain, was shaped strongly by a visit to Japan in 1992.

“The Japanese aesthetic is one of pared down simplicity. There’s also an appealing mix of the traditional and the modern – you’ll see tiny traditional wooden houses right next to skyscrapers. Interestingly, the Japanese don’t have much of a legacy of furniture making but they do have a reverence for craft materials and a strong appreciation of ceremony and ornament.”

Working alongside Simon are his co-director and workshop manager, John Beaves, and cabinet maker, Michael Smith. John became a co-director in 2007 and Mike joined the company as a maker five years ago. Together the trio form a unique synthesis of skills: Simon brings artistic vision and design, John is a skilled maker and organiser, and Mike is brilliant at the technical aspects of construction and problem solving.

“The truth is we all muck in together,” says Simon with a grin. “There’s quite a lot of chaffing and laughter in the workshop, interspersed with quite intense periods of quiet concentration. The serious side is understandable when you are dealing with such special raw materials and aiming for an exquisite, silky finish.”

The sustainability issue of working with wood is a key factor for the trio. “For that reason, we mostly use English woods, much of them from trees we have sourced, felled and dried ourselves,” says Simon. “I am a graduate of Makepeace’s Hooke Park College and the thinking behind Hooke, which was all about sustainability and ecological balance, has had a long-term effect on my work.

“For example, we were offered some of a very special walnut tree, about 200 years old, which had become unstable. We felled it, cut it into long planks and kiln dried it. This year we used it for the cabinets in a beautiful bespoke kitchen in a Georgian house near Bath. It looked tremendous. It’s so satisfying to know that you’ve taken a lovely tree at the end of its life and given its wood a new future, maybe for another 200 years.”

However, selecting trees while they are still growing can be a nerve-wracking process as Simon explains: “You never really know what you have got, especially with walnut, until you cut into the tree after you have felled it. By then you have paid for it, transported it to the kiln to be dried, and you still don’t know what the wood inside is really going to look like. The first cut on a log always makes me nervous and it’s only with a fresh saw cut the truth will be revealed. The wood could have hidden disease damage that makes it unusable.”

Another issue can be the variability of colour and grain within a piece of wood. “This is especially true with walnut where the colour and character varies hugely from tree to tree – ranging from very dark and knotty to a much lighter and more open grain. If we run out of wood from a particular tree in the middle of a project it can be a nightmare finding a match from another tree.”

Walnut is a relatively rare wood and one the studio reserves for special projects requiring an extra ‘wow factor’. For day-to-day projects they are more likely to work in oak, elm, sycamore or ash. The last of these has sadly made headlines recently due to a rampant disease sweeping through our ash trees. “I can’t tell you how sad the whole ash dieback situation makes me feel,” says Simon. “I’m committed to using English native wood and ash is a big part of the English furniture tradition, it’s also part of the landscape here in Dorset.”

With this in mind the trio decided to give ash a positive story and show off its sophisticated side with a piece called ‘Rosa’. “We designed a lady’s dressing table entirely in beautiful native ash. I love the pale straw colour, characterful grain texture and the strength and vitality that show through on the Rosa table.”

As well as having set pieces Simon and his team work on bespoke pieces made to commission. “I enjoy making one-off items for people; it’s a very collaborative process. The end result is as much the client’s piece as it is ours. There’s a real joy in listening to people and understanding what they want, interpreting that and making them smile.”

Looking ahead, as chairman of Dorset Visual Arts, Simon is deeply involved with planning for next year’s Dorset Art Weeks, the biggest open studios event of its kind in the UK. He’s been an organiser for many years and was one of the leading lights in setting up the new Dorset Art Trails.

“Dorset has a wonderful spread of artists and craftspeople and it’s my aim to help grow that type of activity in the county. It’s something that makes us special as a place.

“Incidentally, not many people realise that the original Dorset Art Week was started after John Makepeace visited a similar event in Oxfordshire and suggested that we could run one here.”

Once again, it appears that Makepeace provided a seed from which much of Dorset’s creative industry has sprouted. Who would think that in the modern world that oldest of resources, woodland could be so influential?

Simon’s top 5 English woods

Walnut - Britain’s most spectacular timber; though relatively rare, the quest for a good piece is part of its thrill. Best for fine furniture.

Elm - Still available from Northern England and Scotland it has strong colours and good grain character. Best for table tops.

Sycamore - Though not strictly native it now grows widely in the UK. Buttery, white with complex textures, it smells buttery too. Best for lightening contemporary interiors.

Ash - The unsung hero of English furniture making, traditionally used for chairs and door handles. It bends well and is light and strong. Best for pieces with steam-bent elements.

Oak - The Shire horse of the timber world it’s strong, durable and traditional. No wonder it occupies a special place in the English psyche. Best for outdoor furniture.