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Tom Raffield designs and makes steam-bent furniture from a woodland workshop in the Trevarno Valley near Helston. He tells Katie Treggiden why it’s so important for him to invest in the local community.
Using a unique steam-bending technique he developed while still studying at University College Falmouth, Tom Raffield designs and makes all of his products in a workshop he and his team built five years ago from trees that had fallen during a storm. He lives on site in an old gamekeeper’s cottage with wife and business partner Danie and their two boys, Bearwyn, two, and Beauregard, four. It’s a location that is crucial to his work. “The woodland is my main source of inspiration,” he says. “There are acres of beautiful, untouched and remote woodland in this valley, which is a rare thing in this part of Cornwall and we are lucky enough to own about seven acres. I wouldn’t be making the sort of work I am if we were anywhere else – I only need to step out of my front door and walk a short distance through the trees and an idea for a new design could be staring me in the face.” A case in point is his Scots Light, a wooden lampshade handmade from 80 individually cut and steam-bent ‘leaves’ of ash, inspired by the cones that fall from the Scots pine trees that surround him.
Walking through his workshop, the making process needs little explanation – trees go in one end and finished products come out the other. Apart from that steam-bending technique of course: instead of heating wood in a steam-filled box and then bringing it out to bend – a process limited by the 30 seconds to a minute in which the wood must be bent before it cools – his steamer is a bag, allowing the wood to be bent inside, removing the time limitation and enabling incredibly complex three-dimensional shapes to be formed. One of his earliest products was a chair made entirely from a single length of wood.
More recent products include the Arbor Sofa, which features one long ribbon of oak forming the front legs, arms and backrest, plus a base, three back legs and a fixed seat upholstered in wool from one of the few vertical woollen mills left in Britain; and the Giant Flock Chandelier, which comprises over 120 individual steam-bent wooden shapes suspended around three tungsten light bulbs, to mimic a swirling flock of starlings in the twilight sky.
This distinctive body of work has won Tom a Lighting Design Award, and recent selection as one of Kevin McCloud’s Green Heroes and as one of Walpole’s Brands of Tomorrow. But interestingly, those are not the accolades he is most proud of. Last year he won Apprenticeship Employer of the Year, and that’s the award he has on his desk. “Wherever you live, you’re part of a community, so you have a responsibility to use what’s local to you,” he says. “We’re lucky that Cornwall is full of people who are really good at making things from boat builders to crafts people, so I use as many local suppliers as I can, but I also think it’s important to invest in the future by taking on apprentices.” Tom works with students and graduates from University College Falmouth and Cornwall College Camborne, many of whom end up as full-time employees. “I’m passionate about training young people,” he says. “I get so much satisfaction from watching them learn from all the other people here. And the business evolves as a result of those people coming in, which is a lovely thing – we are all learning together.”
He’s excited about Cornwall’s future. “It’s beautiful, so people want to live here,” he says. “And a combination of high-speed internet, flights from Newquay airport and the way people do business these days makes it increasingly possible to make a good living here. A lot of young creative people are moving to Cornwall to set up their dream businesses and there’s a real energy around that.”