Crafts Magazine, July / August 2015
I recently spent an incredibly inspiring hour and half interviewing Benchmark co-founder Sean Sutcliffe for Crafts – the magazine for contemporary craft published by the Crafts Council. The outcome of our conversation appeared in the latest issue of the magazine… (All copy is as submitted.)
The Fixer: Sean Sutcliffe
The furniture maker talks to Katie Treggiden about the first Fixperts residency, the importance of making in education and his love of Concord.
In September, the first ‘Fixperts Resident’ joins your workshop, looking for people to help and things to fix. How did that come about?
When I met Daniel [Charny, co-founder of Fixperts], I immediately liked Fixperts – as a means for education, social engagement, and meaningful design. I suggested a residency and Daniel’s eyes lit up. The resident will spend a year at Benchmark aligned to a master craftsman. The first two fixes will be within our workshop, the next two within our local community, and thereafter further afield. The resident will come in with the mind-set that they’re there to fix things. They will draw on our resources and in return we will get a pair of open eyes right in the middle of our workshop. I really believe in what Fixperts is doing. This might be the most important thing I do in my career.
You found your vocation the first time you spent a day making something – tell me about that day.
I was my Mum’s house, aged about 18. I noticed she didn’t have a bootjack, so I went down to the shed and made one. Afterwards, I said, “That’s the happiest day I’ve ever spent.” She said, “Have you considered a career in making?” I’d been groomed for the professions: accountancy, law or medicine, but I’d never found satisfaction in those ways of thinking. I finally found satisfaction in making things.
Why do you think making is seeing such a renaissance?
Societies seek what they lack. We’ve been become so remote from making, that it’s become a gaping hole in our souls. Individuals who want to make, for whom making is in their DNA, need to fulfil that. In the last three years, 47% of workshop-based activities in education have closed, which seems strange at a time when craftsmanship has never been more in the zeitgeist. When we take on apprentices at Benchmark, they often do something they are proud of for the first time. That’s my real sadness about the decline of making in education.
You studied at Parnham, and worked quite hard to get there…
When Parnham opened in 1977, I was struck by its naked ambition to be the best crafts college in wood. I had an affinity with wood, but was frustrated by my lack of skill. John Makepeace had a fiery ambition to create a place of excellence. It was way beyond my means, so I came to London and started a business. As soon as I’d saved enough money, I packed my bags and headed to Dorset.
And what was it like when you finally got there?
It was like monastery. Craft was the religion, there was a small number of ‘monks,’ and there was the Reverend John Makepeace. We lived, worked, and breathed craft. You had breakfast, you were in the workshop by 8am, you had lunch, you stayed in the workshop until 5pm, you had supper, and from 7pm until 9pm you attended lectures. It attracted world-class teachers, notably Fred Scott who was an incredibly devoted designer from whom I learnt a lot and Robert Ingham who was a genius I shall respect until my dying day.
Who, or what, inspired you during that time?
Prior to Parnham, my boarding school was at the end of the Concord runway, so I grew up with Concords ringing in my ears. It would be impossible to design an ugly aeroplane – their functionality demands a beautiful solution, but there’s nothing quite so elegant, modern and optimistic.
I met Terence Conran at Parnham and have had a 32-year partnership with him since then. He mentored me through many aspects of business, but the most important thing he taught me was to seek success in the object and rather than in money.
And Neville Neal. He made rush-seated ladder-back chairs with a craftsmanship and an economy that meant they were as light as they could be and still function. He was absolutely inspirational.
Who excites you now?
Sebastian Cox is a genius. He understands what he’s doing and he’s very diligent. I like his sympathy with wood and with woodland. Max Lamb’s appreciation of material is very inspiring – his Pewter Tables are made by pouring molten tin into holes in the sand. And Win Assakul: he designed a platter for the Wishlist digitally and assumed we would make it digitally. When I told him he had to make it with his hands, he embraced that brilliantly and was relentless in getting it done. I think he’ll carry that experience with him for the rest of this career.