The Axe Factor (Telegraph Magazine)
All copy as provided to the publication. Bottom left, near right and far right photographs by Adam Hollier.
Sebastian Cox is passionate about coppiced hazel. ‘I sit up at night thinking about it, reading about it and watching TED talks about it,’ he says. ‘Planing English timber to reveal its flecks and rays makes my pulse race.’ Cox, who has a masters degree in sustainable design from Lincoln University, uses coppiced wood to create elegant furniture that is ‘crafty’ enough to sit well in a farmhouse kitchen and modern enough to suit edgier tastes. ‘When I was studying, everybody was talking about bamboo because it is fast-growing and self-replenishing. I can remember thinking, I’m sure coppicing produces the same result.’
Hazel coppicing involves felling trees every 14 years. They regrow and, as long as they are coppiced, will never die of old age. One fourteenth of the wood is cut each year, so there are always trees ready to be harvested. Forests in Britain have been coppiced for thousands of years, and whole ecosystems of flowers, insects and birds have evolved to live in these unique habitats. But a decline in woodland management over the past 50 years, owing to the falling value of timber, has seen a parallel decline in these species. ‘My motivation is putting money back into the woods by making objects that people want to buy,’ Cox says
The design world has its eye on Cox’s work. Kevin McCloud, the presenter of Grand Designs, has called him ‘a true adventurer’, and in 2011 his oak and coppiced-hazel Suent Superlight chair won Outstanding Design at the national Wood Awards. In 2013 a commission from Heal’s allowed him to express his passion for Arts and Crafts furniture. The result was a small collection (a desk, a sideboard and two tables) of handsome but simple pieces with naturally finished hazel frames that have a pleasingly imperfect line.
More recently Cox has worked with Sir Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe’s Berkshire-based furniture company Benchmark to design a collection partly made from coppiced chestnut. It was launched at the Clerkenwell Design Festival last month where two of the standout pieces were his Shake cabinet and sideboard, whose cabinet doors are clad in cleft chestnut shingles.
Cox harvests hazel from his family’s farm in Ashford, Kent, where the coppice is 300 years old. Earlier this year he found a new source – in nearby Sittingbourne – to accommodate the commission from Benchmark. He is involved in every step, from felling trees to weaving chair seats. ‘Hazel shoots compete for sunlight, so they grow fast and straight. After 14 years, you have two-inch rods – perfect for furniture. We cut the tree to ground level, which gives it a chance to regrow. I can use everything from the two-inch rods to the younger shoots.’
He uses a billhook to strip twigs from the rods. ‘I sort the rods according to what they will be used for, slice them to length and use a planer and band saw to cut them square before leaving them to dry for four to six months.’ Wood warps as it dries, so it is planed again to get the flat, square-edged pieces that are suitable for furniture.
‘Then all I have to do is take this material and translate it into a language that makes sense to a modern consumer. That’s a fantastic brief. I steam-bend the legs of the chairs. I split young hazel that’s too small to make anything else from and weave it for the seats. And I’m learning to carve spoons from the curved, knotted sections, so I can use every last bit of the tree.’