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Philip Koomen is a furniture designer of enduring practical furniture that celebrates the rich diversity of local indigenous woods available around his workshop in Checkendon, South Oxfordshire. I met Philip at his workshop/showroom at the end of February and caught up with his latest experiments following his self-imposed sabbatical in 2019 which gave him time to explore sketching dance. The flow, dynamism and tension of dance resonates with Philip’s improvisational approach to design, ‘like jazz music’ he offers: for Philip ‘form follows feeling’.
The provenance of the wood is very important and underpins the workshop’s output. Timber is purchased as locally as possible, green, and then seasoned on-site. Owing to ash dieback in the UK (learn more here), this species is particularly affordable, abundant, and technically superior for steaming compared to other timbers. Philip explained that it dries more quickly – when compared to oak, for instance.
Philip is in the processes of developing his first chair with the steam bending technique: Fred Astaire, soon to be followed by Ginger Rogers in a perfect chair pairing. Working in half-size maquettes – using off-cuts from steam bending trials – different sculptural shapes are tested in what Philip describes as ‘an intense period’.
The steaming process allows long cuts of ash to become malleable for a short period of time. Timber forms are created in the desired curve shape against which the ash, directly out of the steamer, is held in place with flexible metal sheet straps and clamps. There is, however, a natural ‘spring back’ of the ash once the clamps are removed, so he constantly adjusts the radius of the formwork curves to be tighter than required to compensate for this.
Whilst Philip has latterly worked solo, an apprentice, Audrey, serendipitously joined him. Philip has discovered that on days when Audrey is not around to help to quickly clamp the steamed ash into place, the speedy drying process can result in the ash splitting. Audrey was unable to be in the workshop the day I visited, so I just had to imagine this ‘dance for two’ over the forming process.
Philip continues to brim with inspiration and energy for his craft. In steam bending he is exploring the dynamic relationship between the master craftsman and his material, curious to see where it will lead. I look forward to visiting Philip periodically to dip into this fascinating journey.
See more of Philip’s work at www.philipkoomen.co.uk