The fine art of fine furnitureOctober 22, 2018
When is furniture not (just) furniture?
A different perspective…
written by Natalie Dowse, Studio and Marketing Manager at Edward Johnson, for the Craftsman’s Chronicle, Summer 2018
I have been working for Edward Johnson a little over 18 months. I come from a fine art background and I am obsessed with art. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, looking at it, and I visit a lot of galleries! I was also introduced to design classics during my art school education, such as the famous De Stijl chair, Le Corbusier’s chrome and leather reclining chair, the Arts and Crafts Movement and Charles Rennie Mackintosh – an eclectic mix, from high modernism to pure craftsmanship. Since working for Edward I quickly came to recognise that there are a lot of parallels between the two fields and I feel my skills have readily transferred to my role here.
Seeing Ed’s designs and furniture come to life from initial drawings to finished product is a privilege. Being witness to the design process and then seeing the level of craftsmanship, skill and time it takes to produce these pieces has really opened my eyes, from Edward’s inspirational designs to the extremely high level of attention that goes into making high end contemporary furniture. To paraphrase a well-known advertising campaign ‘this isn’t just furniture, this is Edward Johnson furniture’. Joking aside, I can honestly say this is not just furniture – these creations truly are works of art – works of art with a function of course.
At this level, perhaps the only distinction to be made between fine art and Ed’s furniture is function. Most of Ed’s work is either unique or very small limited editions. This isn’t so different from an artist producing a sculpture, painting or limited-edition multiples and prints. Both select their materials carefully, consider aesthetics and make their work with integrity. Of course, you can argue that a work of art also has a function, i.e. in terms of making us question things, as a reflection of the human condition or the world around us or offering a sense of well-being. However, perhaps this is not such a tangible function. Furniture of course, through its very nature, has an inherent practical and functional application: it has a definite use.
Much like the contemporary artist, Ed’s designs are often conceptually based but with form and function always at the fore. He perceives both beauty and usefulness in equal parts when designing and developing his ideas. In other words, he gives equal importance to the design aesthetics and functional practicalities. One of Ed’s favourite quotes by William Morris sums this up perfectly: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.
Last September, Ed exhibited his Splash coffee table for the first time. Splash is from Ed’s Ripples Collection: a collection that is a fine demonstration of sculptural furniture, with each piece inspired by the idea of a stone dropping into water. Here we have solid forms (made from timber) mimicking the fluidity of water. This is not an easy thing to achieve and the result of years of proto-typing and experimentation that can be traced back to Ed’s university days. Splash also has an added dimension, that of the surface of its material. It has been made from light blue bird’s-eye maple which has very characteristic marks across the timber. In this case these look like small splashes and droplets of water. In addition, due to its solid domed shape, rippled surface and colour, it is not instantly recognisable as timber. In fact, it looks almost like stone, with is surface as smooth as carved polished marble.
Detail of Splash coffee table showing rippled surface.
When showing Splash for the first time, Ed exhibited it without its glass top to see what the reaction would be. It was placed at the front of the stand on its plinth (like many works of art), and as a result drew a lot of attention. Met by some puzzled looks and plenty of curiosity, Ed became engaged in many conversations. Perhaps not surprisingly, typical conversations went like this: ‘What is it?’. ‘A coffee table’. ‘A coffee table? But wouldn’t you spill your coffee?’. Of course, after a few moments explanation about the additional glass top all became apparent and the coffee table made sense as a piece of furniture. It is the addition of the glass top that transforms this piece from a sculpture to a functioning table. A perfect example to illustrate both the similarities and differences between fine art and fine furniture, and where the boundaries blend together.
Splash coffee table shown with glass top.
It has become clear to me over the months that our clients have courage and belief in Ed’s ability to produce something special. I believe this firmly allows the creation of beautiful furniture that fuses together both art and design, and results from the symbiotic relationship of trust formed between designer and client.
I mentioned that I frequent a lot of art galleries. Recently on a trip to London I found myself looking at the work of two artists from a slightly different perspective, after my new-found consciousness of contemporary furniture. The first was Richard Wilson at Annely Juda Fine Art, an artist who deconstructs furniture and reassembles it. The second, Rachel Whiteread at Tate Modern, who poignantly casts the negative space around furniture. To go into these artists now would mean another essay. Both artists use furniture as the basis of their work. However, has it been transformed from being furniture into art due to the removal of its inherent function? Perhaps you will come to your own conclusions!
One thing I have noticed is that many of our clients also have their own art collections alongside their love of fine furniture. I definitely see Ed’s furniture as works of art, they are works of art with a function… this is not just any furniture… this is furniture for your collection!
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