Interview with Edward Johnson:
From Breaks to Bends


Edward was recently interviewed by Furniture & Cabinetmaking Magazine covering subjects such as his background, education, design process, business, the future, and his new School of Craft.

Interview with Edward Johnson in the Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine: Issue 313

F&C: Tell us about your background and education.

EJ: My love for art and design took off when I was nine. I was extremely lucky to have an inspiring and energetic art teacher, Mr Thomas, who taught me how to draw, paint and sculpt in a way that channelled my energy and, on the whole, kept me out of trouble! It was an experience that shaped my life and for which I am immensely grateful. During my school years my time was split between my two passions: the rugby pitch and the design technology department. When I broke my cheek in five places playing for Worthing Rugby Club, having just taken the plunge into self-employment, I decided to focus everything on making furniture and making a success of it.

What was the first project you completed?

The first project was a very traditional, classically designed sofa table with steam-bent oak legs and an elliptical yew-inlayed top. My parents still have it in their house, and it is a running joke that the drawers don’t open. One day I will get around to re-fitting them!

How did you first get interested in furniture making?

My love specifically for furniture really began when I studied Furniture Design and Craftsmanship at Buckinghamshire University in what was the heart of the furniture industry in High Wycombe. My parents helped guide me to the course, which was far more hands-on than some other product design courses I had considered.

After graduating with first-class honours as a fledgling designer and cabinetmaker, I decided to hone my making skills at the bench and spent two valuable years in the industry getting to know my main material before setting up Edward Johnson Furniture in 2009. At first, I rented a bench space in a co-operative workshop in Brighton, but as commissions began to grow it was evident that I needed to expand.

In 2014, with a near 12-month order book and having been awarded a Be the Business matched funding grant, I expanded into my own workshop in Bosham with an apprentice and a talented full-time cabinetmaker in tow. Still in the same workshop today, we are very much a team of creatives and makers who together work extremely hard to deliver for our clients on both product and service.

Family Tree memory box made in elm with swivel tray open
Family Tree memory box made in elm with fumed oak

Why did you decide to set up your business?

It was always my intention to run my own business. My parents have always run their own businesses and I have that entrepreneurial spirit in me. I did a short business studies course alongside my degree, and have always enjoyed the wide range of challenges involved with being self-employed. Nowadays I manage a small team, and occasionally jump back on the bench to make furniture when we are busy. It is not an easy industry to survive in and certainly not for the faint hearted; you need to have an enormous amount of determination.

“I like to engage the senses: sight, touch and smell, as well as making people think. It is all about the elegant lines and shapes that flow and the intricate details that intrigue and pique the intellect.”

What inspires you?

My take on design is fairly logical. From the outside you might look at some of my pieces and wonder how I arrived at the idea, but you are looking at the finished item and not seeing the hundreds of questions I have answered throughout the design process. Ultimately form follows function, and that’s my starting point. My understanding of the structure and capability of the materials is key to working up the designs. I like to find novel ways of making, sometimes touching on the innovative, sometimes perhaps focusing on an unusual joint detail. Craftsmanship is the common thread that runs through all my designs.

Is there an ethos or guiding principle behind your style?

My furniture is designed to be used and experienced in multiple dimensions. I like to engage the senses: sight, touch and smell, as well as making people think. It is all about the elegant lines and shapes that flow and the intricate details that intrigue and pique the intellect. I enjoy the natural aromas of wood that evoke a sense of being; this combined with the smooth surfaces, and aesthetics brings each piece together.

Ellipse coffee table made in ash with clear glass top end view
Ellipse coffee table made in ash with clear glass top

What draws you to curves, and how do you make them?

Well, aren’t corners only there because humans and machines find them easier to make? Joking aside, I am drawn to the organic nature of curves and as a virtue they are extremely ergonomic. We do not always walk in straight lines, we walk in arcs, we also reach in arcs, therefore it is important for me that my furniture engages with this principle. Generally, curves are harder to make, but therein lies another reason I design in this way – I love a challenge!

There are two main ways to bend timber: steam-bending and laminating. As a perfectionist I am drawn to laminating, as it is very reliable and accurate. Depending on the thickness and quantity of laminates and the type of glue and curing times allowed, we can reliably predict the radius of a component within a millimetre or two.

We do however steam-bend as well, but generally on batch-produced designs where the extra set-up time can be offset against a larger production run. It is certainly not as efficient as laminating if you are only producing a one-off piece, but it can be much quicker when you are repeating the shape. It is great fun as well – seeing a solid 50mm piece of oak bend round a former with ease still amazes me. Because of how much we enjoy steambending, we have started teaching a selection of short courses throughout the year. Some of our courses offer the opportunity to make one of our steam-bent designs ready to take home at the end of the project, alongside a new set of skills and knowledge.

How does your design process work?

My design process is very fluid. I work with pencil sketching and CAD, bouncing back and forth between the two. I enjoy the freedom of sketching and drawing alongside the precision of Auto CAD for working out the proportions and practicalities ready for manufacture.

Ligamentum coffee table made in walnut end view
Ligamentum coffee table made in walnut with clear glass

Tell us about your workshop – what is the set-up, how long have you been there and will you be staying?

That is an extremely poignant question. We have been in our current workshop for nine years, but I am currently in the process of working through expansion plans that involve branching out into several new areas. This involves setting up a school of craft, bench rentals and a fitted furniture aspect to the business. Alongside my current high-end freestanding furniture business, these additional areas will complement each other to make for an exciting cohesion and energy. There is an awful lot to do to get it off the ground and I am collaborating with key people to bring it all together. I would like to say we might see some tangible progress in about 12 to 18 months’ time, but it is early days.

Tell us about how you work – what type of tools do you like to use?

I will use anything that gets the job done in the best and quickest way. With every process there are different ways to achieve the desired result and finish. A good maker will consider their options in full before choosing the right one.

Which woods do you most like working with?

English elm, English walnut and olive ash are my favourite timbers to work with as they have so much character. However, this does make them hard to spec, as it’s very tricky to show a client an exact sample due to the huge variations. Sometimes I think the industry designs beige into projects just because it is easier to deliver on expectations. Fortunately, my clients trust my judgement and I listen very carefully to their requirements, enabling me to make the right choices for them.

Radiant chest of drawers front view
Radiant chest of drawers made in fumed oak, brown oak, oak, olive ash and ash

Do you work with other materials as well as wood?

Occasionally we dabble in metalwork and upholstery, usually to find it would have been more cost-effective to sub it out to our very dependable suppliers.

What sort of finishes do you prefer?

This is a tricky one. Traditionally we are taught that oil is the purist’s finish, and it certainly gives you a more tactile surface. But let’s be realistic here – lacquer is far better at resisting liquids. I now almost always recommend lacquer for dining tables, as it is more durable. If it were my own table, I would oil it because I know how to look after it, but most clients do not. Therefore, it is better to offer them the most robust finish, so you do not get ‘that’ phone call in two months’ time.

What is your favourite project you have worked on?

There are a lot of projects I have enjoyed and others I have hated. I look back at the Ripples chest of drawers I made speculatively in 2013 and reminisce about the craftsmanship and the freedom of exploration I had at that time in my career. We have also worked on amazing commissions that have stretched our ability as craftspeople. We made a pair of chairs a few years ago, each one took three months to build. Sadly, they are under a nondisclosure agreement so I cannot publicise them.

Ripples chest of drawers three-quarters view showing ripple flowing over entire cabinet
Ripples chest of drawers made in ash

What is the most challenging project you have worked on?

Nowadays the largest challenge is the project management. The making aspect is quite often straightforward, although it still throws up its challenges, but I have a talented team with enough experience to overcome most things. However, the depth of management some of the larger projects require is overwhelming, literally hundreds of emails back and forth. I wish people picked up the phone more often.

Tell us about the teaching side of your business.

Currently we only run courses four weeks a year for six students at a time. It is intensive training with two students per professional cabinetmaker and myself overseeing and teaching various parts. One of the key things for us is that you are being taught by a professional cabinetmaker who is still on the bench in a commercial workshop. The courses currently focus on steambending, but I am sure we will branch out into other areas shortly. Because we offer a two-to-one student to teacher ratio the courses are suitable for hobbyists and budding professionals alike.

Do you prefer making furniture or teaching?

Well, it depends on the students. I’ve been told I am a good teacher, but that’s only because my students have all wanted to learn and engaged with the course. I wouldn’t have the patience to teach at a college, for instance. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose furniture making, as I do not consider myself to be the most sociable person – and I do enjoy the solace of my ear defenders. Having said that, there is a great synergy between making and teaching, so I cannot imagine I will need to choose between them. I intend to create a business where I can design and make furniture while also helping the next generation of craftspeople.

What are you working on now and next?

We have had a jam-packed six months, working with Rolls Royce on traditionally-made solid oak workbenches through to a pair of freeform coffee tables for an international client. Going forward, we have a healthy schedule, including some fumed oak cabinetry for a high-end lighting company in Chelsea Harbour, London, and a sideboard for a super yacht.

Where do you see your work going in the future?

Right now, I am extremely focused on the business, but I am eager to engage more with my creative side and start exploring new ideas.

What one piece of advice or top tip would you give F&C readers who want to be better at their craft?

Always go through all your options for how to make something before you decide which tool or method to use. All too often you choose the first thing that pops into your head. Also, do not glue up in one go or at the end of the day unless you absolutely must! Again, I see too many projects outside my business end in a disastrous glue-up. Always break it down into multiple smaller tasks and take the risk out of ruining the entire piece in one fell swoop.

Did the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your business?

Massively. We had all our projects pulled and we were forced to close the doors for several months. We lost tens of thousands of pounds and there were certainly points when I thought we would not re-open. My son was born a couple of days before the first lockdown, so it was a tough time, as I know it was for a lot of people. I wrote to all our clients to ask for support in commissioning us, and thankfully, a few generously stepped forward to get my team back into work again.

We are through it now and have had a busy couple of years since, helping to shore up the business. That said, there are still difficult times ahead. Disrupted supply chains and quantitative easing have pushed our costs up significantly and only delayed the obvious. Whether MDF, plywood or American walnut, we are paying well over 100% more than what we did three years ago! It is going to be a painful recovery for everyone before those prices drop again, and we are working extremely hard to make our budgets stretch further.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I have a three-year-old son, a newborn baby and a derelict Grade Two-listed house that I have just started renovating, so there is plenty to keep me busy!

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