American hardwood and the lure of creativity

Jul 1, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Above: (1) David Norrie, sedia sola; (2) Paul Nicholson, American cherry desk; (3) David Norrie, hatbox; (4) Ian Monty, dog bed. Photos by George Mourtzakis, David Norrie and Ian Monty

Many a derivatives trader, lawyer or scientist may dream of the alternative path of a more creative course in life, but few actually act on their dreams. Ian Monty, David Norrie and Paul Nicholson from Sydney’s Splinter Workshop are three such individuals.

The Splinter Workshop formed in 1996 as an offshoot of the prestigious Sturt School for Wood. Based in the former Taubmans paint factory in Sydney’s St Peters, this co-operative has become a home for emerging designer-makers producing high-quality, bespoke wooden furniture.

Each of the designers talks of being drawn to working with their hands and creating. Nicholson describes his year training at Sturt as idyllic”.  Former trader and son of a high school woodwork teacher, Monty spent his childhood restoring and reselling wooden furniture and says of his current calling: it must be genetic”.

Each of these designer-makers has approached their new craft with respect. With greater life experience than many younger designers, these three creators are clear as to their influences and have a respect for the craft. Short cuts are not an option. Nicholson uses handmade tools that he specially creates to suit his style – employing a traditional approach to construction and challenges his skills with detail including fine dovetails and secret compartments. He says his work is mid-twentieth century in style, but also influenced by designs from the neo-classical period”.

Contrastingly, Norrie’s pieces are more organic in feel, with a contemporary take on classic furniture. He says his ‘breakthrough pieces’ were two ottomans made from CNC routed ply with handmade veneers based on a wrought iron garden love seat. His ‘club’ styled oval chart with an enclosing cascading back support, and large, low, kidney-shaped ottoman with arched sub-frame demonstrate his continuing fascination with rhythm and movement in his work.

Each designer regularly works with wood from around the world and increasingly are experimenting with American hardwoods. American red oak is a hardwood that is already used in Australian interiors but less so in furniture design. The American Hardwood Export Council provided the three designers with an open brief to create a piece of their own design, incorporating red oak donated by Sydney’s Specialty Timber Traders. Nicholson’s aim is to make something with a presence that reflects the strength and resilience of American red oak but at the same time conveys elegance and sophistication in the design. My approach will be to create a fine piece of furniture that demonstrates another side to oak, removed from the rustic furniture and heavy beams with which is often associated. Norrie’s piece will be a quirky yet functional writing desk with a solid red oak top, red oak veneered skirt and solid red oak legs. It continues his design preference for using curves to render a more organic feel to his pieces.

Of the design challenge, Roderick Wiles, AHEC Director for Oceania says: “We have found the Splinter Workshop’s story to be fascinating. Here are talented creative individuals who have found their kindred spirits. They are all thoroughly passionate about design and pushing their skills as designers and craftsmen. We aim to support Australian designers with an interest in American hardwoods in exploring the capabilities of full range of US hardwood species that are available here. We are very excited to see what they create and will be showing some of the pieces at Sydney in Design this August”.

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