Craft, Interviews with creatives | 23 August 2019
Robert Barnby — furniture maker.
In the first of our regular Creatives’ interview series we meet furniture designer-maker Robert Barnby.
We get a peek into his day-to-day life in his Hay-on-Wye workshop and to find out why bunk beds are so important to him.
Robert Barnby – Barnby Design
Robert runs a small furniture design business, Barnby Design from his workshop just outside the picturesque town of Hay-on-Wye in the shadow of the Black Mountains on the English-Welsh border.
Established in 2012 Barnby Design offers a range of domestic furniture which is regularly exhibited, plus bespoke services to larger commercial projects. We first came across Barnby design on Instagram and were struck by the simple lines and use of beautiful natural materials. We love the fresh take on the mid-century style and decided to find out more by asking Robert about his work.
How did you arrive at what you’re doing now?
I got hooked on woodwork at school. I’d always enjoyed drawing and sketching and the realisation that with a bit of hard work those 2D sketches could become tactile 3D objects really blew my mind. I liked the idea of having complete creative control, seeing my scribbly sketches become something real; something you could sit on, or eat off was amazing to me. The freedom felt almost limitless.
How did you get started?
For four years I studied Furniture and Product Design at Nottingham Trent University. One of those years was spent on placement working for a furniture company in Birmingham. It was quite different from the business I run now, but it taught me a huge amount about manufacturing. Birmingham’s industrial estates are alive with creativity and craftspeople, most people never get the chance to explore this. I’m so glad I did.
After graduating I moved back to Hay-on-Wye and worked for a wonderful local cabinet maker. Always very supportive of me doing my own thing he encouraged me to use his workshop in the evenings to start building the beginnings of the range I offer today. A year or two down the line I began setting up my own workshop, and in 2012 my dream became a full—time reality.
Do you work on your own or with others?
The majority of the time I work on my own. Although I do have a couple of part-time apprentices, which as well as helping take the pressure off, adds a bit of life to the workshop. If I’m honest I often find working on my own easier because building furniture is quite an involved process and requires your full concentration. Worrying about what others are working on alongside what you are can get a little stressful at times. It’s something I need to work on.
What role does home play in your creative practice?
Although I don’t live there anymore my workshop is in the barns attached to our family home, so I suppose it plays a very big role. It has a lovely garden which my parents are very proud of. So, coffee breaks and client meetings in the sun are always relaxing. There are two stone barns. One houses the workshop, and the other the showroom, which is also used for product photography and assembling larger projects.
“What we do is all about the product, and most of us want our products to last a lot longer than we will.”
What does quality mean to you and how do you pursue quality in your work?
Unfortunately, I think when you design and build your designs yourself it’s a little too easy to become an obsessive perfectionist! This is great for the customer, but not always so great for the business. Luckily 99% of my competitor designer / makers would also probably confess to being the same way.
What we do is all about the product, and most of us want our products to last a lot longer than we will. Everything that leaves the workshop also has my name stamped on it. So, I can confidently say that quality control is tight (we’re a little easy to trace!).
What are you loving working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a project for Macmillan Cancer. They’ve funded the building of a beautiful new palliative day-care unit at The Royal Glamorgan Hospital. We were asked to design and build installation shelving for several large walls in the communal lounge and dining area. The brief wanted the design “to bring the outside in, use natural materials, and have uplifting qualities.”
Patients are encouraged to draw and paint, and our shelving offers an aesthetic space for them to display their work. End of life care is difficult, but these spaces are designed to elevate the spirits of both the patients, and the nurses who look after them. I love that we’ve been trusted with such an important project and hope that our small part helps to make a difference.
What does your work / the things that you make represent to you?
Tactility: A lovely part of making furniture out of natural materials is watching people interact with it. They can’t resist but run their hands along the softened edges, or feel the grain texture in a table top, or the silkiness of the wax it’s been finished with.
Harmony: Individually I don’t think a design is perfect until you see it working in harmony with other pieces in a home. Which is why I love delivering furniture personally, as it represents a chance to learn more about interiors, what works well together and what doesn’t.
Longevity: Our furniture is handcrafted with meticulous attention to detail to last generations. But aesthetically it has an easy unobtrusive quality which we hope will endure the test of time.
Can you identify a time or place in which you felt truly happy during your creative / working life?
A few years ago, I was invited to take part in an AHEC project called “The Wish List.” The project took place at Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe’s workshop Benchmark — arguably the best furniture workshop in the country.
Ten young design businesses were paired with ten high profile architects, designers and artists, with a brief to “design and build them something they’d always wanted but never been able to find.”
The project included names such as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Paul Smith. My works partner at the time Lewis and I were lucky to be selected by Dutch architect Alex de Rijke. As a recent design graduate being given the opportunity to meet some of these characters was thrilling enough for me, let alone having the chance to work alongside them.
The 2m diameter, cross laminated, turned table we made was displayed at the V&A Museum and now lives in Alex’s London based practice, it’s a great example of what can be achieved with cross lamination and tulipwood.
“For me the design challenge that excites me most is trying to keep things simple. Stripping a design back to its essentials, whilst bringing it to life with exciting little details.”
What design challenges excite you most and why?
I’ve always agreed with the industrial designer Dieter Rams principle that “good design should be as little design as possible.” So, for me the design challenge that excites me most is trying to keep things simple. Stripping a design back to its essentials, whilst bringing it to life with exciting little details.
Home addresses fundamental human needs — in what ways do you think your work speaks to fundamental human needs?
We all grow up living our lives around furniture, and I’m sure that we all have items we remember from the past. I remember vividly the bunk beds I had as a kid. Which probably explains why I’ve added my own bunk bed design to the range.
Building practical items that address our fundamental needs is important to me, but I also want to build pieces people remember, cherish, and associate with fond memories, just like mine from childhood.