Designer Tom Raffield discusses his passion for great, sustainable design and the ancient art of steam bending!
I love Grand Designs on Channel 4 and after featuring some of Tom Raffield’s fabulous pieces in a recent issue I was just a tad excited to finally meet him. The house (or extension) that Tom and his wife Danie designed and built featured on one of the best ever episodes of Grand Designs in 2016, so I was ready to be impressed even by their modern wooden-clad building. And I was, but in a deeper and more fundamental way… because the building is not bold and showy; in fact, the first thing you really notice is the fairytale, stone built gamekeeper’s cottage… it’s absolutely stunning and would make the perfect back-drop for Hansel and Gretel. The new extension with the wood already silvering and softening in colour against its woodland backdrop is also perfect, settling and nestling into the background rather than dominating. Its curves and lines follow the contours of the hill and trees around it. This is so much better than the photos!
Tom agrees. “In 100 years’ time, we hope that visitors will still note the beauty and craftsmanship in the stonework of the cottage and then see the same in the woodwork of the extension.” The house is equally gorgeous inside, with wood paneling on the walls and Tom’s beautiful furniture and lighting. Afterwards, we take a quick look around outside with all its little sheds and outbuildings; a hive of activity of bending wood and assembling lights and furniture, somehow reminiscent of Santa’s workshops! As Tom points out on the way round, everything is made here: each stage of a piece made and finished by hand… and I so want something made here with its sprinkling of a little woodland magic dust!
Tom studied design at Falmouth University. “It really was the only place for me to study; although born in Devon and growing up on Exmoor, I love Falmouth for its atmosphere, art and culture. And I love Cornwall, surrounded by its seascape it feels like you are on the edge of the world sometimes with the wind and storms; for a designer it has this wonderful sense of space; it feels like there are no boundaries.” He grins sheepishly and pours the tea. It was whilst studying that he discovered the ancient art of steam bending wood. And that, so they say, was that. “It’s an incredibly sustainable way of working with wood. The steam bending itself is very low energy and you need none of the glues and nasties that go into making veneers. And you see the real wood and grain; the designs work with the wood. We want to make things that will become the heirlooms of the future. It’s not about fashion and trends, it’s about designing classics that will never feel dated. That’s real sustainability… buying something once that will last a lifetime and still be desirable.” It’s easy to catch Tom’s enthusiasm and passion for his subject, it’s the driving force behind everything he and Danie do.
He is also rightly proud of the business. He employs about 20 people and works closely with local colleges to develop apprenticeships. “Our first apprentice now runs the workshop and our second apprentice works on new designs with me. Growing the team is part of being sustainable for me, we have kept all our staff.” And there are plenty of plans for the future, extending the range of furniture they make, moving into garden furniture and they are going to sell panels of steam bent wood for the exterior and interior of houses.
Evening is approaching through the woods and I need to let Tom get on. He looks around his woods and workshops as he leads me out. “Danie and I are incredibly lucky to have all this,” he tells me. “We are doing exactly what we want in a place we love with a team of people we love!” Something he said to me earlier comes back as I climb into my car. “If you have an idea and can create something beautiful born from passion and belief… it will probably be good!” And this is very, very good!