Feature Mondays – 20 Minutes with Emanuela Suraci-Neve

Friday 6 July 2018

Emanuela Suraci-Neve, of Arte Povera Crafts is an artisan working in Worthing, West Sussex. Emanuela works primarily in wood, often using reclaimed objects and restoring pieces to their former glory. All of Emanuela's work is handmade and she very rarely resorts to ready-made bits and pieces to speed up the creative process, showing true dedication to making her own pieces, with her restorations being 'a discovery and preservations of the past'.

F&C: What are you working on at the moment?

Emanuela Suraci-Neve: I am restoring a pre-war school desk. I have sold a few in the past and they work perfectly as computer desks. I never had one as old as this though. It has an inkwell and several marks and scratches made with a fountain pen… lots of history there!

F&C: What's the tool you can't do without?

ESN: Considering what I do, restoring, upcycling and working with recycled timber I can definitely say my random orbital sander. Both the timber and the items I come across need a lot of cleaning and sanding and if I had to do it by hand it would be a very long and painful process.

F&C: What's the last piece of equipment you bought?

ESN: A multipurpose adjustable mitre saw. I often find myself having to cut wide pieces of timber, especially when I use old floorboards or timber with nails such as pallet wood. The multipurpose mitre saw allows me to get the job done quickly.

F&C: Classic piece – nominate a classic piece of furniture from any period – bespoke, mass produced, studio furniture and tell us why it's so special.

ESN: I come across a lot of very interesting pieces, full of history. Often I find myself having to research an item to better understand the exact use and purpose it had at the time. If I had to choose one though I would probably say a Victorian oak (Quercus robur) bakers kneading tray that I found in a market a while ago. It was a beautiful large piece, carved from a single piece of timber and perfectly preserved despite its age. Items like that don't come around very often.

F&C: Why did you become a furniture maker?

ESN: It happened by chance, really. I trained as a carpenter/joiner many years ago but then I did all sorts of jobs that didn't have anything to do with it. I started restoring and making things for the home and then, little by little, I realised that I had a passion and an eye for it and just started slowly until it became my full-time occupation.

F&C: What inspires you?

ESN: Anything that has a story. Tired old pieces, which are screaming for a new life, a new purpose. I like the challenge and I am very inquisitive, so anything that stimulates my curiosity, that being a piece of furniture or an old piece of floorboard, tickles me and sparks my imagination. I love going to old houses, barns, learn about life as it was; understanding the importance of objects, furniture, their functionality. I am attracted by simplicity and essentiality, which I strive to achieve when I restore or make a piece.

F&C: If your furniture were music, what kind of music would it be?

ESN: I never thought of furniture as music, but if I had to try I would probably say something country, with just a few instruments, a guitar maybe and a harmonica. Bonfire music, if it exists, warm, friendly, simple.

F&C: What do you admire in the craft at the moment?

ESN: I think more and more people are rediscovering the need to create something, which is unpretentious, uncomplicated; simple yet very effective. And also I noticed a desire to make use of reclaimed materials, to be able to create with what is already there, to bend our inspiration to accommodate availability. I think this is very important and makes any creation just a little bit more interesting.

F&C: Who has been your greatest mentor/role model?

ESN: To be honest I don't think I have one. I was brought back to manual work by a friend of mine who was a brilliant diorama maker. I was amazed by his creations and decided to give it a go. He probably awoke my passion for craftsmanship. He wasn't a mentor as such, but it had an impact.

F&C: What comes first, design or technique?

ESN: I would definitely say design. One might have the technique but without a flair for originality and the capability to transform imagination into visual illustration, I can't see much happening in terms of creation.

F&C: Are we too obsessed with outdated modes of work?

ESN: I don't know about being obsessed. I would certainly say respectful of certain old techniques, but I don't see anything wrong with it. I think the trick is to make the most of the old ways and create our own mode of work. At the end of the day, if outdated modes of work means working with your hands, well that can't really be done any other way.

F&C: How or where do you exhibit your work?

ESN: As much as I would love to tell you that I have a beautiful old barn in the countryside where I exhibit and sell my work, I am afraid that wouldn't be the truth. We live in a digital era and the best way to be out there is to be part of it and embrace it. And like most of the artisans nowadays, I have my one website where I sell my products from as well as having digital shops with other well-known sites like Etsy and Folksy and, of course, Ebay.

F&C: How comfortable are you with working to someone else's design?

ESN: Totally uncomfortable. I don't take commissions or create on somebody else's designs. I know it is a little limited, but I strongly feel that the only way I can express myself and be happy about what I am making is to just follow my instinct. I am not very disciplined and working on commission makes me very nervous and I really don't enjoy it.

F&C: What's your creative process like?

ESN: Very chaotic. To be honest I do little planning before I start working on a piece. I lay the reclaimed timber on my bench, I look at it for a while, measure it and then, as if by magic, I have an idea and start working frantically at it. Sometimes I have an idea to start with, especially if I am upcycling a vintage piece of furniture, but the final outcome is always a surprise. I often change my mind several times while I am working on something and I am not shy of experimenting different techniques, which I must admit sometimes resulted in total disasters.

F&C: Do you consider yourself an artist or a craftsman?

ESN: I consider myself an artisan, which I think is a little bit of both. You need the craftsmanship to create an original piece, which makes you an artist. An artisan to me is exactly that. Somebody who has the necessary technical knowledge of craftsmanship as well as the impulsive approach of an artist.

F&C: What's the practical process you undergo when moving through the stages of a project?

ESN: I try my best to make sure whatever the result, I will end up loving the piece. I am not a very practical person when it comes to creating something but I wouldn't proceed with the next stage if I weren't satisfied with the project so far. I am quite determined and if something doesn’t make me happy then I know I am doing something wrong. This is as practical as I succeed in being.

F&C: Do you think furniture making is in danger of disappearing?

ESN: No I don't think so. In my experience my customers love the originality, the fact that each piece is unique, that they are not mass-produced. Of course because of that originality and uniqueness furniture making, as well as many other forms of craftsmanship, is a more expensive choice if compared with IKEA or other flat pack furniture retailers. Therefore, it's a bit of a gamble most of the time but I know plenty of furniture makers who would never give it up just because it's not a gold mine.

F&C: What advice would you give to someone starting out?

ESN: I would say go for it and don't be put off by difficulties or hard times. If you love what you do and you believe that what you do is important you will soon find out how many people are going to appreciate it. I had customers sending me feedbacks where they thanked me for saving one piece or another and there is no better reward than realising that what you do is welcomed and acknowledged.

F&C: What irritates you about the industry?

ESN: The fact that even if I wanted to, I would find it virtually impossible to have a shop to exhibit and sell my work. It is incredibly expensive to try to open an outlet and it upsets me that craftsmanship is not recognised enough to grant it some sort of facilitation to keep it alive and in touch with the public. As much as I am satisfied with the service that I am provided with by the digital world, I very much miss the human interaction when it comes to selling.