Vivat Vitruvius

Friday 6 July 2018

The contemporary furniture that Tim Gosling designs is rooted in classical architecture. Andrea Hargreaves reports

Tim Gosling has just flown in from New York but shows not the least sign of jetlag. He is fizzing with excitement at what he saw during a tour to promote his book Gosling – Classic Design for Contemporary Interiors. He was particularly impressed with the Winterthur Museum and its furniture in the Brandywine Valley halfway between New York and Washington, calling it epic, on a huge scale and under one roof.

We – F&C editor Derek Jones, photographer and woodworker Anthony Bailey and myself – are enthralled by the home-cum-design studio in which Tim lives and works, designing fabulous furniture for celebrity clients.

But beneath the glitz of his lifestyle is a passion for correctness that burns with a luminous intensity. Antique books on classical architecture line the walls of his drawing room and the airy design studio in Old Town, Clapham. He lives and works in adjoining houses, one of which dates from 1787 and was, from the 1830s until the 1970s, where Buckingham Palace brought its laundry. His design studio is in the old part, and he lives in the adjoining knock-through house where nothing is original. He says he reconstructed the whole thing and lit it from the ground upwards. If it were a pastiche it should be shown as such but if the feature were real it must be right.

He believes that lighting is key to furniture design, for instance, for the sake of contrast believing that gilding should be concentrated more on one side than the other in accord with where the light would fall.

Scientist father

His father, Raymond Gosling, was one of the team who deduced the structure of DNA, so I suppose I should not be surprised to hear that Tim first became interested in architecture and its translation into furniture when he was a boy. He started collecting books at the age of 17 or 18 to quench an insatiable thirst for knowledge about the origins of his subject. He also inherited some books from his grandfather, only learning six years ago that he was a furniture designer too. Tim says that his drawings are identical to his won, adding that all forms of architecture play so heavily that you just have to learn from them.

We were sitting in his classical pastiche of a drawing room – all half columns and gold-leafed pediments setting off plum-coloured walls – watching him sketch a detailed explanation of the Golden Section in 60 seconds flat. Furniture, he explains, is a broader brush stroke and he designs a room from the furniture up.

Tim, who started his career as a theatre designer, working on the set of Miss Saigon and subsequent shows, went on to become the design partner of David Linley where he stayed for 18 years before branching out on his own. His drawings are interpreted by a small team of designers and then largely constructed at the workshop of Mark Whitely in Whitby.

His designs, however contemporary – there is a strong Art Deco feel – all relate to the mathematical foundations laid down by Roman architect Vitruvius, whose findings were developed by Leonardo Golden Ratio da Vinci. While his designs tend to be contemporary, like Georgian classical they often feature lavish embellishment requiring the sourcing and knowledge of the use of materials and processes not often associated with timber-based furniture.

Vellum and shagreen

He likes to use vellum, wrapping it on a sycamore frame, and shagreen which he buys in ready-cut skins from Malaysia. Brass inlays are likely to be stuck down with white gold – the caviar of the glue world – a substance extracted from the stomach of sturgeons, that is boiled into flakes and is the strongest glue, he says, known to man, and so expensive that only a flake at a time is bought.

He spent six months sourcing a crocodile skin that was wide enough to cover a backgammon board, and shows us a piece of shagreen, most of which will be wasted in order to exploit a particular white marking.

He is fascinated by the modern use of verre églomisé, a mirror surface which, he says, gives you the most control you could have in your life. In this technique silver leaf is laid onto lead-free glass, with moon of gold on top for a silvery texture. It is worn away with pumice and then red boule is laid underneath to make the églomisé.

He is inspired by what he sees in stately homes, in museums like that of Sir John Soane in London, and by private collections. He would like to create a working museum in his own home and design studio.

He believes that designing and making should be separate activities, opining that there is an enormous problem for someone who is a designer-maker because there is so much focus on what is going on and they are too locked in their own life. He cites the importance of having the freedom to gain inspiration from outside.

Mind blowing

He is amazed by the architecture and furniture design in Cuba. To find you have a wealth of things is so wonderful you can almost understand why there was a revolution. It is mind blowing, he says.

Tim refuses to design ranges of furniture. Only by designing individual pieces, he believes, can you keep stretching all the parameters to create something exciting.

Turnover is such that eight to 20 pieces are being made at one time and at the moment he cannot draw fast enough. He can boast furniture in Clarence House and his client base probably counts personal wealth to the nearest million. He explains that it is like a tsumani where creativity is the issue and there is almost no-one in the world who is doing what he is doing. Deciding to leave Linley after 18 years was an enormous thought process. He wanted to do things that are unique.

He is inspired by his A-list clients and the lives they lead, saying that anyone at the top of their game, rock or royalty, brings things into your life.

For example, he designed a tiara out of beechwood, along with small items of architecture and furniture, for an exhibition at the V and A with jeweller Theo Fennell. He also designed a bar to go beneath a Tracey Emin art installation. He adds that to be able to sit down and catch up with people, to see them on TV and have them as part of your life is something amazing. He would not have anything different in any aspect. The chance to create these things is epic, he adds, concluding that he feels so lucky.