Arts and Crafts in Nicaragua

Friday 6 July 2018

F&C thought the collaboration between Jon Beer and Chris Sataua was business as usual until we heard they were based in Nicaragua

As a hub for contemporary furniture styles, the UK has a long and promiscuous past absorbing influences from practically every culture known to man. For a nation of shopkeepers, our High Street stretches around the globe delivering products that in turn go on to influence markets way beyond these shores. In the modern vernacular you could say we've gone viral to pandemic proportions. When F&C got to hear about the collaboration of British born Jon Beer and American Chris Sataua, it almost seemed like business as usual until we discovered they were based, yes, based, in Nicaragua. From surfboards to Fortnum and Mason's via an audience with the Queen, there's plenty that makes them stand out.

Craft & design

Given their backgrounds, there is more than a hint of traditionalism about what they produce and the means by which they go about their business: “Our approach is derived from the Arts & Crafts ethos of quality hand-craftsmanship and appropriate use of materials,' says Jon. “We balance traditional cabinetmaking and our knowledge of new technologies to actively transform these materials into beautiful yet functional pieces of contemporary furniture.” If this is a familiar mantra it ought to be, as Jon received his Masters in Arts Design from Lincoln University, and his Bachelor degree of Fine Craft from Buckinghamshire Chilterns University. His experience within the furniture world includes roles as diverse as professor of furniture design and practice in several institutions, including Lincoln University and the College of West Anglia; as a self-employed studio furniture maker and as production manager at a large production facility. His work is well documented, appearing in the 2007 book Bespoke by Betty Norbury and selected by the Royal Warrant Holders Association of London to create a gift for the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton – a piece which is now housed within the Royal Collection.

“Our studio stands for sound principles of design,” says Chris, a designer, photographer and art director from San Diego, California. “Unity, function, simplicity and scale are crucial elements to our collaborations with clients and our own creative process.” He's a graduate of the University of California, Davis with a BS in Environmental Design. Immediately after finishing his studies, Chris travelled to Nicaragua to work as an interior and landscape designer for a beach resort project in San Juan del Sur. After completing the project he remained in Nicaragua pursuing a range of opportunities such as designing a series of gardens on the pacific coast and working for Simplemente Madera – a large furniture manufacturer – developing their brand identity, designing furniture and documenting their projects and endeavours photographically.

In 2011 he worked as art director for the advertising agency McCann Erickson in Managua before returning to furniture design in 2012 with Sataua & Beer.

Locally sourced timbers

Not withstanding the obvious attraction of locating to a tropical climate, Sataua & Beer are every bit as committed to promoting the use of sustainably sourced materials as they are local craftsmen. Their 'Quarrel Credenza' was crafted from tropical oak (Quercus robur) sourced from a sustainable plantation and tropical walnut (Juglans regia) recovered from areas affected by Hurricane Felix in September 2007. It features hand-carved doors and side panels in ageometric diamond pattern, which catches and reflects the light.

“This piece was created for an exclusive homestore in Naples, Florida; the brief was to create a conversation piece of the highest quality,” says Jon. “It also demonstrates what can be made from young trees with the right approach. The trees themselves were only 10 years old, and essentially were cut to open space for the healthiest trees to keep growing up to 18 years, so the diameters did not exceed 180mm, resulting in boards of small sections. This problem was eliminated by laminating 20 x 30mm sections to create the carcass before the intricate carving was applied.”

Bearing in mind my European perspective, what I get from Sataua & Beer's designs is an abundance of material, and with good reason. One of their earliest collaborations was the furnishing of Playa Coco, a project of town-homes overlooking Coco Beach in Nicaragua. The brief was to create contemporary furniture that celebrated the beauty of the tropical hardwoods available in Nicaragua. The majority of the wood was recovered from areas of Nicaraguan rainforest destroyed completely or partially by Hurricane Felix. “Our furniture begins and ends with trees,” says Chris, “We support sustainable forestry, and strive to promote understanding of the issues surrounding tropical timber forest management.”

Working practice

Chris and Jon have a hands-on approach; they are working at the bench with the small team of four people they have trained to work to exacting standards, including two carpenters, a finisher and an engineer, as well as outsourcing where necessary to a network of workshops that share their values for hand craftsmanship of the highest quality.

The appeal of Sataua & Beer's furniture owes much to their design ethics. Unity, function, simplicity and scale are crucial elements to their collaborations with clients as well as their own creative process. Both Chris and Jon feel that their designs mark moments in time and enrich the lives of those around them.

One of the obvious problems that can arise from the furniture Sataua & Beer create arises from the differences in relative humidity between Nicaragua and the final destination of the furniture – usually the USA. The wood is dried with dehumidification kilns down to 6-8% humidity, which is important for stability, but even more important is the use of traditional construction techniques to allow the wood to move in a controlled manner. All screw holes are slotted and panels are dry- fitted into their frames to allow them to breathe naturally; finishes are carefully applied to all sides to allow stresses to be equalised.

A royal appointment

On 1 March, 2012 Jon was fortunate enough to meet HM Queen Elizabeth, having been invited to the first official engagement of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London. The event was held in the newly refurbished Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason, one of London's most acclaimed and prestigious stores. HRH Duchess of Cornwall and Duchess of Cambridge were also in attendance, along with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, among various other dignitaries.

The invite resulted from his involvement in the exhibition 'Celebrating Excellence' where the quality of his work earned him a selection among 32 recipients of a scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST). The charitable arm of the Royal Warrant Holders Association (RWHA), QEST, supports people working in traditional arts and crafts to study, and many of the scholars are now experts and leaders in their particular field. Since 1990 QEST has helped 230 scholars to learn more about their discipline, and is fundamental in protecting and maintaining these traditional skills, many of which are in danger of disappearing. It was in 2002 that Jon was awarded a scholarship to study Furniture Design and Craftsmanship at the renowned Buckingham Chilterns University College.