Alun Heslop – The Shadow Man

Friday 6 July 2018

It’s a short distance from our office in Lewes to Alun Heslop’s workshop just outside Haywards Heath in West Sussex, and even on the greyest of days the space is flooded with natural light and there’s no need to switch on the fluorescent tubes. From what many of us would regard as a typically rural location, Alun runs a very un-typical workshop. Located on a working farm, in a very unassuming building behind a milking parlour he produces some of the most exciting and technically challenging pieces we have come across in F&C for a long time. A cursory glance at the surroundings has me wondering, ‘How on earth does he do it?’

I’m immediately concerned about what will be a very short list of equipment that generally accompanies an article like this but soon come to realise that the single most important component within these four walls is there in abundance. “I’m quite sensitive about the environment I work in,†says Alun, “It has to have the right sort of light because that’s what I mainly work with,†he explains.

Acknowledging there is a distinct lack of hardware we agree the list would be a great deal longer if it were made up of things he doesn’t have: tablesaw, planer thicknesser, spindle moulder, mortiser, pillar drill and router table. There is, however, a slight nod to modernity in the form of a digital speed controller attached to an old bandsaw. Oddly it’s not something I’ve come across before.

The bare bones

It’s a stripped down environment alright, dictated by real needs and not necessarily convenience. The roof space is open with exposed beams and insulated with a foil backed sheeting reflecting light from all four sides. Words and pictures alone cannot convey the method behind this ever-so-slightly esoteric starting point, so Alun is quick to give a demonstration on just how he navigates his way round the issue

with his clients.

From one of the only shelves in the room he grabs a selection of 1:10 scale models that are in varying stages of development to illustrate the process: “How else are you going to convey what you are proposing to make for your customer?†he says.

At the moment Alun is working on a suite of bedroom furniture as part of an entire scheme for a residential project in the capital. The models show two designs and are still very much a work in progress until the questions they raise are dealt with. Even at 1:10 it’s still possible to examine proportion and the relationship between the individual components that will ultimately make up the whole.

The models are worked to as near completion as possible before being photographed and placed into a second empty image of the intended surroundings. This is done using a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator where he can then over-draw the outline and make corrections in what resembles real space. It’s a far more intuitive creative process than drafting in CAD.

Curves in all the right places

The pieces are complex and feature shapes and patterns within the structure that register differently from each viewpoint. The underlying theme is curves. “I like silhouettes and shapes. I’m not interested in pippyness or grain pattern,†he explains. “I’m looking at the leading edges and where the shadows are going to form.â€

He’s a keen cyclist, clocking up many miles on his way to the workshop each day, and uses the analogy to compare his visual language to the experience of careering around bends on two wheels. This project had reached a reasonably advanced stage where some of the practical concerns are dealt with, such as construction.

To help with this a larger model was made to gain an insight as to where and how the piece might be jointed. Much of his work takes the form of large scale installations so has to be made, transported and assembled in situ as separate components.

It’s customary in furniture design to associate curves with free-flowing compositions and soft outlines but Alun describes his work as, “Experiments in subtle curvature. A pragmatic approach to creating compound curves in layers.†This is where the penny drops and I begin to understand the importance that light has on developing his pieces. It’s accepted that a round-over will soften the edge of a straight table top, for example, by holding onto more light than a crisp edge. But what if we suck the life out of that round-over at one end of the table and stretch it out at the other end? The story the light will tell as it hits the edge will be different at every point along the way. Do this to a curved edge and the result is even more interesting.

Non conformist

This particular aspect of Alun’s work is expertly demonstrated in pieces like ‘Razorfish’, ‘Insictor’ and ‘Hammer Head Chair’ where curves continue well beyond the immediate surface to link with complex structural elements beneath; all of which have subtle shapes that confuse the observer as to where one curve starts and the next one ends. Incidentally, the latter when produced in mirror polished stainless steel and pictured in F&C caused a long standing subscriber to cancel his subscription because it was not made of wood. It’s a known fact that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and to do so would offer little comfort to those wanting to expand the repertoire of their furniture making skills.

As practical people we are all on our own very personal creative learning process and although wood has its own fascinating individual qualities other materials allow us the chance to push further with a particular idea. Metal is just one material and I hope the irony is not lost, knowing that a complete replica of the original ash ‘Hammer Head’ was painstakingly reproduced in soft wood to create the casting moulds for the lost wax process, used to make each component.

To put this into context, the outlay for this part of the project was close to £36,000 of which much of the time was given over to working timber. ‘Hammer Head RVS’ was commissioned by a private collector from Belgium and now resides in Perspex cabinet tantalisingly out of reach of inquisitive fingers that having seen, are desperate to touch.

The use of gap set joints are a repeating feature in Alun’s work and serve to punctuate the flow of lines and add a new device in which to demonstrate the effects of light.

They also cajole the viewer into looking into places they might not have looked at before.

Where to start

After completing a Conceptual Fine Art course in Brighton, Alun went on to study Spatial Design at Rochester before discovering the world of green woodworking. A few miles down the road in Sevenoaks he spent time producing work on a pole-lathe and with spoke shaves in the style of traditional makers. It was here that he began to hone his hand work skills and expand the concept of chair design by making Windsor chairs.

This background explains an awful lot especially in the way he chooses to produce such intricately shaped work. Machines are obviously used in the early stages of a project to get the material down to a manageable size in which to work, but not to the extent that their involvement is an overriding factor in the outcome of a piece. Spokeshaves, draw knives and even the pole-lathe in the corner of the workshop are sometimes used in preference over mechanised manipulation of the material. It allows him to work slower and observe the shape taking place giving him what he refers to as “extra thinking time.†When it comes to other aspects of furniture making such as carcass work he is happy to hand this over to others.

Furniture after all is what he makes, right? It’s certainly functional in the same way that a table is designed to hold things at a given height off the floor and chairs are designed with specific performance criteria. But to convince our lapsed subscriber to appreciate such pieces it is necessary to look beyond what we have grown accustomed to or at least consider what’s underneath.

An extensive portfolio of Alun’s work past and present can be found on his website – see below – and regular updates can be found on his blog and Facebook page.