Friday 6 July 2018
Gareth Batowski grew up on the very edge of the Peak District halfway up a hill, with the small riverside town at its foot. Typical of this idyllic landscape at the top of the hill were fields surrounded by trees that became his childhood playground.
Gareth feels that he owes a lot to his father for his venture into woodworking. During his childhood, Gareth's father would always find the time to entertain his son – and himself – through building all manner of things, from gliders, igloos, boats and castles to doorbells! With his father, anything could become something: a branch once became a crocodile for the pair. Gareth tells us: “Everything from then on led me to become a furniture designer and maker.”
At university, Gareth earned a degree in photography, before working for a year with the Forestry Commission. The year was taken up installing just one single fence, albeit a very long one. Gareth would move slowly down the path, installing post, then panel, then post, then panel – you get the idea. Far from being dull, it gave him time to study his surroundings and once again be part of a landscape that he was very familiar with.
A good range of practical skills meant he was able to accept work on a local farm fixing the odd stable door and ultimately taking on more complex joinery projects. When the work dried up and not being one for procrastination, he made ends meet first as an odd-job man and then as a builder's labourer.
The move to furniture maker came about when Gareth's employer was let down by contractors and he was asked to finish the interior work of the house, including a small dining table. Though confident of his ability, he admits to still having to look up 'how to make a dining table' before cutting any timber. He tells us: “I didn't have a clue! It was joyous!” The work took place on site in the customer's basement under fiercely bright, halogen lights. Looking back it wasn't ideal but it was an invaluable lesson on how to work efficiently.
The new furniture maker then moved into a single garage unit and spent the next year working on commissions and repair work, eventually expanding into the three units. “I was starting to make my own furniture by this time, albeit a little naive and crude, but it was honest. I would read about dovetails, then go and try them out on a solid carcass,” he continues. Anyone will tell you that when you first start out on your own you don't always get to make what you want. There was the occasional nod to quality craftsmanship but also a lot of furniture that was expected to be made for less than it would cost in IKEA.
Having read, watched and surfed the internet for furniture-making tips, advice and ideas, Gareth soon came across the FDMA and the NCFM forums. He felt they were good places to share and exchange ideas. He found people on them, whose books he was learning from and who had been to prestigious furniture schools. With an enthusiastic plea, but a limited body of work, Gareth was accepted onto the forum, but not without some debate from members. “I have since read streams of messages for and against my acceptance. Not having an established body of work and being a little green provoked those against,” he tells us. Those who were happy for him being on the forum liked his enthusiasm, readiness to learn and eagerness. It was from the forum that Gareth received an email from Garry Olson, a renowned furniture maker, who represented the left-hand side of the Pennines for the NCFM. Garry invited him to his workshop for a chat over lunch where he discovered what a real workshop was: “It was like it was in the photographs,” he explains. “There was timber, in stick as well as drying outside. Machines, great hunks of cast and green painted metal and stuff you couldn't move. He also had three dust extractors, a kitchenette, radiators and a polished concrete floor. I could only dream of working in a place like that.” A year later, a vacancy became available to rent a bench in Garry's workshop and Gareth snapped it up. His rent and learning curve quickly pointed skyward.
When looking to a personal favourite piece of his own furniture, Gareth tells us that it has to be his 'End-Grain' chair. He explains: “I enjoyed the exploration process of working with end grain to find a way of using it. I often use it in boxes and I love its narrative pattern, but I took on the ambitious task of putting it into a chair.” Setting himself a brief of 'reveal and intrigue' he is currently exploring the pared down nature of structures avoiding unnecessary embellishment and where nothing is hidden.”
When thinking about his work ethos and considerations in making a piece, Gareth believes that sustainability should be a given and provenance of timber should be inherent: “Timber, pattern, grain, colour, texture – this is my chosen palette and if a tree has stayed standing on a busy avenue for 50 years or more, it'll have a lot more story to tell than an American tree shrouded behind a plastic guard, keeping it straight,” he comments.
Gareth finds harmony in the clean lines of modernism and is 'repulsed' by the 'pomposity' of Rococo furniture. Taking such a hard line on what is generally considered to be just a stepping stone in our development as artists and craftsmen isn't likely to curry favour with the establishment, but then he's not a big fan of Arts & Crafts furniture either: “Although they are to be respected as makers,” he explains.
Gareth's next step in his furniture-making career is to have his own workshop again, after nearly three years of renting space from Garry Olson. “I'm ready for the next exciting level.” Of that we are in no doubt.
Maker's maker – Garry Olson
Without doubt, the maker who has had the biggest influence on the way I work is Garry Olson, whom I rent a bench from in his workshop. Leading by example, Garry has taught me a lot about accuracy and detail and I am in utter awe of his drawer-making capabilities. The perfection of a piston-fitted drawer in a solid carcass is something to behold. It is a joy. If you can cut dovetails, so what? There is much more pleasure to be found in a well-fitted drawer than its joinery.
When I first moved into Garry's workshop, after idealising over dozens of whimsical wood books, I had Krenovian aspirations of hand planes and calluses, but he taught me about precision in craft, while using any machine or tool – splitting millimetres into four and truing up components with hand tools to perfection. I really admire the way, when considering a piece of furniture, Garry's focus is on proportion and timber quality. Selecting timber is a huge part of the design; it can be a personal and subjective part, bringing personality into the final outcome