Friday 6 July 2018
When the late Captain James West sought out Sean Feeney more than two decades ago he was continuing a tradition of feudal patronage that began in centuries past. Tradesmen have always been a part of the fabric of manor life and in important provincial centres it wasn't unusual for a cabinet maker to join the rolls. Alscot Park lies south of Stratford-upon-Avon and includes part of the beautiful Stour Valley.
Sean's move to the Old School House in Preston-on-Stour began at an exhibition with the West Midlands Arts Council.
“The owner of Alscot Estate was taken with a desk I'd made for the show. It had been a tradition on the estate to have an in-house cabinet maker so he invited me to the Old School House,” Sean explains.
He has spent the intervening years developing a business of international repute based on distinctive design, superlative craftsmanship and quality materials.
As the son of an RAF policeman, Sean travelled the world before returning to the UK to finish his education, including an A level in woodwork when his peers were studying O levels.
“Weekends were spent at my uncle's cabinet-making workshop in Horsham, carp and tench fishing and watching him work. I eventually spent a year with him developing my skills.”
By the time he applied to join Rycotewood to study for a City & Guilds in furniture design, he had been making furniture for three years.
“My interests in the second year at Rycotewood were in architectural model- making and fine furniture and I was torn in which direction to go.”
Opportunities for furniture makers were limited in the mid 1970s so Sean decided to pursue his interest in design with David Carter Associates in Warwick.
“I enjoyed my time at DCA but was uncomfortable with the whole notion of planned obsolescence and I felt deflated.”
After three years as an industrial designer, Sean decided to embrace his interest in furniture and test his business acumen. Following a brief period with an antique restorer he set up a workshop in Leamington.
“I started making stuff for craftshops and stalls, treen – designs that could be made with a bandsaw and a lathe.” Sean developed the business for five years until his growing reputation came to the attention of Captain West.
As an experienced log buyer, Sean has access to a stock of increasingly rare and costly timber. In this age of the environmentally conscious consumer, he is also aware of the value of local materials.
“If I wasn't a furniture maker I'd be a round timber buyer. Our product is different because we use exceptional timber, 90% of which is found within 50 miles.”
Sean buys round logs and converts them at a saw mill in Southam before transporting them to his wood yard. A log suitable for veneers could exceed £4,000 so air-drying a 2in plank for two years represents a significant capital investment.
“I'm always looking for something gnarly, spiteful and ugly. I'll take the lid off a log and make a decision. Spending £2,000 might seem extravagant for a project worth £5,000 but I've invested in stock that will be useful for some time. The burr elm I'm using now is offcuts from a job I did five years ago.”
He is confident about his judgment but some pitfalls are difficult to anticipate. Indicating a rusting iron mass hanging on the wall, he explained: “You can sometimes end up with that! We lost about four teeth at the mill to these cleats, even after using metal detectors. At £150 per bandsaw blade it can be an expensive business.”
Sean doesn't preclude the use of exotic timber but will explain the environmental issues and alternatives to a client. He insists on complying with the Forestry Stewardship Council's scheme for establishing the provenance of a log.
“We won't jeopardise our reputation with illegally logged timber. Legitimacy is crucial and I'll explain that we could find a burr walnut at the same price, of better quality and with minimal impact.”
The air-dried timber is treated in a home-made kiln before being brought into the workshop for conditioning. Like much of his hardware, the kiln is simple but functional and has been with him for over 25 years.
Despite his exceptional stock of timber, Sean is wary of designing around a particular log or burr unless it has been specifically bought in.
“I have boards in the sheds that have been there for 20 years. If it's not right for the job I'll go and get something else.”
Sean is keen to distinguish his work as contemporary rather than modern, referring to the modernist cultural movement that reached its zenith in the 1940s.
“I design contemporary furniture. I avoid the term modern because it describes only a moment in time; contemporary is now.” Ironically, he believes the true success of a contemporary piece of art can be viewed in terms of a timeless and iconic status; defining a zeitgeist but historically important.
“Successful contemporary art is not subject to the vagaries of fashion. We work in the same vein as the Arts and Crafts movement. Anything with an input of handwork will always be in there.”
His own style evolves on an intuitive basis, percolating while dealing with the problems of form and function.
“Design happens when I'm out with the dogs in the morning and my approach hasn't changed over the years. The overall form will reflect the space available and its function. From there it's the choice of materials and construction details.” The stylistic evolution includes inspiration and the combination of previous successes with his technical confidence.
Sean's priorities are evident in the layout of his workshop. Bench space occupies the full width of the building and is flooded with natural light. The machine shop is squeezed into half the area.
“Machinery takes the mundane out of furniture making. It frees us up to create and get on with what we're good at – fine furniture making,” he says. The Victorian bandsaw is a solid iron casting designed to be driven by a waterwheel. “It took three of us to handle it. I found it in a shed off the canal in Warwick with this guy still using it. I gave him £100, which was a lot of money in 1976, and I strapped the motor to it.”
He has a Dominion combination jointer/thicknesser, a small mortiser, an Axminster lathe, a disc sander and an SCM Sandya-Win speed sander.
“We bought a Felder K700 sliding tablesaw to comply with health and safety. It fits within the space and it rotates easily on castors.”
Space is less of an issue in the light and airy bench/assembly area, with two benches, a wood stack and large vacuum press doubling as a layout table.
“It's a first-generation vacuum press developed for the automotive industry for making dashboards. We've also got some very smart vacuum bags from Air Press.”
Sean's hand tools live in a tool chest he built at Rycotewood. It includes a Norris plane from 1889 and a Spears in dovetailed steel.
“They're craftsman-made and they get plenty of use. I moved house about four years ago and I had to remodel one of the bathrooms so I sold one of these to cover the cost.”
He prefers a natural soft stone to sharpen his plane irons and chisels. Quarried in the Charnwood forest, it's ready for action after dressing by a stone mason. “I use it because I can't afford Wichita and I've never been tempted with water or diamond stones. With a little paraffin and oil you can shave with a chisel sharpened on that stone.”
Some designers will provide a concept sketch and leave the timber selection and jointing details to the maker. Sean prefers to define and handle every aspect of his projects.
“I select, machine and blank out the timber. It's hard to know what you are going to expose until you start machining, which is why I like to be in control at this stage.”
He can machine enough material in a day to keep himself and Mark Fletcher busy for a month. Mark was 14 when he joined Sean 21 years ago, spending every Saturday and school holidays at the workshop. On leaving school, he was able to study part-time for a City & Guilds certificate at Birmingham's University of Central England.
Sean avoids being drawn into a managerial role at the expense of spending time in the workshop. When his brother returned from India to join the business, Sean concentrated on design and marketing.
“We had lots of work but I wasn't actually making. I was coordinating the team and it was frustrating. I like being a master craftsman.”
When his brother moved on, Sean returned to a hands-on style. He also holds a pragmatic view on what he considers to be good business practice.
“Over the years I've established a recognisable brand. We create products that I've conceived and I recognise the need to protect that reputation.”
“A client may really love a detail, like the stepping arrangement we've been using recently. I can also tackle complex forms so my design doesn't have to be constrained by tricky shapes.” It was difficult to conceive a concept within budget without an early understanding of the construction methods and materials involved. “You need to price a piece very early on and the client needs an idea of how it will perform and look. It may need further development but by the time I've drawn it up I've pretty much produced it.”
The key to a fulfilling brief is a sympathetic and understanding relationship with the client. Misunderstandings can be costly so an immediate connection is important. Happily, Sean relishes the challenge.
“I love the constraints of the brief because as a designer I'm a problem solver.
“My clients commission me to build a solution to a problem, which allows me to indulge my creativity. I'm never going to be rich but I'm doing something that I enjoy so I consider myself to be very lucky.”
Visit Sean's website by following this link