Some artisans value traditional craftsmanship, others praise digital manufacturing. Where Gareth Neal stands out is in his subtle manipulation of both at once.
Hands-on furniture designer-maker Gareth Neal distinguishes himself by his blend of traditional tools with the latest computer controlled routers. This, combined with a fascination of historical techniques and aesthetics, roots Neal's design within a specific context with rich narratives and contextual reference points.
We spoke to Gareth who talked about the limits of technology and traditional craftsmanship when used separately, and shared his love for collaborative design, among other things.
Gareth Neal (GN): I graduated with a BA in Furniture Design & Craftsmanship from High Wycombe in 1996 and established my design practice in east London where I’ve been based since 2002.
Re: And what inspired you to go into furniture design? Is there anything in particular that affected your love of design?
GN: My dad was an archaeologist, so as a child I was always surrounded by historical objects. I became obsessed with scouring car boot sales for interesting objects... I still do it now. I had an inspiring teacher at college, who took me to see a furniture-making course at a university... and the rest is history!
Re: Your work is a subtle amalgamation of traditional fabrication techniques and digital manufacturing. When did you first start thinking about using digital mediums? What prompted the initial experimenting phase?
GN: The limits of technology and traditional craftsmanship have been a constant theme over the years in my design process. In 2006, when I first started getting better at drawing on computers, the two processes started to merge. The initial experiments I created were born from the limitations of certain craft techniques but also the need to elevate and advance craft to a contemporary setting.
Re: The furniture you design and make is indisputably easy on the eyes but, and I’m sure you’ll agree, there is more to furniture than beauty. How do you combine aesthetics with function?
GN: I don’t always believe that is true, nor do I believe it’s necessary for all objects to be both aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian. It’s more about the placement of these objects in your life.
Re: And what do you mean by "placement" exactly? Sometimes, can the purpose of an object be to make a statement, rather than be functional?
GN: I think that the range of choice we have today when it comes to selecting objects to incorporate into our home is vast. As consumers, the choice is on our side and we can choose objects to surround us in our home for various reasons. They can be elegant and simple in design, beautiful objects really, but they don't necessarily need to be functional.
Re: You have been exhibited worldwide, from London, through Milan, to New York… But you’re also a commission-based practice. Does your creative process differ when you are working on a bespoke piece? How big an impact do you think bespoke pieces like your reception desk for John Jones can have on a company’s image?
GN: Commissions and bespoke work are completely different experiences, but are equally rewarding as design challenges. Bespoke creations can be very independent, ego-driven productions, while commissions involve the needs of a client. I think both offer interesting opportunities.
In a way, the Zaha Hadid Wish List as a collaborative project was an example of a successful undertaking. Having a specific brief and creating a tailored product to satisfy the brief can foster rich creative opportunities. Constraints can be enriching, creating ingenious ideas and other methods to think about something.
Re: You recently talked about commissions and collaborative design at the London Craft week 2017. Can you share your favourite thing about commission work with us?
GN: Working with other people is something I really enjoy and it opens up new directions in my design process. Working together and sharing ideas, knowledge and skills, truly yields interesting outputs.
Re: What are your impressions from the London Craft Week this year?
GN: London Craft Week brings together some of this city's most talented designers and makers, and with each passing year, it only seems to get better! What was really wonderful to see during my talk at the Carpenters Hall was the diversity of the people who were present. That to me is really inspirational.
Re: Some of your pieces are limited edition, some are even one of a kind. Do you sometimes find yourself wanting to make more or are you constantly trying to reinvent yourself through your work?
GN: To be honest, I feel like I’m constantly trying to reinvent myself, which is perhaps not necessary after practising design for the last 20 years. I enjoy the whole breadth of the design and craft world.
Re: If we were to walk in your Bethnal Green workshop today, what would we find in the making?
GN: I am constantly in the process of making plans – planning and scheduling projects, drawing plans for prototypes, plans for lunch. Jokes aside, I’m currently working on very exciting new designs that will be shown at Sarah Myerscough Gallery during Art Basel/Design Miami in June as well as sending a new body of work to Todd Merrill’s gallery in New York City.