The Wish List project sees ten of the biggest names in architecture and design commission ten up-and-coming designers to make them something they’ve always wanted. The finished results will be shown at the V&A from 13 to 21 September, and will tour the world before being handed over to their commissioner. The project was brought together by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and Benchmark Furniture; designer Sebastian Cox was charged with making a workspace for Benchmark’s co-owner, Terence Conran. onoffice spoke to Cox about his timber workpod ahead of its unveiling.
What were your first thoughts when you were asked to design for Conran?
Sebastian Cox: My first thought was, what could Sir Terence, the internationally renowned designer who has had a rich lifelong relationship with objects, possibly still want that we could provide? Especially since the thing is to be made from wood, yet he co-owns Benchmark Furniture, Britain’s best woodworking workshop. This is by far the most exciting, ambitious and prestigious client and brief combination I could wish for, and the stakes were high.
Another hugely appealing aspect for me was that the project was put together by AHEC (the American Hardwood Export Council), which is seeking to raise awareness of, and gather data for, Life Cycle Assessment. LCA is something I’ve written about before and am deeply interested in. Simply, it’s measuring the CO2 expenditure of a product. Other industries like metal and concrete have lots of data on their carbon footprints, but the timber industry is behind the curve. AHEC is trying to change this and ensure that timber is known globally as the first-choice sustainable material; a mission I want to be a part of, especially if it’s led by Sir Terence and Benchmark.
What did he asked you to make?
I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Terence at his home in Berkshire so I could take the brief and discover just what, exactly, he has always wanted. I nervously followed the smell of cigar smoke to his study and we chatted about the project over some wine.
The piece was to be called Getting Away From It All and is essentially a desk, bookended by two towers that store reference books and other objects, with a cotton curtain on a rail that would allow him to work undisturbed. Sir Terence had a clear idea of what he wanted and dictated a set of lines that I drew. He would often pull a tape measure out to confirm his instinct for a dimension was correct and would occasionally sketch a detail – drawings now among my most treasured possessions.
What did you bring to the project?
I was keen to ensure that this piece had my fingerprint on it too, so I suggested that the curtain could be replaced by woven oak screens hung on hinges. He liked this, so I went away to draw up what we discussed, focusing on making this enormous object as visually lightweight as possible.
I asked AHEC which timbers they have growing in abundance, but struggle to sell in the UK market. Their answer was to use cherry or red oak, which are both grown widely in the US but have struggled in popularity here in the last decade. Cherry was perfect for the carcass and desk, while the red oak, with its good steam-bending properties, suited the woven panels.
How and where was it made? Can you take us through the process?
It was made during a single week at the Benchmark workshops; everyone camped in Terence’s garden and had access to Benchmark’s smart and skilful makers.
We started by soaking our red oak in Sir Terence’s river to make it supple for weaving. The piece had every cabinet-maker’s challenge – sliding woven doors, an entirely wooden tambour, a secret compartment, a series of drawers, scores of housing joints and a dovetailed carcass.
I’m immensely proud of the work we did as a team. To make a piece of furniture that large and complex in the given time was the biggest test we’ve had as makers. When we’d finished we were exhausted.