In our Ikea-tastic world of convenience, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to consider traditional furniture making a dying trade. Flat pack and value for money seem to be the order of the day. On the rare occasion that’s not the case, your wooden bookcase or glass table were probably fashioned by computers and automated machinery. However, change is afoot. Classic design is making a comeback, much to the delight of the small but lively contingent of UK-based traditional furniture makers.
One such furniture maker is Wiltshire-based Charlie Caffyn. He’s a modern breed of artisan, with a talent for creating traditional solid wood furniture with a contemporary architectural twist. His handcrafted furniture collection is the epitome of timeless elegance, and recently won him a BUILD Architecture award.
We recently caught up with Caffyn to find out more about his craft and design influences. Keep scrolling for more.
Can you tell us about your background in design?
I started making my own furniture when I was ten, making tables and bookshelves from old pallets to house my Beano comics. I went on to study art and furniture design at college. During this time, I participated in a much-prized exchange placement at renowned Swedish design house, Stenebyskolan. This gave me a real taste for Scandinavian design and craftsmanship.
Soon after, I became a designer at Cosatto where I designed nursery furniture. I spent a of lot time visiting manufacturers and overseeing production in Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Spain and Italy.
I then moved to Hong Kong for the same company, working on product development and production control around China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. In that time, I was clocking up about 150 flights a year! I left that job to be with my now wife. I set up a workshop in the UK where I could go back to the roots of designing and making furniture. That was 15 years ago, and I have been designing and making wood furniture ever since.
What drew you to woodwork in particular?
I’ve always loved woods and natural environments, and this matched with my interest in design, especially the timeless, honest style of the Shaker movement. As such, I instinctively gravitated to using natural materials. I’ve seen thousands of designs mass-produced in plastic or metal, and all identical. I take great pride in the fact that not one of my pieces can ever be the same. Each piece of wood I use is unique. There is a certain feeling you get from working with wood, and that innately becomes part of the final piece.
What inspires your designs?
I’ve always been inspired by architecture and also structures of any type. I can take inspiration from the wrought-iron roof of a railway station, or from a classic Mies van der Rohe building. A piece of furniture can become something really special and sculptural if you question how the structure of it works and then push that structure in a different direction whilst being guided by its function.
How did your experience in Hong Kong and South-East Asia influence your work?
It’s definitely exciting seeing your design running off the production line in huge numbers, and I’m a believer in good mass production. But spending time in that industry made me realize that we live in a society where we are spoilt for choice with products that we now consider disposable rather than items to treasure.
I wanted to offer something else. The chance to buy that one amazing piece of furniture that will be handed down from generation to generation. I wanted to create the heirlooms of the future.
What is the design process like for you?
All my designs go through similar stages. Initial excitement about the concept, the prototyping stage, and then amazement as you see the design come to life. Then there’s the phase I call the ‘struggle’, where the details, constructions, proportions and styling start to send you mad! At this point, I have to walk away from the process for a while and then return when I am fresh.
I involve my customers in the creative process as much as I can. When I’m making a piece, the customer is invited into my workshop to see it in construction or kept up to date with photography of work in progress. They can even personalize it to make it uniquely their own.
What has been your favorite piece to design?
The most enjoyable and challenging piece of my collection so far is my Iford Library Step Chair. It’s a metamorphic piece of furniture as it changes from a set of steps to a chair, so there are many complications and variables that needed to be handled and smoothed out. The hinges, for instance, have to be specially sourced. They’re made from solid drawn brass which are hand cut in so that the chair and step section align perfectly.
*Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Many thanks to Caffyn for his time and insight into artisanal furniture design. It’s always special to see how design shapes our homes, interiors and the world around us.
What do you think of traditional furniture makers like Charlie Caffyn? Who’s your favorite?
For more stories like this, check out our designer spotlights featuring Lim + Lu and Humberto da Mata. Also don’t forget to check us out on social media! Follow us over on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest for your daily dose of home inspiration.