Tag Archives: design


7 Jul

Les and Ken retired carpenters both, volunteer their skills to Ruskin Land, a fabulous Oak forest belonging to the Guild of Saint George in the Wyre Valley.

Les was a saw doctor for Spear & Jackson in Sheffield. Time-served skills. I was really pleased when they dropped by to help me erect my sculpture ‘Mind’ in a quiet glade underneath the forest canopy. The young lads joining in are architects attending an exciting weekend of creative thought and action at Studio in the Woods.

Back in 2016 artist Mir Jansen said “Would it be possible to make a sculpture from a single tree?” And John Isles, of The Guild said “Why don’t you chose a tree from where we are thinning out the stand Henk?”

This is the piece as I originally envisioned it, in its own landscape not far from the tree from whence the materials came. Les and his team put it all together whilst I stepped back and enjoyed the chat.

It was quite an emotional experience for me, the realisation of a dream. In which I tried to reflect the spirit of John Ruskin and respond to Mir’s question:

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin


After the installation I went in to Bewdley for an excellent curry at The Rajah, and camped overnight to greet the dawn in a ridiculously small tent (foreground).


At five am, one of the architects was up measuring shadows as part of his project and asked me if he could record an interview for a book he was thinking of writing.

As we strolled down to the glade, he asked me to talk about myself and describe the sculpture and it’s design.


After ten minutes he switched the recorder off, looked inside the structure and said;

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it’s a bit …..”

“Rustic?” I interjected

“Yes, its a bit rough and ready”.

I explained that many of my best ideas for furniture came from a good dialogue with a client.  My imagination and skill flourishes best within tight boundaries, because my manic depression is no respecter of too much laissez faire.

My very best clients have demonstrated great humour, foresight, desire, trust and best of all, faith in me, like Mir Jansenn.

I added that because I felled the original tree and cut, steamed and shaped all the pieces by hand leaving tool, saw and jig marks – it was easy for anyone to understand. It was human. Although the thinking behind the design was a little more esoteric.

The architect then said “What you said in the last 90 seconds was really interesting, but I didn’t record it”

I thought about Ken and Les, and my father (a master carpenter) – all men of few words.

‘Well there you go!’ I said.

We all like a bit of rustic – we yearn for the simple life.

Rough and ready is the only way to survive in the Wild.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a sophisticated wine, or a finely made hat and I love the City of Sheffield, it is just that I am not a great fan of over complication.

Here’s to the ‘R’ in Ruskin and Rustic, for we are what we R, and we are at our most creative through dialogue.

To underline the point, here is a dialogue between a couple of trees in Eccleshall woods, Sheffield.


With thanks to John Isles, Tim Selman, Jenny Robbins, Kate Quinton of Ruskin Land and Mir Jansen, of Holland. Also to John Amos who showed me the ‘R’ for ranger.



1 Jan

A catenary describes the curve adopted by a chain suspended from two points –  gravity acting uniformly along its length. I have been trying to suss out the right curvature for the top rail of a new four poster bed and playing with chains has helped.


As you can see, the chain is slightly more curved in the middle than at the ends, like the steam bent lath of oak on top of it.

Catenary curves are important in architecture – particularly in bridge building – because of the way that they resist bending moments. Gaudi loved them so much, all the spires of his great cathedral, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, are based upon the catenary curve – here is his fantastic inverted string model complete with tiny sand bags… a spider’s web of catenary curves.


View of Nativity Façade of Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família) ( UNESCO World Heritage Site). Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

If you are curious there are many mathematical treatments of catenary curves and their analogies in nature (skeletons). You will find them everywhere if you care to look. The lovely ‘Winking Bridge’ across the Tyne in Gateshead, dogs on leads, electricity cables hanging from pylons…

Gateshead      Catenary curves

I would be the first to admit that I am no mathematician, but I do love symmetry in natural forms. The completed Ruskin Sculpture – Mir Jansen and I will be exhibiting at the Millennium Gallery, consists of a framework of steam bent, thin oak laths on a sturdy base attached to a circular annulus to make a light, airy framework. Within the framework hang a series of paintings by Mir in gouache on panels of oak all cut from the same tree. The paintings appear to float within the interior of the sculpture, each suspended on 3 or 4 powerful magnets.

The laths are identical to the one in the top picture.  They were bent over a hemispherical frame – the slight recoil on removing the dried piece 24 hours later yields a catenary curve  (rather like the opening curvature of the helix generated by the golden mean below). This gives the sculpture great stability and natural spring, and like the Earth, it is, as a result, an oblate spheroid.

Mir and Henk  IMG_4750

The globular gallery is designed with 37 steam bent ribs – a convenient opening at the front for people to step in to structure. I have always thought of it as John Ruskin’s Mind – ideas within leaking out, ideas without leaking in.

The design also allows disabled access as I have taken a bite out of the floor so that you can feel that you are right inside – even in a wheel chair, and sit comfortably too.

But why 37 ribs?

37 is a prime number in the Padovan sequence.

Padovan sequence

The equation for the Padovan Sequence is
 defined by the equation:
P(n) = P(n-2) + P(n-3)            also known as a recurrence relation where every subsequent number depends upon the numbers before it.
with the initial conditions P=(0) = P (1) = P (2) = 1
The first few Padovan numbers are :  1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 21, 28, 37, 49, 65, 86, 114, 151, 200, 265  (the Prime numbers are in Bold)
Another recurrence relation with which you will be familiar is the Fibonacci Sequence:
Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2
with the initial conditions – F0=0, F1=1
giving the series of numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, … (The next number is found by adding up the two numbers before it). Without going into it in detail the formula which allows you to calculate the nth Fibonacci number relies on a special number called phi (1.618), or better know as the Golden Mean. Rectangles with sides 1:1.618 can be used to derive spirals, snail shells and so on.
fibonacci-plant  divine ratio (a sequence of golden rectangles – Yin and Yang)
The Golden Ratio…1.618 (approximately) lies at the heart of proportions of beauty in Greek Architecture.
Greek Architecture
John Ruskin certainly appreciated structure at a deep level, in fact he insisted upon the importance of underlying Natural Laws and Principles in architecture (The Seven Lamps of Architecture)  and it is no accident that the sculpture resonates with the maths. Mir’s paintings reflect other aspects of Ruskin’s thinking … come and see them at the Millennium Gallery from January 23rd 2016 when our piece will be on display as part of an exhibition on contemporary Art and Craft.
This is a chain of thought, I hope you enjoy the links. Happy New Year!
The entire structure was made from a single oak tree – a very kind donation by the Guild of St. George from Ruskinland, through John Isles who supported our work and encouraged us. We were commissioned by Museums Sheffield and generously supported by Arts Council England.


19 Jul

Iliad and Odysey

‘Aphorism’ – a word first coined by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates (he of the medical oath) is by definition a ‘delimitation’ – an astute, often funny and therefore memorable distillation of a general truth.

“A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep” W.H. Auden

“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic” W.H.Auden

“Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”  Thomas Sowell

Or on a more practical note:

“Measure twice and cut once”

The mantra of woodworkers and builders everywhere, avoiding waste of costly materials.


Our actions and emotions can rarely be elegantly circumscribed in such an aphorism. They are not delimited at all but subject to the temptations of the seven deadly or cardinal sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

“Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: the brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth:No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. hubris is worse.
Percy: what could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.”
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

As a school boy I was given a fantastic school prize for English – Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epic poem about the Greek Heroes of myth, the capricious whims of the Gods and the epic Trojan Wars. I have to admit, in reading these stories I developed a particular soft spot for Odysseus, the cunning sailor, leader and architect of the ‘Horse’ a device built as a gift for the Trojans. As we all know it hid their doom – Odysseus and a strike force of warriors. The wooden horse was taken behind the Fortress walls by the unsuspecting enemy, thinking it a peace offering, whilst the rest of the Greek navy sailed off. Odysseus and his heroes emerged from the horse and slaughtered the Trojans in the night.

It took the Greeks ten years to achieve this victory, after which they all sailed home.

But Odysseus was not so lucky.

On the long return home Odysseus was waylaid by Polyphemus, the Cyclops and son of Poseidon. Odysseus had to use all his cunning to trick the Cyclops in order to escape and then rescue his men. Without wishing to spoil the story for you, I can say that Odysseus’ cleverness succeeded, but, as he sailed away he made the fatal mistake of boasting about his intellectual prowess. He displayed hubris.

Poseidon heard his boasts and cursed him to roam the seas for an agonising length of time never to return home to his beloved wife Penelope. He encountered monsters, sorceresses, strange beings and lost all his beloved friends and companions in this odyssey. A hefty price for over-confidence.

The other day, a lovely Italian couple, Roberta and Lorenzo came to see me to ask me if I could design and make them a bed. As they are both working away from home they wanted a special piece of furniture which they could retreat to at the end of the day and which in the future they could ship back to Italy.

To help me with the design brief I asked them this:

“Can you give me a clue about yourselves so that I can design something special and original for you?”

Roberta said “Do you know the Myth of Odysseus?”

I said “Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, he made his wife Penelope a bed made from a living Olive Tree.” My heart sang with excitement.

Well, to cut a long story short – I got the commission! I was able to come up with a design that they both liked I think, but rather than be over confident I invited them to put their own stamp on their commission. Here is Roberta Pyrographing Etna and Florence (their birth places) on a piece of lace wood (Penelope weaving her tapestry), and Lorenzo (Odysseus) is carving the whorl on his side of the bed.

IMG_5269  IMG_5268

The best cure for hubris is humility, because there is no fun in being alone with one’s pride.



18 May

I always look a grumpy old sod when I am concentrating. In fact in this reflection I am rather pleased with myself having just completed a commission for clients who are about to wed.


The clients’ brief was to make a mirror which was both ‘rustic’ and ‘smart’. I managed to find some wind blown elm wood and settled on a simple ‘gate’ design of cross pieces with gentle waney (natural) edges on the outside of the frame and clean, straight edges framing the mirror. The clients were happy with the design which is a good thing – I was aiming to bridge the gap between two very disparate tastes: robust and chunky vs lean and clean.

If marriage is the consummation of love, then a design brief is an invitation to the dance. Clients often have strong views about what it is they want you to make, but have little understanding of how this can be achieved. The important thing is to ‘move’ with the client’s lead and feel the music of their desire.

My mum always said: “C’est le ton qui fait la musique!” Meaning, ‘it is not what you say that counts, but the way in which you say it’. A smart rebuke for the smart-Alec little boy that I was. But I like the sense of it, because listening is the key to understanding.

Most people hear what is said, but don’t always listen attentively to the meaning of the words. Just as a reflection is a poor, two dimensional, inverted facsimile of the viewer, so a conversation can be either a dull exchange of everyday observations – where neither party listens, or a nuanced and rich exchange of ideas.

Rustic, but smart – that’s what I like.



26 Apr


Timber from the Sycamore tree has a pale delicate hue with a fine close grain ideally suited for carving and cabinetry. It especially suited the terms of this commission – to support an octagonal alabaster tile inlaid with semi precious stones and abalone shell – which deserves to be displayed in all its finery. The design of the table came about as an attempt to reflect the cursive designs of the lotus flowers on the tile without in any way detracting from the star piece, the tile itself.

Sycamore is an invading tree species, thought to have been introduced over 400 years ago from central Europe, unless it is managed properly it can come to dominate our native broadleaf woodlands and parks because of its ability to come in to leaf quickly and hog the light. Large palmate leaves produce a dense canopy through which little light penetrates, making life difficult for our native woodland plants like bluebell, wood anemone and lesser celandine. This same property makes the tree a welcome guest in farms – their luxuriant summer foliage provides livestock and dairies with a welcome and cooling shade.

The sycamore is a survivor. A hardy immigrant to the British Isles, it can withstand salty sea spray, cold winters, shady conditions, almost any type of soil and usually flourishes wherever it grows. I too am an immigrant.

I was born under a tropic sun in Kano, NIgeria, near the southern tip of the Sahara I emigrated to Britain, never having seen snow before. The first thing anyone said to me when I went to school in Matlock was “Why aren’t you black?” I did not understand the question at all, as I had hitherto grown up as an African.

Accra 1963


I am second left from the back, and no, the lady on the back row is not the class teacher, the lady at the front is. I consider myself a pale man with a dark heart, contrariwise the sycamore is a tree, dark externally but revealing a pale heart.


It is not known when Acer pseudoplatanus was introduced to Britain but suggestions range from Roman times until as late at the 17th century. I was introduced here in 1964. I quite liked snow.

There was certainly a Sycamore in Dorset in 1834 when a group of labourers met under a sycamore and formed a society to protest against their falling wages. While trade unions were legal by this point, swearing oaths in a society were not, and the members were arrested and found guilty. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they were to become known, were subsequently transported to Australia, although they were released within two years. The Tolpuddle Tree has recently been dated and was found to have been around 150 years old when the meeting took place. This puts the tree, which still stands today, at around 320 years, far exceeding the common estimate of 200 years for the tree’s lifespan.

The tree which yielded the timber for this table was about 180 years old, it would have been a sapling around the time Samuel Holberry was a young man. Born 1816, he was a member of the Chartist Movement in Sheffield – an organisation set up to bring democracy, safe working conditions and fair wages to the working classes – he died, broken on the wheel in York prison in 1842 aged 26 after being involved in a plot for armed resistance against the ruling classes – betrayed by a co-worker. Visit his grave in Sheffield’s glorious General Cemetery and read the magnificent epitaph on the expensive headstone made from Brincliffe Blue stone paid for by the workers of Sheffield and chosen by his widow. He lies under the shade of many sycamore trees.

The sycamore, or Acer pseudoplatanus, is a resilient and adaptable tree, which grows quickly and seems impervious to harsh weather and pollution. It is an immigrant, like me. Perhaps being a common immigrant is not so bad, if the core of such a being produces shade for cows, materials suitable for violin backs, or a celebration table for an Indian tile?



20 Apr


I discovered this stunning Lancia Fulvia parked outside the railway station in Ostia at Christmas 2012, and in case you are wondering what on earth this has to do with woodwork I’ll tell you.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, my dad rocked up with my very glamorous step mum in a car identical to this. He had been made redundant from his job in West Africa so he had flown to Italy and blown some of his golden handshake on a Lancia Fulvia identical to this one. He had then proceeded to drive all the way home to Blighty in some style. I only need to look at this to remember him trying to give me a driving lesson on his brother-in-laws considerable gravel drive in Gloucestershire, and my weak attempts at controlling a vicious clutch. The Fulvia Berlina was designed by Antonio Fessia in 1963, the design winning many Rally Races and the Paris Dakar. The one pictured here is a 1.6 L developing 115 bhp with a top speed of 118 mph. Which, in a 1970’s all alloy body shell and chassis is seriously quick. To me this is a near perfect design for a motor car, it positively screams “drive me and you will become gorgeous”. I try to make my furniture pieces with this intent, it is an aspiration.

The car also represents an external manifestation of desire. I am sure that I get my passion for making and design from my Dad. If we see something this beautiful it stops us dead in admiration. You can keep your Ferraris your Jaguars (with the exception of the Mark 2) and your dull, boring German muscle cars. Give me a Lancia Fulvia any day; light, fast, compact and beautiful – just like my woman.

Here is the old man charming my wife.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200  C that’s Mrs Littlewood to you


Lancia Fulvia