Tom Raffield

Profiles: Tom Raffield

Tom RaffieldHomegirl London pays homage to Tom Raffield.  A man who loves nothing better than steam bending wood to make a stunning and sustainable range of handcrafted furniture and lighting.  He’s developed a unique process and has even made his own tooling to help him achieve imaginative 3D products which are inspired by his love of nature.  This is a low energy, environmentally friendly process which literally involves passing wood through a steam-filled tube and using the heat to create bends with no glue and very little waste – how amazing is that!  This technique has allowed Tom to create organic shapes with curves all in the right places and he’s certainly put it to good use with his exceptionally desirable collection of chairs, tables, lamps and lights.  I caught up with Tom to find out more …

Q: Tell me about your design background.

A: I worked after school for a bit – not in anything design related.  Then I undertook a 2 year course in 3D design, followed by a 3 year degree in 3D Design and Sustainability at University College Falmouth.  After I graduated in 2005 I set up design company, Sixixis, with 2 other students.  We were relatively successful and really pushed some design boundaries but eventually wanted to go our separate ways.  People knew my name from the press coverage we’d received so in 2008 I set up Tom Raffield to focus on the things I wanted to do.  My focus since I did the first design course was always on the steam bending.  I knew that’s what I wanted to do.  It’s quite niche.

Loop Chair, Tom Raffield

Loop Chair, £1750

Q: Why start a business?

A: The passion for designing and making my ideas come to life was the driving force.  I wanted to realise my own creative ideas and eventually to do that without the need to collaborate or compromise.

Q: Where are you based and why?

A: We’re based in the beautiful woodland of the former Trevarno Estate near Helston which is right down at the tip of Cornwall.  A lot of my lights are inspired by nature – the Flock light from birds in flight and the Butterfly Pendant from the delicate form of a butterfly in flight – so it’s wonderful to be surrounded by the woods and be a stone’s throw from a walk on a windswept beach.  I grew up in the country and was always playing in the woods so I suppose really not much has changed!

Flock Light, Tom Raffiled

Flock Light, £795

Q: How many people work at your company?

A: At the moment there are 2 full-time staff, myself and our apprentice Charlie Brogden and 2 part-time staff, Danie and Suzie who do our Admin and Marketing.  It’s a small team but it has been carefully built so I have to outsource less and less to freelancers.  What we do is so specific it is much more sensible to keep staff in-house and have a passionate, competent team who really care about what they are doing.  I hope to hire another apprentice soon as I really believe in the apprenticeship schemes and in training young people on the job and allowing them to inform the way you run your business with fresh, creative ideas.

Q: Describe your design style.

A: Fairly unique and organic.  It’s about a combination of a really involved steam-bending process and being inspired by the forms of nature in the world around me.  It’s about marrying the technical with the artistic and creating new ways of working so I can realise the design ideas in my head.

I’m also interested in combining old techniques – the Romans and Vikings used steam bending techniques to build boats – with modern ones such as high-quality laser cutting to make a lasting 21st century product.

I think what is most special about my designs is they couldn’t be manufactured in high volumes on a factory line.  They are truly handmade and they are both an artwork and a sustainable, functioning piece – that’s really important to me – I want to create products that last longer than a lifetime and that people will cherish forever as a special piece in their home or business.

Rocking Chair, Tom Raffield

Rocking Chair, price on application

Q: Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?

A: For me a design always begins with a shape or a form rather than with colours or styling.  Growing up in Devon and living and working in Cornwall, I have always been surrounded by the forms of nature.  There are some stunning and beautiful shapes to be found in the British landscape and these have always influenced my design.  We’re surrounded by the sea here in Cornwall and the design of my chaise longue, which has become an icon of the brand, came from a twisted shell I saw on a walk on the beach.

Butterfly Floor Lamp, Tom Raffield

Butterfly Floor Lamp, £490

Q: What’s your fascination with steam bending?

A: It appeals because it feels like the potential and the opportunities are endless – there are so many ways to use it and so many designs waiting to be created.  I build all my own tooling and at university I created a technique which uses a bag filled with steam to allow me to create much freer shapes by keeping the wood immersed in the steam during the bending.  Instead of having to bend the wood on one plane I am now able to create complex 3D shapes.

The technique is an ancient one and fits well in our island nation and especially in Cornwall where it has long been used in the boat building industry – but I feel there is still so much more to learn, discover and create.

Q: Tell me about your collections.

A: I have a lighting and furniture collection.  The lighting collection features hanging ceiling pendants, wall lights, floor lamps and table lamps in three woods – ash, oak and walnut.  Our hero product in this collection is probably the Pendant Number 1 which is a very curly light that floats in the centre of a room and brings a lovely warm quality to the light in a room as well as casting subtle shadows.

Pendant No 1 by Tom Raffield

Pendant Number 1, £245-255

The furniture collection includes smaller pieces such as the Coat Loop and Log Loop for storing firewood and a selection of large chairs and other seating.  Most of the larger pieces are made to order and they are often bought by businesses.  The most recognisable product in this range is the Chaise Longue No 4 which has become a real icon of the brand.  All of the wood we use is sustainably sourced.

Coat Loop, Tom Raffield

Coat Loop, £225

Wood Basket, Tom Raffield

Log Loop, £255

Chaise Longue No 4, Tom Raffield

Chaise Longue No 4, price on application

Q: Which designer do you admire and why?

A: Thomas Heatherwick for his ability to bring art and sculpture into functional objects.  He uses a combination of engineering and art to create something new and quite extraordinary, like nothing you’ve ever seen before – and that’s a rare gift in my eyes.

Q: What’s the best thing about owning your own business?

A: Complete creative freedom.  No one can tell you what to make or not make.

Q: What one piece of advice would you pass on to someone wanting to set up their own business?

A: Only do it if you’re 100% committed to it and unbelievably passionate about what you’re making or doing.

Q: What’s coming up for the rest of 2013?

A: We are currently putting the finishing touches to our new workshop in the woods and then we have our new website which has just launched with some gorgeous new photography.  There are also online videos of the lighting range coming to help people to envisage them in 3D and get a sense of the movement of products like the Flock Chandelier.

We’re taking part in Cornwall’s Open Studios from 25 May – 2 June so if anyone is down for the Bank holiday they are more than welcome to come and see us in our studios.  After that we’re looking to take on more staff to help us build capacity and enable me to focus more on bespoke and commissioned designs and hopefully towards the end of the year there’ll be 3 or 4 more designs to add to the collection.

You can buy Tom’s products from suppliers across the UK but the best place to buy is direct their website at Tom Raffield.  They’re a friendly bunch so if anyone has any questions about existing pieces or something you would like them to design do call on 01326 722725.  Credits: text by Homegirl London, images courtesy of Tom Raffield, special thanks to Tom Raffield and Suzie.