Interview

Chris Colwell

by Amber Creswell Bell, Sydney Contributor
Friday 6th March 2015

Today we’re thrilled to feature a Sydney based furniture designer/maker we’ve long admired – Chris Colwell of Chris Colwell Design.  I first spotted Chris’ effortlessly understated pieces in the wonderful Small Spaces in Redfern… finally, almost two years later, thanks to our Sydney writer Amber Creswell Bell, we have gotten around to profiling Chris in more detail!

Having gathered a loyal local following for his timeless designs and quality workmanship, Chris’ practice has recently expanded to include slightly bigger design projects, such as designing a new fit-out for much loved Sydney patisserie Flour & Stone.  Still, his business remains a genuine ‘one man band’ – Chris still makes every piece from scratch himself, in his Leichhardt workshop.

In a world of disposable, mass-produced furniture and cheap replicas – it is so delightful to find someone doing things the right way. I think of it a bit like the slow-food movement, but here we have a ground swell of appreciation and interest in things made lovingly by hand, and time taken to do things with an honest artisanal approach.

With his burgeoning business just 18 months old, Bondi boy Chris Colwell is genuinely a one-man-band. Every piece of furniture that comes out of Chris Colwell Design is 100% made by Chris himself! Passionate about simplicity of design, he is recognised for his fuss-free aesthetic and admits that he could almost ‘pare it back a bit more’. His furniture is noticeably devoid of colour – instead Chris chooses to venerate the nuances, hues and grains of the timber he works with, and the shapes and lines of the products he makes. Chris believes that colour in a room should come from other things – like ‘art, and window views’! Furniture need not compete.

Working out of his workshop in the Inner-West suburb of Leichhardt, it is ultimately Chris’s hope that his pieces will transcend trends and of-the-minute tastes to become treasured heirlooms handed down through generations. Longevity of form, and of function, are both important guiding principles in his work.

Making everything with his own two hands, Chris describes each day as an exercise in learning, and honing his chosen craft.

Producing a broad range of products including beds, desks, benches, stools, tables, lighting and coat hooks – Chris says that his personal favourite pieces are the bookshelves, for their simple, light design and honesty of material.

Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?

I grew up in Balmain, and didn’t really have an interest in woodwork nor design while I was at school. Balmain was more about music, bands and surfing. It seemed like there was always a lot of creative people around me.

After school I studied carpentry, and then worked with my Dad who is a builder. I suppose, thinking back, the path that lead to where I am now started when I was doing restoration work at Sydney Uni.  On the way home one day I noticed a furniture store that had some beautiful hexagonal Frank Lloyd Wright chairs and a matching table in the window. I would look at these everyday, admiring all the beautiful joints. This spurred my journey into furniture design. I found a few books on Frank Lloyd Wright designs at the local markets – I think his Prairie table was one of the first pieces of joinery I made!

Later, seeking out something a bit more creative than building, I went on to set building, which is a lot more like joinery. One week we would be building boats and the next spaceships! During this time I was always making furniture for my friends, family and myself. I suppose I got to the point where it was time to try it out full-time! I injured my hand at work one day, likely when I was dreaming about making a piece of furniture, and thought ‘now is the time!’. Daydreaming and machinery are not a great mix! I decided if I could recover and still use my hand, I would start making furniture. And I did.

What has been one of your favourite projects in recent months?

I was asked by the lovely Nadine Ingram to do the new fit out for Flour & Stone patisserie. This was great because Nadine knew my style from seeing my pieces in Small Spaces, and had total trust in what I would deliver! Plus, I really love everything in Flour & Stone.

Tell us about your work?

I work mostly with American oak and American walnut. I like these iconic timbers as they both have really beautiful grains and colour. They are also sustainable timbers, which is a good thing. With my designs, sometimes I start with a very rough sketch that I have hastily scribbled on the back of a envelope.

Most of the time however I have just been visualising something in my head for days, working out the different joins and angles. When I get to work I just work it out as I go! Some pieces only take a day, while others sit in my workshop for two months because I am not quite sure of something… and then suddenly down the track it all works out just the way it was meant to be! I would say my style is very simple and understated. I have always admired the designs of Hans Wegner for their timeless simplicity.

What does a typical day for you usually involve?

A typical day is to grab a coffee from The Shop in Bondi and head off to work. If I don’t have any projects on I play around with different ideas and test out new designs, make some prototypes, pick some timber out for the next day do some finishing-sanding. At the end of the day I head home, picking up my little boy Zen along the way. Usually Zen, my partner Kai and myself will head to the beach for a swim before dinner and a wine at home! Simple.

Can you list for us 5 specific resources across any media you tune in to regularly?

1. Instagram is good because you can pick up some tips from other amazing craftsmen from around the world.

2. Habitus magazine is great for beautiful interiors.

3. Pinterest for general browsing of all design.

4. Triple J on in the background everyday, to get me through the day!

5. I love to relax on Saturday morning with The Sydney Morning Herald and just catch up on what’s happening in the world.

Which other local artists, designers, creative people do you admire?

I admire anyone who follows their dream really! I love the work of Kenny Yong-soo Son from Studiokyss – he has such a beautiful, simple aesthetic. I admire the skill and patience it takes to make his objects.

I really respect Sarah O’Neill from Small Spaces for setting up her own beautiful shop. I don’t know where I would be without her support. My furniture fits perfectly in with her aesthetic for living.

What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?

My dream creative project would be to design, build and furnish my own home. You always have to compromise when you renovate, so it would be so great to start completely from scratch! I really love the Scandinavian style barn houses.

What are you looking forward to?

Always looking forward to working on new designs and holidays! And maybe one day owning my own little furniture shop.

SYDNEY QUESTIONS

Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?

For me it has to be Bondi because of its relaxed feeling and the ocean. Walking around in board shorts all summer long, and not having to drive anywhere is the best! I also like Balmain as I grew up there, and always enjoy going back to catch up.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?

House Thai in Surry Hills because of the spice, the authentic food and relaxed style. Best som tum, BBQ chicken, and I do love a good boat noodle!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Typical Saturday morning – grab a coffee and a croissant and head to the beach!

Sydney’s best kept secret?

Burning Palms Beach in the Royal National Park is such a great day trip just to get away from the city. A walk through the bush, and down the mountain to a beautiful uncrowded beach for a surf, or a swim. So close but feels mile away!

Sydney based Chris Colwell of Chris Colwell Design in his Leichhardt workshop. Photo – Nikki To for The Design Files.


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