Bernard Chandley is an old fashioned craftsperson. He commenced his apprenticeship in carpentry/joinery at just 16 years old, learning from a young age how to cut traditional timber joins by hand, and how to join timber without the aid of metal fasteners. At the time, it seemed ‘archaic’, but these age-old skills have served Bern well, and this early training is a central part of what makes his creative output so distinct today.
After completing his apprenticeship, Bern went on to work sporadically in the film industry as a set builder (a rite of passage for many local furniture makers it seems?) where he worked on a great variety of projects and with all kinds of mentors. He loved it, but in the end he eased naturally into building furniture full-time.
Though it seems there’s nothing Bern can’t make, his passion is Windsor chairs. Fuelled by a meeting with American master chairmaker Peter Galbert around 5 years ago whilst working at a Melbourne woodworking school, Bern says his ‘absolute passion for the form was set ablaze’. He was instantly drawn to the lightness yet incredible strength of these elegant, understated chairs, with their deceptively strong spindly-looking components, which flex to the sitters shape and weight.
‘Unlike almost all wooden furniture that starts with a visit to the timber yard, Windsor chairs begin much closer to the primary source; the tree, or more specifically, one recently fallen and in log form’ explains Bernard below. ‘For me there is no other type of chair where the parts are all working together to make an incredibly strong whole. When I make a chair and pass it on to a client I gain a sense of sending something useful deep into the future.’
Bernard’s stunning handcrafted timber chairs can be ordered directly from him, contact details can be found on his website. He also has a small selection of chairs in the beautiful showroom of Porcelain Bear in Collingwood, and online at Handkrafted.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing now?
I left school at 16 to commence an apprenticeship in carpentry/joinery. The joinery component made the biggest impression on me. We were taught to cut traditional joins by hand and to recognise the correct application for each. At the time we were butt joining everything, then blasting furniture together with a nail gun, and we thought this part of the course appeared a little archaic. However today the concept of joining wood by utilising its strengths and understanding its weaknesses without the aid of metal fasteners resonates deeply with me.
In my late twenties I moved on to set building mainly for films (Ned Kelly, Charlotte’s Web, Star Wars III) but occasionally also TV, theatre and ballet. If the best way to learn is to work with someone more experienced then you, then I was quite fortunate to have worked with some very experienced and talented tradesman on various shows. There are some people who build sets full-time but a lot of us were dropping in and out of it, coming from different trade backgrounds as well. So mixing with that lot was always going to be beneficial, when you are willing to keep your eyes and ears, and most importantly, your mind open to different ways of doing things.
During my 12 odd years on film sets I had to make all types of weird and wonderful things, but my favourite was always furniture. I was given the opportunity to build different styles from different eras and this coincided with building furniture to commission between working on shows. I was utilising my knowledge of joinery to the full and loving every minute of it. It was a very easy decision to move sideways into building furniture full-time. It seemed quite natural.
You’re a furniture designer by trade but specialise in the creation of Windsor chairs. Did you choose the chair or did the chair choose you? How did the fascination begin and how did it evolve into becoming the focus of your business?
I’ve always been aware of Windsor chairs. My parents still own the Kangaroo chairs made by the Melbourne Chair Company I grew up on, and both sets of my grandparents had small cottage style Windsors around their tables. But it wasn’t until I met American master chairmaker/teacher Peter Galbert, while I was working at a woodworking school here in Melbourne about 5 years ago, that my absolute passion for the form was set ablaze.
The first thing you notice about handcrafted Windsor chairs is how light and seemingly delicate they appear in the flesh. To witness someone sit in one for the first time can be a heart stopping experience as you see the back as a whole flex to the sitter’s shape and weight. These elements of lightness and flexibility however are a testament to the incredible strength and durability given to the chair by a building process that utilises the said same qualities that allow a tree to stand for centuries. Unlike almost all wooden furniture that starts with a visit to the timber yard, Windsor chairs begin much closer to the primary source; the tree, or more specifically, one recently fallen and in log form. In all of the components of a Windsor chair you will find the grain running truly from one end to the other.
For me there is no other type of chair where the parts are all working together in isolation to make an incredibly strong whole.
When I make a chair and pass it on to a client I gain a sense of sending something useful deep into the future.
I have great faith in the skills handed down to me over 300 years by countless craftsmen who’s own work can still be seen and still sat on.
How would you describe your work and what influences your style?
I would firstly describe my work as handcrafted, then durable, comfortable and beautiful because of that.
I am still in love with the traditional North American style chairs I was first taught to make, and within their great variety I feel there is much for me to explore and be inspired by. However I am most excited by designing my own chairs and the influences for these are legion. Simple lines are a recurring theme for me, though so I would say shaker, traditional and modern Japanese and Scandanavian mid-century are in the mix.
What have been one or two favourite recent projects or commissions?
A favourite for me is always rockers for expectant mums, as I like to think the soon to be nursed babe will end up sitting in the chair. But there are two projects this year that have really stood out for me.
The first is a Rodback settee in Tasmanian blackwood with figured English ash spindles. The blackwood was spectacularly beautiful but what made it special was it all came from the one giant tree that had fallen over my parents-in-law’s drive way down in Tassie. My father-in-law Robin had it milled then air-dried it before very generously passing it on to me.
The second was when I was approached by stylist extraordinaire Tamara Maynes for a chair to go on the cover of her soon to be published book on makers. I feel very honoured, and also very pleased she chose a chair of my own design.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process when building a chair?
I get a fair idea of what I’m after by sketching, and from there I move on to mock ups using cheap pine, ply and chipboard. It is at this point I establish the geometry of the chair, the rake and splay of the undercarriage and back support, and whether they relate to each other in a balanced way.
The basic joinery of a Windsor chair where everything above and below terminates in a solid timber seat makes for a highly versatile platform to design off, but no matter how pleasing a design looks it is all for naught if you have not hit all the marks that make a chair functional and comfortable. So taking care of this during mock up is crucial.
At this point in my experience I feel I need to make a chair a few times to get myself to the point of being happy with it. There will be elements in the carving and shaping that will change a bit as I begin to fully understand what I’ve made and how successful it is at being what I want it to be.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
My family and I are early risers so I get to hang out with my wife Alice and four-year-son Flann before heading to the workshop at about 7.30am.
First up is coffee while I think through the day ahead and priortise looming deadlines and jobs. I usually already know exactly what needs to be done from what I have worked on the previous day, but being a one man workshop I need to make sure I’m moving everything forward so a little planning is required.
After coffee I basically jump into it. Stop once for lunch. Then work through to about 6.30. The work is very physical and can be tiring but I really love it. When I get home I check my emails and Instagram, have dinner with my family then get halfway through a sentence before falling asleep in bed.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Bren Luke. His illustrations evoke an intense sense of nostalgia in me from the first time I encountered the characters, people, films and events he depicts. They are astonishingly beautiful too.
Peter Graham. Pete and I have known each other for a long time but his paintings still jolt me from the banality of every day thoughts.
Alice Byrne. My beautiful wife has had her painting on hold to care for our son Flann while he is still little, but I can’t wait for her to start again. She has a knack for creating a sense of uncanniness in gorgeous landscapes that always leave me with a stimulating sense of unease.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
1. Melbourne City Library. I always get sidetracked from my original goal, but I’m ok with that.
2. My own library of books on furniture and woodcraft. It isn’t huge but it’s well targeted to suit me.
3. Instagram. Who knew there were that many talented people out there making things?!
4. NGV permanent furniture exhibition. Once again, small but targeted and I never get sick of it.
5. Antique and secondhand furniture shops. Always a mixed bag but the better for it.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
Inspiring a 28-year-old to save his money to buy a rocking chair from me.
What would be your dream creative project?
I have a fascination with long settees. I would love to build a stupidly long sackback settee, paint it black and install it in a public building somewhere. Actually, a piece of public furniture in general I would love to do.
What are you looking forward to?
Designing more chairs and getting better at my trade.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I’d have to say Fitzroy because it has been my home for over 20 years. It has never stopped changing from the moment I arrived, and I never get sick of the architecture and the history carried with it.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
Sharing tapas and raciones at Anada on Gertrude st.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
After buying coffee from Stagger Lee’s on the corner of our street I head to the workshop. It’s actually my favourite time to be there.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Social media lays all secrets bare.