The Interplay Of Light And Shadow

22nd May 2015

Jill Glenn meets Watford-based furniture designer Chris Dunsby

Chris Dunsby is the third or fourth young designer/maker that I’ve interviewed over the last couple of years, and each time I’ve been struck by the passion and focus that they bring to their work – and by their sensible business heads. Chris is no exception.

For 21, he’s a pragmatic chap. “I’m starting small,” he says. “In the shed.” A couple of weeks after we meet, I email to clarify something; he doesn’t immediately answer, and when he does, apologises for being out of communication: “I’ve been at the Milan Design Week and sleeping in the van.”

His parents are supportive (the shed’s in their garden) and he’s particularly, touchingly, close to his father, a gardener. Chris spent seven summers working for his dad, saving his money for the business he’s long wanted to run. He already wears polo shirts adorned with his logo.

He went to Watford Boys, where, by his own admission, he was ‘never fussed about English and Maths.’ He laughs as he says this. “I can see now that I should have been… but I wasn’t the most intellectual.” He recognises that it was, nevertheless, a good education: “It’s a school that wants you to play to your strengths.” His dyslexia didn’t prevent him from sticking his neck out to achieve what he wanted.

Design is in his family. He describes his grandfather, who designed sets for the BBC (including the first Dr Who police box), as a ‘maker’, and recalls being inspired by a visit to his workshop as a young boy. “I grew into the skills I needed,” he says. He acknowledges a debt for practical skills to his father, too, and to his other grandfather, who was a painter.

Chris’s degree, at Plymouth, was in 3D Design, with the subtext ‘designer maker’, although he describes himself as more of a craftsman than a 3D designer now. His projects were broad and loose – design ‘something to help dry hair’, for example (he designed a bicycle) – and gave him great scope to exercise his ingenuity. It was all about coming up with ideas and putting them into action. “There’s something really satisfying about people finding your stuff aesthetically pleasing,” he acknowledges.

He chose an arts-style course because he wanted to explore the creative, the artistic; he could have done almost exactly the same things and come out with a B Eng instead of a BA.

When he graduated he ‘struggled’ until October, when he took on a major project for the London Design Festival – unpaid, but substantial. “Six big tables – for the foyer.” It was a great profile-raiser. He was in the ‘100% design’ section – “with my name on a plaque in the wall”. He’s half-laughing at himself, but you can tell he’s really proud. As well he should be.

Then he made some small gifts to sell at the Christmas Fairs: candle holders out of forks, for example, as a witty reference to the Ronnie Barker ‘four candles / fork handles’ sketch. And from these he picked up some bigger commissions: a paddled staircase, a big light installation, a water feature. He can, if he wants to (and it seems he often does) work seven days a week. His workshop is tiny, perhaps 2.5m x 2.5m, but supremely neat and organised. “I have everything I need to make everything that can be made,” he says. He aims for around a two month turnaround from commission to delivery, and he’s always working on several things at once. “My mum’s very efficient,” he says. “I get my multi-tasking skills from her.”

He calls his design philosophy the Marmite strategy: people either love it or hate it. Most products that could have been designed already have been, he says. “Furniture is something everyone can relate to. Everyone has an opinion. The table has been around for centuries – and I’m just doing it differently.” The design comes from the process. “How do I work that up into a table?” he muses, mimicking his thought patterns. “How do I work that up into a chair?”

The pieces that are at the heart of his current design and business strategy – a collection he calls Engineered Randomness – are quirky and contemporary tables. They demand attention. The structure is created by welding together pieces of metal – originally nails, now steel railing offcuts from local fabricators (selected for both eco and cost benefits). For the London Design Festival he had worked them up into ‘poseur’ tables: tall, slender, very striking. He estimates that around 20,000 people looked at them, noting the clever relationship of delicacy and sturdiness. They must create great shadows, I observe, and he agrees. As it happens, they grew out of a university design brief on light. “What does light do? It creates shadows...”. It’s evident that he has always thought outside the box. “I like to do things differently,” he admits. “It didn’t always reward me with the best marks, but I got the most fun out of it.”

He is still young, of course, with long years of design life ahead of him. Sometimes people are surprised by his age, he admits. “Craft is seen as something you grow into.” Most of his hands-on skills are self-taught. “The university taught me design, not making… how to think about design and develop ideas, but not necessarily how to put them into practice.”

The course he followed at Plymouth describes itself as having a national reputation for producing graduates who are individual, informed and know how to be successful designer-makers in business. I reckon they’d be pretty proud of Chris, who, again half-laughing at his own temerity, tells me his aspiration is “a Dunsby design in every home… I want everyone who wants my design to be able to have it.”

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