Essay by Professor Simon Olding for ‘Whole Life Cost’ 31 January 2006

Guy Martin’s current range of furniture combines a certain simplicity (the work is left unadorned, and is composed of the sparest group of elements: ash, stainless steel nails and bars) with a dense, symbolic complexity. Nothing he does is without clear purpose
and conviction. He has a long-standing passion for the environment. He is steadfastly committed to the principles of sustainable development. He is a maker of moral fortitude. But there is often a sense of play and humour implicit in the swooping curves of a chair, in the ‘gothic’ line of a cupboard. Profundity and joy are close creative friends, and they instill in Martin’s best work a sense of originality and purpose. Those are the marks of a major talent.

Martin’s earliest work is sculptural and sometimes playful. A table and chairs, Impertinence, painted a fresh green, rest on a sturdy ‘industrial’ steel frame. The thin, strong line and jaunty curves of these chairs resound with the love of metal sculpture rather than wood. Indeed, these chairs recall Martin’s adventurous employment as the assistant to Anthony Caro. The theme is followed through in his first commercial work, The Pithill Chair. This, too, had a stripped-down sculptural design, using painted ash. Martin recalls that in designing this chair he was ‘still trying to work out what I was doing’. They are works of an aspirant fine artist, perhaps, rather than a furniture designer-maker. Martin’s work today has developed significantly, and his aesthetic motivation is more likely to be found in the love of Japanese calligraphy or the purity found in selecting and using otherwise redundant ash thinnings. His work now transforms materials of little commercial value into idiosyncratic, yet eminently practical furniture.

Martin’s reputation as a furniture designer-maker of original talent was first built on the innovative use of willow and ash, in a series of chairs, lecterns and stools which played strongly on the theme of ‘exterior rustic’. Martin was influenced by collaboration with the American artist Clifton Monteith. During his time as Design Tutor at Parnham Martin had a free hand to design and run the course for furniture designer-makers. He invited Monteith to lecture after seeing slides of his work. His interest in the use of willow inspired Martin, revealing a source of easily available material, as well as a means to create a workshop practice that was ethically and environmentally sound. The collaboration ‘liberated (his)
thinking’.

In this series of willow furniture, a sturdy base of hand-shaped ash legs supports a distinctive curve of bent willow rods. In his Conversation Chair the line is elegant and restrained; in the Dining Chair it is matched by a fan-like back, emphasising the Japanese air of calm. In the Cathedral Chair, the swoop of the seat rising confidently to the as armrests is majestic. Cathedral Chair, in particular, had the bold confidence of Pugin and the passion of the natural world wrapped up in a completely original design. These works brought into life Martin’s determination to stay true to craft principles so long as they were balanced by respect for natural materials. Fine art and sculpture would no longer do.

Willow, alone, did not do for long, either. Martin can hardly be described as a restless artist. There is an air of productive calm in his Dorset studio and workshop. But he does push the boundaries of his work, and he questions the relationship with the market place. A defining moment came in 2001, fostered by an influential grant from South West Arts. Martin found that willow could be used to impressive effect in the narrow range of the chair, stool and lectern, but it was not a useful or appropriate material for larger furniture, and it limited him in his symbolic and conceptual ideas. He turned to ash, steam bending the wood to achieve improbable and graceful lines and curves, scorching it to attain a resonant black finish, and handling the Arbortech workshop tool like a calligrapher’s brush to give symbolic lettering-effects to the wood. The furniture took on a poetry without words. Martin also likes to mark the plain lime-waxed ash with gentle score marks. These are signifiers of the fact that the furniture is machine made. The machine will leave a trace on the wood. Yet Martin likes to manipulate this trace, as well as score the ash pole with irregular, angular cuts, emphasizing the simple richness of the wood. In his work after 2000, Martin felt confident enough to simplify his materials to the barest essence: curved planks, legs and armrests with circular sections and tapered ends. In ding so
he wanted to lose all traces of self-consciousness, to attain a purity and essence in his aesthetic. These works are more sophisticated because they are stripped back to essential components, and yet they are still radical in form. The Tula chair, for example, derives its essential shape from the earlier willow chairs, but it is more composed, even formal. It is no longer ‘exterior rustic’, but ‘interior modern’.

Martin also gains creative inspiration from collaboration. He has worked with poets as well as craftspeople, testing the combination of materials (words, jewellery, textiles) so that his furniture becomes less domestic, more symbolic. He worked in this way for the groundbreaking One Tree project as well as the visual arts component of the 2002 Salisbury Festival, In Praise of trees. For the Festival, Martin collaborated with the textile artist Yuli Somme, creating a Bier and shroud which stood amongst the tombs of Salisbury Cathedral. The partnership is reconvened for Whole Life Cost at the Devon Guild, with a powerful new shroud in felt, raised up by the simple, elegiac ash bier. The calm dignity of this work contrasts with the evocative playfulness of his collaboration with Debby Mason in The Fish are Flying. Martin’s base and frame are restrained elements here, letting the ‘sails’ take precedence, but anchoring them solidly.

Martin currently works in three related areas: the designer-maker of domestic furniture; the collaborative working in a symbolic and conceptual manner; and the designer-maker of exterior small-scale buildings and studios. His current collaboration with Tino Rawnsley on the EOLIS project takes his interest in sustainable design into the territory of modular architecture. Like all of his work, it is original, humane in scale and thought, and graced by a passion for the natural material and its place in contemporary living.