Jan Waterston on the dark art of woodwork

By Farah Shafiq

6 minute read

Are you sitting comfortably? Then allow us to introduce Jan Waterston, here to take that seating to the next level. 

The Birmingham-based furniture designer has a serious fan base and on seeing his pieces, it’s easy to understand why. Sitting in a Waterston chair right now are “design lovers, collectors, architects and interior designers,” he tells us. “A lot of the time, people get in touch and say, ‘I’ve been looking at your chair for a year-and-a-half. I just can’t ignore it anymore. Can I order one?'”

Such is the nature of his design. It comes from the leftfield, completely and unexpectedly captivating – in a similar way to how Waterston first got into woodwork. He did a Fine Art Foundation course straight out of school, before finding himself building Star Trek sets in Spain, where he got inspired by traditional Spanish craftsmen. On returning to the UK, he enrolled on a City & Guilds wood-machining and hand-making course. “I just sort of bumped into furniture design,” he says. 

The training gave him a solid understanding of traditional crafts, tools and materials, which he still references all the time. “My design is informed by those principles, but not married to them,” he explains. “I’m not really a purist. I don’t feel any kind of allegiance to a traditional technique. For me, it’s more about saying, okay so this process is interesting, what can we do with this if we change that…

“It’s kind of a dark art. It’s about knowing what the temperature of the studio is and what part of the tree the wood has come from, whether it will lend itself to what I have in mind. All of these things have to be factored in, you’re sort of feeling your way through. It’s not really a two plus two equals, I’m going to make loads of nice chairs. You learn a little bit more with every chair.”

Here, we drill down on the experimental formula that sums up a Jan Waterston piece, discussing the brilliant Birmingham design community and the sustainability of woodwork along the way.

Design Jan Waterston Fumed Velo Chair
Top: Jan Waterston with Self Portrait Cabinet; photography courtesy of Jan Waterston. Above: Fumed Velo DB Chair

What was your starting point for the Velo series, was it the chair, the concept, the wood, a bike?

It was a total cocktail of all of those things. Really, the Velo Chair is based on a Windsor design, a traditional chair that’s one of the core blueprints in the British furniture industry. The Windsor has lots of spokes holding everything together. Whereas with the Velo Chair, it’s about taking those away to free up the form, to make it sculptural and as light as possible – not just to pick up, but visually light. I wanted to create something that people recognise as a chair, but take it beyond that context into a new space.

I’m not really a cyclist, apart from commuting – I admire their spirit, let’s put it that way! – but in terms of how good looking and functional bikes are, I just think they’re ace. Bike design is evolving all the time and it’s evolving from the leading edge backwards, when you look at pro cycling. I thought, hold on, surely you can do the same with wood as with carbon – what techniques can I borrow? I used similar glues and vacuum formers that pull the material tight and bend around shapes. In a lot of ways the lamination in the Velo Chair is similar to laminating carbon for bikes. 

Talk to us about that fumed finish… 

The colour for the Velo Chair is carefully chosen: it’s nearly black, but it’s kind of nutty brown in some light, and thin in places to let the grain come through. It’s similar to fumed oak, where ammonia reacts with the acetic acid in timber – you’ll see it in old barns where cows would have been, the wood goes black. 

It’s a really traditional technique that’s fun to do. You get vinegar, old nails and wire wool, intensify it with tea to add more tannins, mix it all up and rub it onto the wood. For the Velo Chair, we use a kind of sprayed version of that. We’re not actually doing the fuming, but we’re getting similar tones and something we can reproduce more effectively. 

The guy I work with has around 20 years experience, so he knows how to get it just right. I stand with him and say, ‘can we go heavier here, or there’, and we creep up on it together. He’s got such an amazing attention to detail and he’s very cautious, so he builds it up slowly. That’s it’s own art.

Design Jan Waterston Sandra Waibl Copy
Jan Waterston, London, Nov. 2020; photography by Sandra Waibl

Whose furniture do you have in your house, or is it all yours?

It’s all mine! What I try to do is live with the collection that I’m working on. Then after living with it and seeing it all the time, I might make some changes and develop further. 

I’m currently living with a drinks cabinet that I’ve designed. It looks a little like an elephant’s foot – probably a bit Marmite, you might love it or hate it. The back slides open like a bird’s cage, so I can put different colours behind the timber. There’s lots of potential to do limited versions. Inside, there’s a turntable that spins, so you can get to the gin at the back – who doesn’t want that in their house?

Where do you get your wood from? 

I predominantly use British and European timber, which I select from various yards around the UK. I choose the wood based on what the design allows for and what in the wood I want to celebrate. Wood is wood, right, we don’t want it to be too perfect.

I generally don’t use tropical timber as it’s more difficult to get hold of sustainably and know that it’s been farmed right. Sustainability is a problem in the UK too, we haven’t managed woodlands very well – at least that’s my understanding of it. I’m starting to learn more and more. When I first came into woodwork, I just thought, there’s trees, let the forest do what it does, it’s going to be fine. But it’s much more complicated than that. Understanding the biosphere needed to maintain healthy woodlands is very much a part of this craft.

The first place I had a residency was at the Sylva Foundation in Oxfordshire, which promotes the growth of British forestry and does a lot of research into woodlands. They have studio spaces that small businesses and craftspeople can rent a little bit cheaper than commercial rates. So, if you’re working with anything to do with wood it is a great place to start. 

Design Jan Waterston Velo Making2 Pr
Jan Waterston in his studio; photography courtesy of Jan Waterston

What’s the design community like in Birmingham?

The art and design scene is great in Birmingham. I share a studio with another furniture maker and designer, which is nice because it’s not so lonely. It’s in the countryside, on a farm, which is lovely because in summer you can have lunch in the fields, there’s a lake nearby… I can also see a pub, which is a bit dangerous, if you want to be distracted. 

There are other makers there, too. A French polisher with 20-odd years experience; an upholsterer that’s got 30-odd years; a frame builder for sofas. So, if I wanted to design something that uses their skillset and approach, I could totally prototype and then make to order – an upholstered collection, for example. 

Manufacturing on a small specialist scale has struggled for a long time in the UK. But, I think that is changing now. People are thinking more about the ethics behind what they want to buy and about how they want to pass on objects as heirlooms. 

Birmingham has a lot to offer and it hasn’t been tapped into enough by the broader creative community. That said, we’ve seen more people starting to leave London recently and come to cities like Birmingham. There’s just so many wicked little businesses there. 

Design Jan Waterston Fumed Velo Feature
Fumed Velo RS

How do you strike the balance between hands-on design and digital presence?

I always try and let the work do the talking. You want to build up excitement with images, but ultimately to get things in front of people so they can explore the piece and see the quality.

When Lymited got in touch to explain its curated approach, it made sense as a digital platform for my pieces. I really want to be part of relationships with people that share my passion for design and value the same attention to detail. It’s also fun to have the input of clients and partners, it gets you thinking. It’s not necessarily about collaborating, it’s just about meeting people, finding out about their craft and enjoying the larger scene.

I want those relationships to last for a long time. Because digital is so fast; I struggle with it to be honest. Design takes time, making takes time. Yes, you’ve got that Instagram world, but when you trace it back to the really useful workshops in Birmingham, it’s people in ropey buildings, without a website, they’re old school. That’s where the real knowledge is, that’s where people are the real masters of their trade. 

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