An Evolutuion of Experience


Award-winning furniture designer Sebastian Blakeley reflects on the design influences absorbed during his formative years including time spent living and working in Italy.

I spent the first ten years of my life running free in the wilds of Cornwall. My parents, both artists who had met at Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts had moved to Cornwall in the 50s to be closer to the Arts movement that was going on at the time. My primary school headmaster was one of the first people to recognise my practical skills. On passing my eleven plus exams, he suggested to my mother that she look for technically orientated schools.

On the summer holiday of my eleventh birthday my parents split and we ended up in south London. The first secondary school, Ravens Wood School “Committed to excellence and innovation” and subsequently Tunbridge Wells Boys Grammar “Everyman is the master of his own fortune” had absolutely amazing wood and metal workshops. I specialised and focused on practical and creative skills. Third year woodwork we were making laminated furniture and Gibson Les Paul guitar copies. I left school after my ‘O’ level’s and dabbled with a further education college then London College of Furniture. However I was offered a job working with a fine craftsman. I leapt at this opportunity and have never looked back.

Once I had the feel for craft skills securely locked into my “DNA,” I spent the following five years mastering cabinet making, period oak restoration, wood carving and wood turning. After four years I was running my own small enterprise designing and building bespoke furniture. It was at this time that I started to experiment with my own prototypes.

A holiday in Tuscany, Italy in 1985 initiated for me a big change with consequences that I could not have imagined. I suddenly found myself restoring a 13th Century farmhouse in the magnificent Tuscan landscape. As project manager I ended up working with over 50 young people from all over the world over a period of three and a half years.

Italy was now running firmly through my veins, the culture, the people, the food, the style. After the building project finished I stayed on setting up as a designer craftsman. Chance meetings and coincidences lead me through an Odyssey of working with small family run Italian businesses. Tubular steel works, brazing and welding, cast aluminium and mould making, leather masks and even teaching youths how to make the Zampogna, a traditional reed instrument from southern Italy.

Eventually my combined skills led me into prototyping for a couple of furniture companies “Nuevo Metal Mobile” and “Bernini”. This in turn gave me the courage to start tackling the portfolio of designs that I had accumulated.

Taking the bull by the horns I decided to approach some of the luminaries of the Milan furniture world. Cassina Spa, Sawaya and Moroni, Giorgetti. The general opinion in Milan was that I was too “artiginato”, artisan, for Milan. Too much hand crafted wood. Go to London they said.

A couple of years later, in the late 90s I went to London and London said, “go to Milan. Too designer for London.”

A business venture in west London led to manufacturing components in Italy, assembly in the west end and marketing via the design fairs. In hindsight it was premature, for the market. Funnily enough the first place we sold was in Paris with État de Siège, which of course lies geographically in between London and Milan.

Starting a new family, led me into restoring various historic properties in the UK and Spain, specialising in lime construction, hemp fibre and sustainable solutions. I am now back in the UK again.

Another ‘chance’ meeting and here I am back with the furniture. I am ready and excited with a portfolio full of designs. I am confident that it is the right time for me to make a move. My designs fit the present billionaire boom and the ‘high end’ accessory market. I have the experience, the skills, the workshop, the partner and the co-workers for us to become one of Britain’s ‘best chair makers’.

Looking back is interesting because without a shadow of a doubt, those years in Italy and the visits to Milan remain a deep influence on my designs and concepts. Yet, the initial traditional craftsman/restoration years in England; instilled in me a profound understanding, appreciation and respect for wood, for the trees and for the forests. For me this respect of wood has to be present in my work, a tangible experience in both my furniture and studio buildings. It’s my inspiration.

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