Category: Uncategorised

15
Jul

IN THE CONTINUUM

STEPHEN BARBER & SANDI HARRIS

The studio is a wooden Aladdin’s Cave. The stairway up is lined with bulbous lute moulds and bodies. Barely an inch is not used, either for tools, bubbling glue pots, books, lamps, or materials, sheets of translucent parchment and strips and blocks woods in every imaginable hue. Goodness knows where the two cats and the rabbit find to sit. For Stephen and Sandi are two of the world’s most respected lute and guitar makers. Although as Stephen points out, they also make vihuelas, archlutes, chiarroni, theorbos, orpharions, bandoras and citterns.

Their process begins with scrupulous study of instruments, masterpieces of the past, in museums and private collections. Stephen makes drawings, so accurate in their revealing of the instrument’s form, the drawings themselves become part of museum collections. They source materials that match (as far as possible) the original woods, from the growers of arcane species like the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. This is important because the woods were originally used because of their acoustic properties, there is nothing on these instruments that doesn’t contribute to their sound, no decoration that might detract from it. Although they also divert from the original model too, changing the size, or eschewing metallic-sounding rosewood for walnut.

Nothing can be rushed, making this way. Each instrument is weeks, even months of handwork, and waiting for glue to bond or lacquer to dry. Apart from a few pieces of metal, all the materials are organic; obviously the wood, but also the rabbit-skin glue, beeswax, the gut strings, the skin of the parchment. Its hard to chose any one part of the finished instruments to focus on, but I am most struck by the appearance of the fluted backs. These look amazing with the raised flutes arching over the pear-shaped lute, like the ribs of some kind of organic architecture. (Stephen and Sandi are planning to build a wooden house.) Fluting is a way of retaining strength whilst using less material and so less weight, practical but with an extraordinary aesthetic effect. Another breathtaking feature is the parchment decorated roses, set into soundboxes, like looking up at a ceiling in the Alhambra with its rhythms of domes and quarter domes and plethora of delicate decoration. Sandi cuts everything by hand, wearing enlarging glasses, but the result seems otherworldly, it is so perfect, like fairy architecture.

Their instruments are used by classical musicians like Julian Bream, but also Keith Richards, after all a guitar is a guitar. The instruments make a lot of sense as a purchase, unique, stunning to look at and touch, every millimetre handmade, with several musicians reporting theirs as the best they have ever played, and, given the longevity of instruments made the same way, likely to last half a millennium.

In their crepuscular studio time has a different meaning. They are working today in the era of iphones, but making instruments using techniques perfected four hundred years ago, to play compositions three hundred years old. You can find no conflict, no separation between the now and the then, nothing seems either old or modern, just a continuum of painstaking artistry.

27
Apr

PRACTICAL CHAOS

CAIRN YOUNG

Most people do one thing. They are a teacher, an insurance broker or a flight attendant. Cairn can’t put his finger on what he does. And roaming the workshop he shares with Ian Spencer – under the banner Yard Sale Project – and the studio upstairs, you simply can’t tell, the spaces are Aladdin’s Caves of tools, machines, wood, drawings, maquettes, half-finished wooden or steel carcasses, ceramic forms, and a cupboard, called Cubrik, that swirls open doubling its size with physical ingenuity impossible to understand.

Clements Yard, the home of Cairn’s lair, was derelict when he came across it as an industrial design student twenty years ago. He saw its potential immediately. He squatted at first, but then went on to pretty much rebuild it and its studios with a handful of compadres. Is this architecture or community building?

In making their distinctive multi-layered furniture, Cairn and Ian use a design technique they call “Chaos”. Chaos as in the scientific idea of disorder being merely a more complicated form of order. Borrowing from the way nothing in Nature is pure, or perfectly symmetrical, they fashion furniture which seems far closer to Henry Moore’s sculptures or neolithic tombs than what mass-production methods have made us used to. A myriad blocks of wood bonded like crystals, and carved into sinuous body-like shapes. The chairs are other worldly. Alien thrones.

And then there is Cairn’s cutlery for Auerhahn, showing that he can be novel within the tightest parameters. My favourite are the spoons, that twist as though they are reaching for that last drop of honey. Or his bowls for Rosenthal, with food cupped safely in the centre, they bloom outwards like flowers.

Although Nature is clearly at the heart of what he does, Cairn doesn’t baulk at unnatural finishes, chrome or polycarbonate. What he is doing though, is bending these industrial substances into forms that humanise them, eccentric, unexpected, rhythmic forms.

Quentin Newark