George, tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and what triggered your interest in furniture design and making?
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and my interest in furniture making came from much of my childhood spent in my father’s workshop – he is an amateur carpenter – and I just really enjoyed the feeling of being able to transform raw materials into something else.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I was really into dinosaurs when I was a child and I seem to remember wanting to carve little dinosaur sculptures out of wood. I quickly realised that it is not very easy and I didn’t do a very good job.
Can you remember the first object you made?
Not really, no. But the first proper thing I made, as in, something with a real sense of skill was a knife that I made under an apprenticeship with a master knife maker when I was a teenager.
How did the idea for Temper Studio come about and what made it worth pursuing?
I had been working as a graphic designer in London for years as well as trying to build a career as an artist. It wasn’t working and I didn’t enjoy working for someone else. So I started thinking about the things I enjoyed doing – I had been making small bits of furniture for my home – and decided to try to build a business around that. I made a couple of things, people liked them, I sold them and decided to give it a go.
German designer Dieter Rams said that “Simplicity is the key to excellence”. What is your key to excellence? How would you define the Temper Studio philosophy?
I can’t disagree with Dieter but I would add that a poetry of materials that creates atmosphere or friction is what makes a piece memorable. Sometimes jarring, sometimes harmonious, both are interesting and interesting is good.
Where does your fascination with the Shaker furniture style and Japanese joinery come from? What else inspires your designs?
Shaker furniture has this great sense of quiet permanence, as if it’s always been there and will always be there. I want that feeling to be in my furniture too. Japanese joinery has the aspect of precision and ingenuity that I love. Other than that I’m inspired by materials and processes, playing around and seeing what works together or seeing a process and adapting it to suit something I want to create.
Sustainability seems to play a key role in your designs. Do you believe that by making beautiful objects, and thus facilitating an aesthetic attraction towards the object, your approach to design is also a critique of wastefulness?
Sustainability is important to me which is why I champion the use of UK grown hardwoods. As for wastefulness, yes, I expect that someone who buys furniture from me is going to look after it and cherish it for decades and that means it’s one more thing that isn’t being chucked out next season. I’d like to aim for a time when there is no by-product that is not useful in some other way. That also means accepting that humans are fickle and tastes change, so finding ways of making things out of materials that will have a life after their first life and another after their second is a very interesting area of design. I’d like to explore that more.
Tell us a little about the Temper Studio team. What are its strengths and how would you describe its dynamics?
I started Temper Studio on my own several years ago in a tiny studio in Tottenham, then needed more space and took the opportunity to move to the countryside. Then I got a couple of jobs that were too much for me to handle on my own and I asked my friend of many years, Jonny, to help me with them. He had been working as a handyman and wanted to get away from that and into something more skilled. After working on a couple of jobs together I asked if he wanted to just move into my house and work with me full-time. Over the years he’s upped his skills and now manages most of the production of our made-to-order items whilst I work on the weirder bespoke projects. About a year ago I received an email from Emily Gabriel asking if there was any chance we could take her on as an apprentice. It just so happened that we had a couple of big jobs on the go so the timing was perfect. We all got along immediately and I’m in awe of how hard she works. We usually have to kick her out of the workshop at the end of the day because she doesn’t want to leave. She’s learned a lot really quickly and I feel so lucky to get to work with her. Both Jonny and Emily are damn excellent eggs.
What does it take to become a successful furniture designer?
I don’t know. Money, probably.
Where did the idea for your “Make a thing a day” initiative come from and how was it received by the designer-makers community?
A few years ago, in conversation with a friend who had been helping me with my PR, we were brainstorming ideas to grow my audience on social media and she suggested doing an Instagram giveaway. That sounded pretty boring to me and said I could do better than that! That’s where the idea came from, I wanted to expose the creative process as something explorative and uncertain, shine a light on the fragile, messy exercise that gives new ideas their start. It worked really well as a marketing tool but the unexpected result was the forging of new connections with a whole network of designers and makers all over the country that I am very pleased to know. It started conversations.
You don’t seem to lean back on a certain technique or a certain way of working for too long. What keeps you driven?
Total distrust of comfort. When I'm comfortable I feel like I'm nearly dead. I have zero interest in going through the motions of a process of which I already know the end result. If I know how to do a thing or know how a thing works I see little point in doing it again. There's nothing more exhilarating that staring into the void of your own lack of knowledge and saying ‘I don’t know how to do that but I can probably figure it out’. A good problem to solve is like crack to me. We have a saying in the studio: ‘Be bold! and don’t fuck it up'.
What role does technology play in your creative process?
When I started I used to do all my designs at the drafting table with pencil and pen. It was an enjoyable process but painfully slow, and if a client decided to change one small element then I would need to start all over again, it became restrictive. So I switched to designing on the computer and it’s really changed the way I work, it’s a lot more free and experimental. It has its limits and frustrations but in many ways it’s quite fluid. I still sketch initially to note ideas down before moving to the computer though. Otherwise I have a little laser engraver which is quite fun to play with and I’d like to get a robot arm at some point. I just see them as extensions of other tools. I have a rule which is to use the best tool for the job and not to waste the time of a skilled human if a machine is a better tool for the job. There are things that a CNC can do that are very difficult for a human to do. That’s a waste of precious human time that could be spent doing something that a machine can’t do.
As a self-taught furniture designer-maker, what YouTube video did you find most useful or inspirational?
Oh god I don’t know. If I need to know how to do a certain thing or service a tool or something then I google it. But in general for handwork skills Paul Sellers’ series of videos is a good place to start.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far?
Don’t base your idea of what you think you are capable of on what you are currently capable of.
Who do you admire in your industry?
All the other seriously skilled makers out there who are all just hanging in there like I am. It’s bloody tough. I’m a big fan of Byron and Gomez and impressed by the design and commercial approach of Charles Dedman. Sebastian Cox consistently produces excellent work. I love Heather Scott’s combination of wood, steel and geometry. The list could go on for everrrr.
You live and work in rural Wiltshire. What do you do or where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired?
Relax? I spend every Christmas Eve in a bothy in the Black Mountains in Wales. I spend time with my partners. I do some gardening. Sometimes I go cycling or play squash and other times I get really really drunk. But I’m almost always working. I recently found an old broken ride-on lawnmower in a shed and spent a few weeks of evenings learning how engines work. It was really exciting the first time it started up again. That was relaxing.
What is the image that pop us in your mind most often?
Oh, that would not be appropriate to write here… but with furniture I’ve always got some design problem mulling away. Brains are quite good at solving problems when you’re not looking directly at them.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a large dining table commission and have several other designs in development which I’m hoping will be signed off soon. I also have an exhibition up in the gallery at the excellent Kobi and Teal shop in Frome until the end of February.
What are your dreams and ambitions for Temper Studio?
The fundamental goal in starting Temper Studio was that I wanted to be employed as creative director of a design studio (and own a business) but I knew that nobody would ever hire me for that job without having to work my way through the ranks and that sounded dull. So I figured I’d just have to start a company that would eventually employ me as creative director. I wanted Temper Studio to be a vehicle for me to design, learn, experiment and explore ideas. My ambition is to get to a point where I can do that and I’ve built a strong enough base to be able to earn enough from each job so as not to be an anxious exhausted wreck at all times. Sometimes it feels like we’re getting there. Sometimes it doesn’t. We’ll keep at it for a while longer.
Can you recommend us:
A song: Mary by Big Thief
A book: Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
A film: Inherent Vice by Paul Thomas Anderson
Thank you, George for your hospitality and thoughtful insight into your personal and creative realm.