When we arrived at their secluded workshop in rural Somerset, we found Maria and Charles ‒ the fine furniture designer-makers duo behind Byron & Gómez ‒ immersed in preparations for the upcoming Contemporary Craft Festival in Devon. Taking a break from their work, we had a chat about their furniture making venture and they showed us some of their finished pieces and their work in progress. Infused with the highest level of craftsmanship, dedication and attention to detail, their creations are not only perfectly executed decorative and functional design pieces that are a pleasure to look at and engage with, but also a beautifully tactile expression of harmony and timelessness.
Who are Maria and Charles, the duo behind BYRON & GÓMEZ?
Maria: Charlie is a daydreamer who often smiles on his own. He is extremely creative and the best person to solve three dimensional problems. He keeps calm when I panic and is never in a hurry, which sometimes drives me mad. He loves being with friends and family and gets distracted from his own distractions. He works hard and puts a lot of effort into his work but mostly he likes to play games and potter about.
Charles: Maria is driven, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. She normally gets it too, through a combination of hard work and uncanny luck. So lucky my family are hesitant to play cards with her anymore. She’s passionate and not afraid to say what she thinks, she’s the most genuine person I know. Despite being a hard worker she loves a lazy Sunday complete with a lie in and an afternoon nap. She’s a bit of a trickster too, once she convinced me she had forgotten her passport on the way to the airport only to reveal it after 10 minutes of panic.
Where does your passion for furniture come from?
We both share an innate desire to understand how things are made. It is the making and the problem solving of design that appeals the most to us. We have an interest in woodworking and furniture is just the right scale to make the things we want to make. We also like to think that furniture serves as an ever practical object in everyone’s life.
As children, did you use to have a favourite piece of furniture? If so, what was it and why?
Maria: Yes, my grandparents used to have a two person hammock right in their living room and I absolutely loved it, many lovely memories were made around that hammock.
Maria, you studied architecture at the University of Puerto Rico. What triggered the shift from architecture to furniture making?
Before studying architecture I always had an interest in furniture design and woodworking. When the time came to choose a career I chose architecture as there weren’t any woodworking schools or furniture design courses in Puerto Rico and although I enjoyed studying architecture I always thought the scale and practice wasn’t right for me. I wanted to be working on a bench making things every day. After I finished my degree in architecture at the University of Puerto Rico I made the decision to visit England and start my career in furniture design and making.
You both studied traditional cabinetmaking at Williams & Cleal Furniture School. What were your most formative experiences while you were there?
Charles: I remember very clearly in my first week our tutor Jim doing a demonstration on free form lamination. Having only just picked up a chisel, watching this very advanced technique being done was very exciting and this was a confirmation that I was where I wanted to be.
Maria: For me rather than a specific experience is more that every day there I felt that I was discovering something new that filled me with awe and excitement, adding to my knowledge and possibilities of making my own work.
How did you come up with the idea of working together?
There was never a moment where we discussed it as a possibility, it was just a given. It started more as a blue sky dream as Maria didn’t even know if she could stay in England. We met and only 6 weeks later Maria had to go back to America without an idea if or when she could come back, 9 months later she came back with a 5 year visa endorsed by the Arts Council and two years later here we are.
What are the most striking similarities between your aesthetic visions?
We both appreciate a simplistic approach to form, we don’t really like unnecessary decoration unless it is essential to the character of the piece. We agree that furniture should be practical and understated with a bold, elegant and clean form without pretension.
What about the differences?
We do have differences in our aesthetic visions and these have in many ways shaped what our combined aesthetic is. Charles has a tendency to design in more angular shapes and Maria is more interested in waves or curves or flow in the shapes. We always say that together we come up with designs that neither of us would have thought of. Sometimes in the design process we reach an impasse where we both prefer our own direction for the design and are not willing to compromise, this can sometimes stall a design for weeks until we eventually find a third way that we are both happy with and is always better than something either of us would have come up with on our own.
Who or what influenced and inspired you the most in your furniture design venture?
For both of us our greatest inspiration is the method and the techniques. Whenever we learn a new technique we feel excited about the possibilities and how we can apply them to new work.
Can you walk us through your creative process?
At first we discuss the project and we sit down separately, sometimes sharing our sketches sometimes not. Then we discuss our rough ideas, getting each other’s input on the design and always discussing methods of construction. From this point on we develop a design together or a variation of anything that either of us designed. The process of designing for bespoke work is different from designing our speculative work. When designing speculative work we are much more strict with each other as the final piece represents our values as designers and our brand aesthetic, it is also a huge investment as you don’t know if you will sell it. When we design for a client we make the decisions with them and make sure that they are happy with it.
What about the making?
We work mostly on our own except when we need another pair of hands or to discuss the best way to make something. We have in the past worked together on the same project but we found that we spend a lot more time discussing things and a lot less time actually making. We take on a chef / sous-chef approach to the project. One person is in charge of making plans, discussing the project with the client, ordering any materials, making prototypes or models and the other is giving a hand when needed.
What is your favourite step in the making process?
Charles: Starting and finishing it.
Maria: Everything in between starting and finishing it. The getting on part when you know the project front to back and you just get on.
Measure 4 times, mark and cut once ‒ would you say that this applies to you not just as designer-makers, but also to everything else that you do?
This ethos only applies to our practice. Wood is a very unforgiving material to work with, once you make that cut there’s no undoing it. Otherwise we are both very relaxed people and very much enjoy when we get to do things that don’t need to be planned or when we can do things on the fly.
You strive to achieve sustainability through longevity. What is your relationship with time and how do your creations reflect this?
For us this is not only about creating a well made piece of furniture that can physically survive for generations, it needs to have a timeless aesthetic, something appealing about it that transcends fashion. There’s no point making something that will last for hundreds of years if no one wants it after 10.
Craftsmanship is the key concept in your work. Why is this so important to you?
We are not absolutely sure, we think it’s because of the way we were trained. We both come from a school where precision and perfection is the beauty behind woodworking. We do enjoy making and seeing a well made piece of furniture but sometimes it can be very tiring to maintain that level of execution all the time.
Where do you source your materials from and how do you choose your suppliers?
It depends what we are after but we do like to select the timber ourselves so we normally pick up the phone and start calling timber yards starting with the closest until we find one that has what we need. We try to get UK grown timber where we can but most available prime grade hardwood is imported from Europe or the US as they have much larger forestry industries.
What is your favourite wood and why?
This has got to be Walnut, not only is it a beautiful dark colour but it’s also a dream to work with. It is stable, doesn’t tear out and cuts easily.
What is the driving idea behind THE OFF-CUT COLLECTION?
We just can’t stand to waste good timber. Anything under 300mm long is too short to go through the thicknesser so is essentially useless for furniture. It doesn’t exactly go to waste as we use the offcuts to heat the workshop in winter but we often find ourselves rescuing bits of wood that are destined to be burned, turning them into little bowls or jewellery boxes.
How do you come up with the names for your creations?
It’s a bit random to be honest. The first piece we made together we called the Penumbra Sideboard which is an astronomical term for the edge of a shadow. It seemed appropriate for the piece due to the use of scorching on the carcass, however we then found ourselves skimming through a dictionary of astronomical terms which provided a few more. Generally we just try to think of something vaguely fitting and failing all else we name it after the person who commissioned it.
Do you think that people who choose your furniture are also considering the story behind your brand with all its values and aspirations?
We think that’s a big part of it, yes. No one just walks into the room, sees a piece of bespoke furniture and takes out their cheque book (although we live in hope!). No, if you make the sale it’s at the end of a long conversation where they buy into our story and our values.
How did you choose the location for your workshop?
The owners of the furniture school we studied at have a second workshop where we rent bench space. It’s a great stepping stone for us as there was no way we could afford to equip our own workshop straight out the gates. It’s also good to be in the same area where we studied as we know the best local timber yards, sprayers, upholsterers etc.
Would you consider taking on apprentices in the future?
I think that’s something we would definitely consider but it’s not possible in our current premises.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Foster & Gane?
They came across our work by chance on Instagram and got in touch. Traditionally they’ve only dealt in antique and classic 20th century furniture however they really liked our work and wanted to add some of it to their collection. Right from the start they have had a lot of confidence and enthusiasm for our work and we thought this was a great opportunity to make a connection through them to interior designers as they are Foster & Gane’s main clients.
How do you draw the line between your own aesthetic vision and the expectations of the client in your commissioned work?
We see any commission work as an opportunity to challenge ourselves as designers to create something that both pleases us and the client. Some clients are more flexible than others on this aspect but we like to believe that when someone approaches us it’s because they like our work. It is rare that the client wants something that we don’t like but we are designers and we also need to find a balance between what we want to do and what the client wants. As designers we are quite flexible as well and we can still design and enjoy the process of making something that might not necessarily sit well in our home.
In your opinion, what makes a piece of furniture a beautiful object?
It’s all about proportion, use of materials and how they interact with each other.
What other disciplines are you interested in or involved with?
Maria: I am very interested in pottery, did some courses some time ago and will like to keep learning.
Charles: I will like to learn to work with metal and leather and be able to incorporate this into our furniture.
How do you pick the furniture for your home?
As furniture makers we can’t afford to buy any of the furniture we love, the most precious pieces of furniture in our home we have made ourselves. I’m afraid to say we own some Ikea furniture, we also have a beautiful coffee table we found at the tip.
When you are not in your workshop, where is one most likely to find you?
In our lovely house in Somerset.
While watching a film, do you happen to find yourselves taking mental notes of the pieces of furniture that you notice in the background?
Absolutely yes, we do this all the time. Sometimes we pause and rewind halfway through a movie or a series to have a closer look at a piece or detail we admire.
Being designer-makers and running your own business must be stressful at times. What do you do to relax?
Often it becomes very overwhelming, as a designer-maker and business owner you have to wear many different hats, sometimes hats that you’ve never tried before. Maria does yoga once a week, we both do gardening as much as we can and we often go for long walks in Exmoor.
What are your dreams and ambitions for BYRON & GÓMEZ?
To be successful, to make a living whilst doing the thing we love the most. Our ambitions are quite modest at the moment, will be great to sell our work and have the opportunity to create more.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment we are making a tall cabinet, a bespoke box and a floor standing lamp.
Can you recommend us a book, a song and a film?
Movie: Spring Summer Winter Fall and Spring
Book: Mortal Engines Quartet by Philip Reeve
Song: “Alma Mía” by Natalia Lafourcade
Movie: In Bruges
Book: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
Song: “Kosmoloda” by Stein Urheim
Finally, can you share today’s recipe with us?
Red Thai Curry recipe as best I can remember:
Chop up some red peppers and fry them with a little olive oil on a high temp not moving them too much so they blacken whilst still being firm. Next add the red Thai curry paste and fry for a minute or two. If it’s an English brand or the supermarket’s own, then use about two thirds of the jar; if you manage to get hold of some proper asian brand curry paste then use two or three tbs. Next add two cloves of garlic crushed, fry for one minute then add 2 cans of coconut milk and the solids from the top of the third can. Always read the back of the cans when you are in the supermarket and get the one with the most actual coconut in, it varies wildly from 20% to 75% (never get the ‘light’ one, it’s just watered down).
- two thumb sized pieces of fresh ginger (grated), a good trick is to use a tea spoon to peel it
tablespoon of fish sauce;
- heaped tablespoon of palm sugar (or heaped tsp of brown sugar);
- splash of dark soy;
- around 9 chicken thighs cut into fairly small pieces.
And if you have it:
- a stick of lemongrass (bash the white end with the back of your knife first);
- two kaffir lime leaves;
Simmer till the chicken is cooked through, taste it and if the flavour is a bit underwhelming, then separately fry a bit more curry paste for a minute or two and then add it to the mix. Finally squeeze in a whole lime or enough to balance out the sugar and add in a double handful of roughly chopped coriander and serve immediately with jasmine rice. Yum!
Thank you, both for welcoming us into your workshop and for sharing your story with us.