Dorset lives — Art of oak
Petter Southall designs and makes pieces of furniture which look like works of art, yet are meant to be used. Tony Burton-Page met him at Sladers Yard, his gallery in West Bay.
Published in March ’10
Dorset seems to have a special attraction for artists, particularly its seaside locations – so much so that entire artistic communities seem to develop in them: Swanage and Lyme Regis bear witness to this phenomenon. Perhaps it is because the sea is a destination in itself, so there is no through traffic to disturb the artistic train of thought.
West Bay certainly has this littoral tranquillity. There is a calmness about it, even in high summer. The rope and hemp manufacturers of the old days are gone; the fishing industry is on a much smaller scale than of old; and it is not quite big enough to be a major seaside resort. So it is not really so surprising that the internationally renowned furniture maker Petter Southall chose to make his base here rather than in London, artistic hub though the metropolis indisputably is.
Petter exhibits his work in an 18th-century maritime warehouse known as Sladers Yard, a three-storey building with a pitch pine interior, which until only four years ago was still used by local boat chandlers. It is the perfect setting for his original and inventive furniture, which is indisputably modern-looking yet is steeped in tradition. In the gallery it is complemented by a wide variety of contemporary art and design work, mostly by Dorset artists – and, as mentioned earlier, they proliferate in our county.
The traditional element in Petter’s work has a lot to do with his roots. As his name implies, he has an international background: he was born to an American father and a Norwegian mother in the Japanese city of Okinawa. After an early education in Paris and California, he grew up in cities around the world. By the age of seventeen he knew that he wanted to make things with his hands, so he headed ‘home’ to Norway to study a craft which is venerated there: boatbuilding. His talent for woodworking was evident, and he was chosen by the Western Norway crafts museum to be one of eight people to learn the skill of building the Oselvar Faering, a traditional fjord boat whose patterns were in danger of being lost. He still has the Oselvar which he built, aged 21 – it is in the workshop at Sladers Yard, and he regularly sails it from West Bay harbour.
But the innate artist in Petter was profoundly unsatisfied. For one thing, the turnover was glacially slow – a project could take anything from two months to five years. Moreover, Petter was becoming disillusioned by the use of modern materials such as epoxy and chemical adhesives. Most of all, though, he felt frustrated by the lack of scope for his artistic creativity. It was at this stage that he contemplated the idea of making furniture.
In 1984 he went to California and spent a year studying cabinet making at the College of the Redwoods with the intuitive woodwork guru James Krenov; and in 1989, after time spent building yachts in Maine, he came to England. He was drawn to Beaminster, for he had heard of the college run by the distinguished furniture maker and designer John Makepeace at Parnham. At that time, Makepeace’s newest initiative, Hooke Park College, was just about to open its doors to students for the first time, offering a tripartite course divided into Forestry and Wood Technology, Business Management, and Design. It so happened that one of the students of that first intake had to drop out and the space had to be filled. Since all three aspects of the course appealed to Petter, he stepped into the breach.
Although it was intended as an entrepreneurial course than one for makers, Petter’s dammed-up creativity at last broke through. He was extraordinarily prolific during his time at Hooke Park, so much so that many of his pieces were used by the college to help market the new venture at exhibitions all over the UK. As a result, orders for his work flooded in and he rented a barn in Chilcombe, in the Bride Valley five miles west of West Bay, so that he could fulfil these orders. Twenty years later, he is still fulfilling these orders, in the same barn.
One of his first commissions was from Dame Elisabeth Frink, who had seen some of Petter’s work at a friend’s house and liked it. She needed a new table for her long dining room and asked him over to her studio at Woolland to look at the possibilities. The result was a nine-foot table made of pitch pine which had been brought in for the new studio but not used.
When he started his own furniture-making company, he wanted to give it a name which reflected a group rather than an individual, since he has always worked with an apprentice – the work is not made solely by him: hence ‘i tre’ (the Norwegian for ‘in wood’) rather than ‘Petter Southall Furniture’. He has had various outlets for the work, including a gallery in Pimlico Road – but, as he says, ‘four years in London was enough for a country man like me! London is very exciting if you’re only there for a day or two, but the quality of your everyday reality is so much higher down here – parking, transport, friendships, community, the air you breathe, peace of mind.’
So there was an almost inevitable gravitation towards Dorset. ‘I’ve always loved the countryside. Now I live in the Bride Valley a short walk away from my studio. It’s a beautiful area and I never tire of it.’ Sladers Yard is only five miles from home, so he and his wife Anna keep a close eye on it and are able to put on a new exhibition every six to eight weeks.
‘ We happily work to commission. It’s always a creative-led process, and I always have an ongoing project in the workshop which is destined for the gallery – a new development or a twist on an old theme.’
A theme which is evident in much of Petter’s work and in many of the items on display in the huge space on the first floor of Sladers Yard is The Curve. He uses the traditional Norwegian technique of steam bending in a way uniquely his own. The magnificent ‘Steam Desk’ is eight feet wide, but the outer oak semicircles were fifteen feet long before they were bent. The ‘Manta Table’ rests on a U-shaped arc (which evokes the ‘horn of plenty’ for Petter) and the ‘Fish Hook Bench’ rests on two small ones. But even his use of straight lines is idiosyncratic: the ‘Batten Desk’ is made from one component (a batten) used many, many times, giving the piece an inexorable logic.
Not only do all these pieces look good, they are extremely strong and also very user-friendly (or what the more old-fashioned of us call ‘comfortable’). As Petter says, ‘Making something that is strong, durable and, most importantly, visually successful – that is the Holy Grail.’