Lighting is the piece de resistance of any interior scheme, and can transform a space entirely. Tom Raffield is a gentleman who knows how to curate the perfect lighting and has spent his career developing a new technique steaming wood to create the eco-friendly designs he always wanted. The LuxPad interviews Tom to find out more about the man behind the designs…
Growing up did you always know that you wanted to work in the design industry?
As a child all I knew was that I was happiest when I was making things. I felt more comfortable in the workshop rather than the classroom, and knew how to work a chisel better than a pencil. As life progressed and it was time to make some decisions about my future I decided that my future had to involve designing and making, so I applied to do the 3D Design for sustainability course at Falmouth University. It was whilst I was at studying here that I discovered that I might be able to make a living from hand crafting furniture for people. It was a life changing moment discovering that I could do this.
What would you say are the biggest influences on your work?
I know it may sound like a bit of a cliché but I draw most of my inspiration from nature and the heritage of Cornwall. I grew up near Exmoor, which is beautiful and inspiring on so many levels. However it was when I moved to Cornwall to study that I began to focus on the breath-taking beauty to be found in nature. I live in a small woodland in West-Cornwall, which probably looks a little bit different to how people imagine Cornwall. Here you feel totally cut off from the world, it is green and lush in spring and summer and wild and moody in the winter months. We are then only a short drive from some of the most beautiful stretched of beaches and sand-dunes in the West-Country. This contrast can inspires a life’s time worth of work. To give some examples the Butterfly Light takes its inspiration from the undulating of a Butterfly’s wings and the Flux Light was born through studying the ebb and flow of the tides on the sand.
In terms of people who have influenced my work. I have always been a fan of the Thonet family and their iconic designs. Imagine my surprise when recently, Percy Thonet emailed the workshop to buy a Butterfly Light for one of their stores in Austria. We were all a bit star struck I have to say.
As an up and coming designer what were the biggest challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?
It is financially very hard being a young designer and you have to make a lot of sacrifices especially if you want to start up your own business. I had to have other jobs to pay the bills and then spent my evenings and free time designing. The main thing I found is how long it takes to become established and recognised for your work. You have to persevere and put in hard work, a lot of hard work!
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Someone once told me when I was setting up my own business only do it if you’re 100% committed to it and unbelievably passionate about what you’re making or doing. This has stuck with me over the seven years of running my business, it has shaped how I do things in the business and done me well when it comes to selecting the jobs we work on and the designs we make. It must be the best advice for success.
How long does it take to bring a design from initial idea to finished product – can you talk us through the process?
It depends on whether you are working for a specific client or developing a product, the latter can take much longer.
It is easy to work all hours to try and fit more in a shorter time frame, especially as it is work you usually enjoy. However this isn’t always the most sustainable work ethic and having learnt from my mistakes, I now allocate specific time for each part of my workload.
I always start on paper it’s the fastest way to get an idea recorded and you can draw anything, even if it is not a viable product.
I then take an idea, play around with some bits of wire or strips of bendy aluminium until I’m happy with a form. I will then make up my first prototype in the materials which it will end up being made in, this stage is the beginning of the “fine tune” part of the design.
There are many stages in the design process. The initial design is often based on a lot of research into a specific idea or challenge. Throughout the prototyping stage there are constant questions and problems which need addressing and resolving. Other peoples feedback on the specifics of a design or the design overall is always an integral part.
I try to be fairly holistic when it comes to design, which by definition means that the design process cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. I think the most important thing is to be natural and expressive when you design and then let the design ask and resolve its own problems and issues.
We always use high quality wood and our sustainable timber is mostly sourced from the UK.
We then steam bend the wood by hand in our workshop in Cornwall. This is a low energy, environmentally friendly process which literally involves passing the wood through a steam-filled tube and using the heat of the steam to create the bends in the wood. There are no nasty glues and very little waste.
Once the wood has dried out we handcraft either bespoke pieces or small batches of products.
Next it’s about creating the tooling to bend the wood and this can change the design slightly because of the realms of what is physically possible. At this stage it becomes about finding an efficient way of making the product whilst ensuring the aesthetic isn’t compromised.
How would you describe your own home style and what is your favourite room in your home and why?
We are currently in the process of building a new house adjacent to the very small cottage that myself, my wife and our two small boys have lived in for the past two and half years. The old cottage was a game keeper’s lodge to the nearby Trevarno Manor so it is a very small, old stone building. The new house will be this fantastic amalgamation of the old combined with new, the new part will be largely constructed from timber and we are going to use steam bent strips of sustainable wood to clad the building, this will then join to the old cottage with a glass walk-way. I think we are all looking forward to having more space so we can fill it with all our favourite designs. We have recently developed our furniture range and some of the designs such as the Arbour Chair and Salt Tables will be perfect for this space.
What is your most treasured possession and why?
Is a workshop a possession? I guess it is, in which case it has to be that. We built it when we first moved here from the trees in the woodland that had to be felled as they posed a risk of falling. It was a real labour of love building the workshop into what it is today. Wind back the clock to 2008 and I would never have imagined that I would have a workshop, full of tools that allow me to make a living crafting furniture and lighting.
Your brand ethos focuses on sustainability, why is this important to you and what do you think is the biggest threat to sustainable design in today’s society?
I believe sustainability, rather than a hindrance, helps me be more creative and helps lead to more successful, innovative work. I love knowing where the wood has come from, knowing that it is from sustainable woodlands and often local to my workshop, knowing that steaming is my main process and seeing how it can transform a piece of wood into a beautiful object. Sustainability is more a natural part of the process than a philosophy.
When I make any product, there is so much time and care put into it. It is so important to make each piece to a very high standard; to do the material and your time justice but most importantly to make sure it is durable and lasts a lifetime and more. The quality in workmanship needs to be met with the quality in the design. I want the users to have a long and meaningful relationship with the products, cherishing it. Using wood helps this sentimentality but it is also the originality in design and the handmade aspect which play a huge role making a product not become obsolete.
Who is your favourite designer of all time, and what new names in the industry have caught your eye?
Thomas Heatherwick for his ability to bring art and sculpture into functional objects. He uses a combination of engineering and art to create something new and quite extraordinary, like nothing you’ve ever seen before – and that’s a rare gift in my eyes.
Cornwall is clearly a big part of your life and work, what is it do you think that makes it so special?
Anyone who has ever visited Cornwall will appreciate when I say that there is no place quite like it. The contrast of the north and south coast coastlines, the wild stretches of moorland and the white sand beaches, it could take you a lifetime to explore it all.