Responsible for the most beautifully designed bespoke kitchens and public art, furniture designer Simon Thomas Pirie’s reputation precedes him. His innovation, imagination and attention to detail has been recently recognised with a prestigious Design Guild Mark for his ‘Floating Bench’. Here he talks about the inspiration behind the award-winning design.
What was your inspiration behind the floating bench?
The design originated out of a much larger public art project for a shopping arcade in Dorchester where we had been asked to design a snaking curved 12-metre long seat which had single chairs, benches and love seats inset along its length. As I designed it I became convinced there was also a very elegant stand alone garden bench that could be distilled out of the bigger project.
The floating bench is an extremely modern, understated piece. What was it that drew you towards this design?
It bridges old and new with a simple and timeless elegance.
I loved the idea of that floating arm and back causing people to take a second look, but its attraction to me as a furniture maker is the fact it uses lots of low-tech craft techniques like steam bending and scorching combined with modern batch production. It bridges old and new with a simple and timeless elegance.
What prompted this new, special edition launch?
The original two-tone Floating Bench was launched at RHS Chelsea in 2016 and was shortlisted for the ‘RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year’ award (we got beaten by a hose attachment by the way!) It got lots of press attention and sold well as a result. So the question for us was how to follow that for Chelsea 2017. The whole scorching timber thing has really caught on this year and while I can’t for a moment claim it was a new idea of ours, the Floating Bench was one of those trend-setting products that helped set a palette and tone for this year’s show. So in a way the ‘Blonde’ special edition oak bench was a way of us saying ’we’ve done that and moved on’. The alter-ego of the ‘Blonde’, the completely scorched ‘Noir’ version is our way of claiming ownership of the rich textured tones of scorched oak and taking it to its natural conclusion.
You play on the opposition between the ‘Noir’ bench and ‘Blonde’ bench in the photoshoot. Can you tell us a bit more about their contrasts?
The photoshoot was lots of fun playing with those combinations of dark and light.
I’ve always liked making the same piece in contrasting materials and colours; the same design can have a very different character and presence and that’s certainly true of the ‘Blonde’ and ‘Noir’ special edition Floating Benches. ‘Blonde’ is crisp and fresh, for some the black on the two-tone original bench is just too overpowering, so it was aimed at those looking for a simple ‘Scandinavian’ look. ‘Noir’ on the other hand is dark and a bit moody. It will always have a presence of its own. I see it as a sculptural piece which could be used indoors as well as outdoors.
The ‘Noir’, as well as the classic Floating Bench, both experiment with the currently popular concept of scorching. What more can you say about this process?
Nothing quite gives you the depth and texture of black on timber like scorching, and oak because of its course grain and medullary rays comes up especially beautiful. It’s a very ancient process used to naturally weather-proof wood, particularly in Japan whose culture around and reverence of wood has always fascinated me. Scorching is tactile and very hands-on, you really know you have made one of these benches when you are covered in a layer fine charcoal at the end of the day.
You received a lot of attention after the original Floating Bench and it featured in winning gardens during the RHS Chelsea Flower show. Can you tell us what it was like to see your design as such a success?
Obviously that’s great from a commercial and practical manufacturing point of view, but as its designer it’s exciting to see a design ‘take off’ and have a life of its own. It featured on the BBC coverage of RHS Tatton Park and RHS Hampton Court where it was used in Gold medal winning show gardens so I suspect the best analogy is that it’s like a parent being proud of their children as they grow up and leave home.
How did this collaboration with Sitting Spiritually come about?
Martin Young of Sitting Spiritually saw the public seating project in Dorchester and contacted me to see if I would be interested in developing a new contemporary swing seat to compliment his more traditional ranges. The result was the two-tone Yakisugi swing seat. It seemed natural for Sitting Spiritually to also take on the Floating Bench and these two items now form the core of the ‘Simon Thomas Pirie Contemporary Range’.
What made you move towards designing contemporary garden furniture?
I’ve always designed contemporary furniture but it usually has a twist as well as a hint of English classic proportion. I love moving into new challenges so over the years we have designed furniture for universities, religious spaces, public spaces and private interiors. Contemporary furniture for gardens seemed like a natural step and the Sitting Spiritually opportunity came at just the right moment.
In 2016, the floating bench was shortlisted for the RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year Award. How does it feel to win the Design Guild Mark this year with the Floating Bench?
As a furniture designer it’s the highest accolade I could be given, it’s only the 193rd DGM awarded and I share that honour with respected designers like Rodney Kinsman, Robin Day, Rod Wales, SCP and Samuel Chan. It means Floating Bench has been judged by my peers as a piece of the finest British design and that gives it some gravitas that my own words can’t.
What do you enjoy about showcasing your products at the RHS Chelsea Flower show?
Chelsea Flower Show has a unique atmosphere unlike any show I have taken part in and working with Sitting Spiritually who are Chelsea ‘old hands’ has been a great experience. Chelsea’s media reach is phenomenal, its visitors are knowledgeable and they do buy rather than just talk. Above all it’s fun.
Can you tell us what to expect next for the Simon Thomas Pirie Contemporary Range?
We have lots brewing, I’m working on a completely new range of outdoor furniture which I’m very excited about right now. We are also talking to another large town centre shopping precinct about a series of benches and installations on multiple sites. Watch this space!
If you would like to commission your own furniture to brighten up your garden, get in contact with Simon Thomas Pirie.