The Brodgar Chair is a contemporary take on the traditional straw-backed Orkney chair, created in a collaboration between Gareth Neal and Kevin Gauld for The New Craftsmen.
The New Craftsmen is a London-based gallery which ‘works with a selection of Britain’s finest craft makers to showcase the materials, skills and craft products of the British Isles’.1 In 2012 they initiated their first project, bringing together furniture maker Gareth Neal and traditional Orkney chair maker Kevin Gauld with the aim of giving ‘a contemporary twist to this iconic piece of British furniture’.2
The design of the vernacular Orkney chair derives from the islands’ remote location and the need to create goods from available materials, namely straw and driftwood. In its traditional form, the chair has a low seat with a drawer beneath and a long, curved back. Helen Hunter observes that ‘the Orkney Chair has been constantly evolving since it was first made – almost entirely out of straw, and wholly out of necessity’.3
Interestingly, the traditional chair was subject to revitalisation over a century ago; local joiner David Kirkness refined and standardised the design into four models and exhibited his work at the Scottish International Exhibition in 1890. This reworked vernacular item quickly became fashionable, supported by the ethos of the Arts & Crafts movement: ‘by 1909, retailers such as Liberty of London were ordering over 40 chairs a month’.4 As the V&A website explains, ‘the Orkney chair fitted into a romantic view of Scottishness at the turn of the century, and the idea that a well-crafted object could embody local or national identity’.4
Kevin Gauld is a highly skilled Orkney chair maker, having started his career with an apprenticeship at the age of 16. He is reported to be one of only a few professional Orkney chair makers still working from the islands. Kevin grows his own oats to create the straw backs of his chairs, which can take up to 20 hours to be stitched and tied into place using sisal string.3
Gareth Neal is an acclaimed furniture designer whose work has been sold and exhibited internationally, and who is known for combining traditional craftsmanship with digital tools. Nick Gant suggests that his practice ‘constructs a physical view of “now” that reflects our obsessive wondering about the future whilst simultaneously re-carving the past’.5 In 2010 Gareth was involved in Bodging Milano, a project in which a group of furniture designers experimented with green woodworking, exhibiting the results at Salone del Mobile in Milan.6 This experience influenced later projects exploring traditional crafts and zero-carbon manufacturing, and informed Gareth’s approach to the Brodgar Chair project.7
Gareth travelled to Orkney to work on the chair with Kevin, and the finished design was launched at The New Craftsmen’s gallery in London in December 2012, described as ‘a contemporary Orkney chair combining an oaken Windsor chair vernacular with the traditional Orkney chair straw back’.2 A short film, available online, shows the fascinating process of the chair’s construction from start to finish.8
On his website, Gareth describes the value of this project: ‘As the environmental debate around us rages with products being flown around the world, the simple story of the of the Orkney chair is one that should ground designers and craftsmen in their approach to materials, locality and process.’7
Text by Amy Twigger Holroyd. Images courtesy of The New Craftsmen.