The Old Grammar School, Blowinghouse Hill, Redruth. In a county like Cornwall — famous for its broken-toothed mine workings and the heavy brows of its granite cliffs long before the modern surf culture washed ashore — a name like Blowinghouse Hill conjures a picture all of its own, doesn’t it? Stern, institutional, crumbling and paint-peeling, the Old Grammar School is what Vivian Stanshall would have called ‘Miss Havishambling’ for, still decked in the fixtures, fittings and corporation colours of a school, the building’s high-windowed rooms are caught somewhere between its past life and the promise of the next. And it seems that there are indeed great expectations for this site, which it’s hoped will become ‘a vibrant creative community’ accommodating ‘most of Cornwall’s key strategic cultural and creative industries’ projects’. However, the regeneration planned by Cornwall Arts Centre Trust won’t begin before the coming summer at the earliest. Until then, the OGS remains a bag-lady of a building, a subsidised refuge sheltering creative endeavours from harsher commercial climes — and it’s probably more interesting as a result!
To twenty-somethings Tom Raffield and Chris Jarratt, say — two-thirds of the partnership that is Sixixis — Blowinghouse Hill is a sort of halfway house, somewhere between the safety of college and the security of established careers. It’s somewhere to risk the chaos of experimentation, and maybe turn their theories into successful practice. Not that there hasn’t been success to date, you understand: Sixixis won the 2006 Laurent- Perrier Design Talent award, and has attracted wide media attention, from the broadsheets’ interiors writers to the praetorians of fashion at Vogue. Long-term success, however (the company is not quite two years old) will be measured by their ability to make good on a business plan which, to paraphrase Tom, is grounded in the affordability, manufacturability, and saleability of their products. Pinning down the nature of those products, though, is why our elbows are stuck to a table among the engagingly eclectic decoration of the OGS’s café-lounge.
For the curved forms, steam-bent sections of
wood are twisted around Tom’s modular jig stand
Flat-pack with a difference: the CNC-cut and laser-etched parts of a decorative box.
Let’s start with the brand name, Sixixis — a linguistic and mathematical puzzle rolled into a palindrome. It’s deliberately enigmatic: it has no associations, so comes with no baggage, and therefore imposes no boundaries. As such it reflects the team’s approach. “We’re not classically trained woodworkers,” Tom explains: Chris, for example, was a Fine Art student who went on to study 3D Design for Sustainability at Falmouth College, where he met Tom and Charlie Whinney. Charlie, the ‘is’ in Sixixis, came to Falmouth from a background in architecture via a spell of furnituremaking at Rycotewood (which perhaps explains why he’s the Oxford-based part of the team, generating funds by making one-off commissions). “But then,” Tom continues, “we’re not artisans, either. Actually,” he shrugs, “I don’t know what we are.”
Whatever they are individually, however, their different interests and approaches meet in a shared passion for wood, and their belief in it as a sustainable and environmentally sound alternative to manufactured materials. The polymath that is Sixixis, then, is reflected in their willingness to incorporate modern manufacturing technologies in their work, using laser etching, for example, as a finish that both decorates the timber and reveals its grain, or as a sort of pyrographic printing process. However, it’s Tom’s steam-bending techniques and their ability to transform locally sourced, unseasoned timber into lithe organic forms, that has created the most recognisable embodiment of Sixixis’ values – Chaise No.4.
Its sinuous and sculptural lines illustrate perfectly the creative freedom that steambending allows the team to enjoy: “it’s like sketching in three dimensions,” Chris claims. Being able to make your ideas tangible is all very well, of course, but while the compound curves of the chaise are certainly beautiful, it’s also a very labour intensive piece to make: 11 jigs are involved in shaping the oak components, and as we walk across to the workshop, Tom explains why it takes two weeks to make each chaise (see A tale in the twist).
A tale in the twist
After the timber components have been thicknessed and profiled, they’re steamed for anything from 20 to 50 minutes in the steam chest. Apart from its unusual length, the chest is quite conventional, being of ply construction and fed by a series of wallpaper strippers, which make very effective steam generators.
Once softened, the sections are bent around one of the 11 steel jigs mounted on Tom’s cunning jig stand, using metal straps to hold them in place along their length. There’s less than a minute to complete this process for each piece before the timber cools and loses its plasticity. The components require two days to dry.
When the shaping process is complete, the sections are sanded and assembled, starting with the sloop, and working down to the cross-struts which are steamed and bent to match its shape. The whole assembly is then left to ‘set’ for two days, after which the stainless steel fixings are capped with dowels, any marks are removed with oxalyic acid, and the whole chaise finish with lemon oil and Bison wax. It takes a couple of weeks before the chaise begins to get used to its new shape, after which it visibly relaxes.
Because the design exploits the timber’s natural flexibility, and relies on its ability to move for its strength — a rigid structure, after all, would be a brittle structure — it’s not suited to using anything more complex than a lap joint. “Joints are largely secondary for our stuff,” Chris explains, “lines and forms are more important.” And that says it all, for Chris might be describing Sixixis’ approach to their work, which appears to follow unravelling lines of enquiry rather than a direct and disciplined business route to market, and which creates experimental forms for the sheer pleasure, it seems, of creating.
The chaise is one such form, a flagship that could never be mass-produced, but which speaks volumes about the company’s values: it’s a limited edition that is neither commissioned nor mass-produced; a handmade product that bears the marks of the craftsman. These are values, Chris and Tom believe, that are becoming increasingly popular with an affluent audience which, as Natasha Gowdy also suggested last month, is used to consuming and doesn’t want to commission furniture but still wants a measure of exclusivity. “People frequently ask us if what they’re buying is signed,” says Chris. It is.
Their work has also brought interest from buyers for retail stores, but one of the problems of entering into competitions for contracts is the cost Sixixis has to bear in terms of product research and development time. These costs, and the expense of producing speculative pieces like the chaise, can be underwritten, in part at least, by small bread-and-butter pieces such as steam-bent lampshades and flower pots. Again, just as Natasha Gowdy was considering creating a line of good quality designs for batch production, these pieces embody the Sixixis values but on a scale that can be rolled out more quickly and at a more affordable price point, which in turn helps the brand to reach a wider market.
However, “making a living from being creative can be tricky,” Trom obseves. “You can end up making things just for money.” So one of the lines of enquiry they’re pursuing is to explore their role as catalysts in the community by sharing their steam-bending innovations. “The process has such a history,” he explains, “and we feel that we can be a part of that by developing the technology and getting others to use it. So we lecture at colleges, answer emails and try to push things forward by giving people ideas. What’s the point in hiding our innovations?
“The best thing we can do,” Tom believes, “is to act as a concept company…to feed creativity, not stifle it. Then we can get a kind of revolution going” — a revolution that would bring beauty and sustainability into the manufactured environment.
If that all sounds impossibly idealistic for a young business still trying to strike that balance of affordability, manufacturability, and saleability, it’s worth remembering that the strength in the free-flowing lines and forms of their work lies in its flexibility. When it comes to the future outside the Old Grammar School, Chris and Tom show remarkable confidence in their ability to keep innovating. “But then, it’s our ideas that make the brand,” says Chris, “not the tools or equipment or techniques.” “And what we achieve,” Tom adds, “and where we’re going is all our own — we can take it in any direction we want.”
What is that direction, do you think? Is it art or furniture, architecture or even a sort of commercial anarchy? I was going to say that by rising above such distinctions Sixixis’ work is bending the rules, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, in combining all of these elements in its work, it’s finding new ways to blend the rules. DR
Find out more at www.sixixis.com
Want the latest issue of The Woodworker incorporating Good Woodworking? Use our magazine locator links to find your nearest stockist!
We're always happy to hear from you, so feel free to get in touch!