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SOME OF FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT'S AND MACKINTOSH'S FURNITURE IS JUST 'UNSITTABLE'

AJ SPECIFICATION - DESIGNER PROFILE / LUKE HUGHES

Cristina Esposito How did you start out in furniture design?

Luke Hughes I started quite young, learning to make cabinets with a harpsichord maker from the age of 12. I always thought I wanted to be a furniture maker but there was no obvious route. I spent eight years as a designer-maker, not really understanding the economics and making mistakes. But eventually I set up the company in 1986. In 1991 we got our first significant contract - for 180 chairs for an Oxbridge college - and the rest is history. Now we sell around 1,000 chairs a year. Very few orders are for less than 100 chairs.

Cristina Esposito What type of commissions do you get?

Luke Hughes We make furniture for cathedrals, school and college chapels and parish churches, including stacking chairs and pews. Our knowledge of modern liturgical practice is incredibly specialist but the range of work we get is quite diverse. Our current projects include the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the Supreme Court library in Edinburgh, meeting tables and reception desks for BP's offices and, bizarrely, 26 spa beds? Cristina Esposito That's quite a variety. Where does that work come from?

Luke Hughes About 80 per cent is repeat business. Clients appreciate that we treat every project sensitively and the fact that we've never gone over budget. It's always possible to value engineer something. The rest is word of mouth - probably for the same reasons.

Cristina Esposito What are the most challenging aspects of the job?

Luke Hughes Early on, I had to learn to accept we couldn't make it all ourselves, so I had to start designing for other people to make, and that's a huge challenge. You have to build relations and trust from day one, and you must be very patient.

Sometimes it's hard when you can't convey an idea on paper.

Cristina Esposito How does that process of designing for manufacture work?

Luke Hughes We tend to make all the prototypes but always manage the whole project.

But it's just not feasible to have lots of different production facilities. Success lies in knowing and trusting the craftsmen you work with. We use 30 key workshops, most with no more than 10-15 people in each. Mass production is not useful but controlled batch production is. With a new workshop, one of us will go over once a week to survey progress. Small workshops are different in Europe - the northern Italians have got it more balanced.

Cristina Esposito In your opinion, what is the link between furniture and architecture?

Luke Hughes The wrong piece of furniture can ruin a beautiful space. Public spaces are particularly interesting - the public is very aware of what spaces mean and I think furniture should be designed to fit its environment.

Cristina Esposito What do you think of architects designing furniture?

Luke Hughes Sometimes they do it because they just can't find what they want, but it doesn't always work. Someone like Arne Jacobsen is an exception: he was probably a better furniture designer than architect. But Frank Lloyd Wright and Mackintosh go the other way - some of their stuff is just 'unsittable'.

Cristina Esposito Skills shortage in the UK is of concern. How has your industry changed?

Luke Hughes Humanising has gone back into making. It's not about mass production any more because skills are going back into the small workshop. It's now a very sophisticated process in little workshops - and this offers a huge benefit to architects.

Cristina Esposito What do you enjoy most about your job?

Luke Hughes The smell of timber and sawdust, the physical handling, the moulding, the starting with nothing and ending with something.

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