For many designers childhood involves building towers of Lego bricks, but even aged four Alex Hellum was busy making furniture. ‘I can’t even remember the first piece of furniture I ever made. I made tree houses, and tables and things out of bits of wood that I found lying around. I used to ask for boxes of nails for my Christmas presents,’ the designer says, recalling his childhood growing up in the Norwegian countryside.
The childhood legacy has stood him in good stead. Hellum’s range of beautifully finished furniture and products, which he is launching for the first time under his own label, are defined by an ascetic elegance and a quirky sense of invention. A classic example is the oak frame of his Esti mirror, designed with an exaggerated depth and fluting to allow for a dual function as a ledge on which to balance postcards or keys. The neat design alternative for the habit of tucking postcards into the corner of a frame is typical of Hellum’s creativity.
Hellum’s Birdside table, an open-fronted bedside cabinet mounted on a turned-wood stand, is a similarly inventive solution. The ingenuity lies in the fact that the peaked ‘roof’ of the cabinet, which gives it the appearance of a bird box, is the perfect shape upon which to rest an open book, while the interior is just large enough for a night-time water glass and a pair of spectacles.
However, for Hellum the childlike simplicity of his products is almost incidental. ‘I don’t think that something should be playful for the sake of being playful. It has to have a function,’ he says. What fascinates him is finding ways of making the everyday rituals we all unthinkingly perform easier. ‘The Birdside table comes from that moment when you are falling asleep and you don’t want to look for a bookmark. It’s extremely practical. I like watching the moment when people understand what my work is about. There’s a sort of magic, an “Oh yes!” moment when people realise. I think all my successful design pieces have that,’ he says.
It’s an element of design that runs through all his work, not least the Peg chair, his most successful piece to date. ‘I was getting undressed one night and thought about the fact that women can just throw their trousers on the floor when they get undressed, but if men do that then all the loose money and so on in their pockets will drop out,’ Hellum explains.’ ‘I wanted to create a peg that men could easily hang their trousers on without needing a hanger. Then I realised that the other piece of furniture you need in the bedroom is somewhere to sit to put your shoes on so I decided to combine the two.’
There was a danger that such an unusual concept could be jarringly modern if executed poorly, but Hellum’s understanding of his craft is evident from the quality of styling. Produced by Ercol, which manufactures all its furniture by hand, the piece references the heritage of a traditional Windsor chair through the turned-wood peg stand and chair undercarriage, and the traditional saddle of the seat.
‘The Windsor chair is so timeless, designers can revisit it over and over again,’ Hellum says of this design classic. ‘The nicest compliment that anyone has ever paid to the Peg chair is that they didn’t know when they first saw it whether it was a new piece or an antique. That’s exactly what I was trying to achieve.’
It is Hellum’s guiding principle of the importance of traditional craftsmanship in modern design that facilitated a partnership with Ercol, which still honours many of the techniques pioneered by founder Lucian Ercolani in the 1920s.
‘I wanted to work with Ercol because its understanding of process and timbers is immense,’ says Hellum, ‘How things are made is as important as what they are, or what they will do. The most successful furniture is the stuff that comes from an understanding of craftsmanship.’
Hellum’s respect for traditional craftsmanship harks back to an era when furniture-makers created pieces to be used, not just admired. His attention to process suggests the medieval apprenticeship system, where each skill was mastered fully in turn. It’s something that he feels modern design is in danger of sidelining.
‘You get pieces that are all about a concept, but you know they’ll fall apart in six months. The designers have no understanding of the structure of the piece that they are trying to create,’ he points out. It’s something that Hellum, who teaches design at both Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College and Kingston University, feels is particularly evident at graduate shows.
‘If [the graduates] were good at what they do they would choose one thing and do it well to allow their skill to shine through, but instead you get pieces where they have put together a collection of ideas and materials that don’t really work together. The pieces become a showpiece for the graduates themselves,’ he says.
Hellum’s relationship with wood is almost innate, cultivated through his life-long passion for design. His father is still a practising architect in Norway, so design was very much part of the Hellum family blueprint. He watched his father build the family house over a period of several years. ‘He bought the plot, but didn’t want to take out a loan, so designed a house that he could build piecemeal. Every two years or so he would build another block,’ says Hellum. Aside from a ready-made playground of materials, the legacy for Hellum has been his respect for the older, more considered processes of design. ‘Design is all about an understanding of structure. If you can, you should make a piece out of one material that’s the best thing. You compromise one for the other when you design with more than one material,’ he says.
However, Hellum is pragmatic about his relationship with wood. ‘I use wood because I can prototype easily, and it’s very versatile. Also it’s the material people accept most easily into their home,’ he says.
It’s also a material that dovetails perfectly with traditional techniques and values.
To handle production of his range, Hellum headed to small manufacturer Big Cheese Design. ‘They understand how to set up for production, but still maintain standards. They make small batches of ten. There’s still an element of the work being touched by man, which is very important,’ he says. He refers to Hans Wegner’s Wishbone chair as a touchstone of excellence – ‘the link between craft and production still knocks the socks off me. It’s a 1950s piece, so aesthetically it may be out of date, but what it stands for is timeless,’ he says.
And it’s not just the union between craft and production that emphasises Hellum’s values of traditional craftsmanship. How his pieces relate to their environment is also part of his mastery. ‘There’s a danger that you can be isolated when you’re designing because you’ve got blinkers on and you only focus on what you’re making, not what will be around it,’ he says, referring to designs that dazzle in a showroom but never transcend their museum-piece status to sit comfortably in the home. ‘Furniture has to work in a room,’ he states. Hellum’s inherent lack of ostentation means that, despite their idiosyncrasy, his pieces adapt well to a range of interior schemes. As he sums it up, ‘At the end of the day, furniture in its most humble form is a practical tool. It has to work on that most basic level.’
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