Artists usually squirm when other people try to cite biographical influences on their work, favouring ambiguous theories over straightforward causal links, but furniture-maker Gareth Neal has no such compunctions. ‘My dad is an archaeologist. I grew up on excavations,’ he says in answer to why his work reflects an interest in the historical.
Neal, who was born in 1974, is based in a huge flat-cumworkshop in a complex of studios (also occupied by high-profile artists Paul Noble and Georgina Starr) in the rather unprepossessing north London hinterland of Hackney Wick. His furniture fuses the past and present, an approach that dates from around 2001 when he began researching antiques by visiting museums and poring over Sotheby’s catalogues.
His Anne console, in American walnut, superficially resembles a simple table, but its evenly spaced incisions – a hallmark of Neal’s work – reveal, on closer inspection, the ornate legs of a Queen Anne-style console, modelled on a 1730 antique. This was launched at 100% Design in 2007.
Meanwhile, his oak chest of drawers, George, unveiled at Milan last year, resembles a featureless mid-century Modernist cabinet yet it, too, exposes the silhouette of a Georgian commode behind it. Very idiosyncratically, it has a chipped base which looks like it’s been attacked by a woodpecker or rodents. Each piece takes about a month to produce and costs approximately £8000.
Neal doesn’t see his work as fitting neatly into either the design or art categories. ‘I’ve always made sculptural design objects,’ he says. ‘I don’t have a term for them.’
He is quick to point out that his approach predates the designart fad, but a pragmatic side to him leads him to admit that this could benefit him. ‘I’m at the right time in my career to take advantage of it,’ he says. But when talk turns to whether design art is over-hyped and over-priced, he says, ‘My own pricing is relevant to the time I take and to the materials I use.’ Of his pieces so far, Anne was possibly the most labour-intensive, because it was hand-sawn. Since then he has used computer-numericalcontrolled processes. The chipped base of George, however, was hand-carved. ‘I like mixing the messy with the sharp, the organic and geometric,’ he says.
After completing a BA in 3D design and crafts in High Wycombe, Neal worked in the studios of furniture-makers Rupert Williamson and Fred Baier. His work at the time was kooky and whimsical, much less sober-looking than it is now. Examples include the storage unit Box Tree – boxes piled on top of each other at random angles – and Capillary, a table with jellyfish-like legs.
Today, Neal’s work is much in demand: he had a one-man show at London’s Contemporary Applied Arts gallery recently, and his Anne chairs (a spin-off of the Anne console) and George III chest of drawers can be seen at the exhibition Collect, which starts next week. He’s also taking part in the upcoming Victoria & Albert Museum show Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design.
Crucially, his work is like the design equivalent of the slowfood movement – the antithesis of quick-fix, witty one-liner conceptual design. ‘I’m fascinated by the idea that you don’t have to understand an object immediately,’ he says. ‘We’re living in a fast-food generation, but I want to make pieces with longevity.’
But Neal is a complex character who professes to feeling stifled by the expectation on craftspeople that their work should evolve slowly. ‘Designers can chop and change, but craftspeople aren’t allowed to,’ he says. ‘I get bored by this. I use wood because it’s what I know but I want to change materials. There’s only so often you can reinvent the wheel.’
But, he asserts, he would never succumb to ‘faddishness’. ‘My pieces have a message. I want them to wake you up a bit, to go deeper, and not be “objects for objects’ sake”,’ he concludes.
Collect is at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London SW3 from 15-17 May