“It’s been quite a journey.” Tom Raffield
Steering an explorative path away from convention with their pioneering steam bending technique, design brand Tom Raffield is celebrated widely throughout the industry for their iconic lighting and furniture designs, not to mention their sustainable and forward-thinking ethos. Forever experimenting and pushing the boundaries of design, not to mention fusing traditional skills with modern technology, the dedication and passion for bringing good, enduring design to the table is clearly evident from this Cornwall-based design studio, as is their belief that “sustainability should be synonymous with good design, much like quality and function are.”
We delved a little deeper into the brand’s history, bespoke projects and sustainable goals for the future with the brand’s founder, Tom Raffield. Read on to discover everything from the designer’s love for nature, aspirations for the future, dream getaway location and which of his designs he’d fill the enki offices with…
#1 What inspired you to start your own business? What did you want to bring to the design table?
“I’ve always had an interest in woodwork and been drawn to creative crafts. I studied 3D Design for Sustainability at Falmouth University where I was eager to discover and explore as many different design philosophies and processes while I had the chance. It was there my obsession with innovative design, sustainably sourced wood and the eco-friendly process of steam bending began. The method, traditionally associated with boat building and making musical instruments, involves a lot of skill and an understanding of the variables to allow you to create the perfect bend.
After university I developed my own techniques for bending wood which brought many of my ideas to life and furthered my passion (once you master these steam bending skills it becomes a fast and high-octane process that is highly addictive) I can’t get enough of it! When I started the business, I had a focus on creating steam bent lighting – designs that would suit an array of different spaces and be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional and eye catching. We now handcraft a range of lighting, furniture and accessories as well as bespoke spaces. It’s been quite a journey.”
#2 What is the ethos behind your brand and your work?
“At Tom Raffield a responsible and sustainable approach is at the heart of everything we do. We’re a design-led brand, crafting functional pieces with long-lasting quality and sustainability has always been our goal.”
#3 Describe a regular 9-5pm work day. What does this often involve? How has this regular 9-5 changed over the years?
“It’s evolved over the years. There was a period back at the start of the business where I was making lights and dispatching them from my Mum’s garage! I guess no day is ever the same and that’s what I love about my job. I can be travelling to meet clients to discuss new projects one day and developing prototypes in the workshop with the team for a brand new range the next. There’s the usual business meetings and sales events but what I really enjoy is being in the workshop surrounded by our team, designing and making products.”
#4 Tom Raffield is celebrated for keeping responsibility and sustainability at the forefront of everything you do as well as operating on a minimal ecological footprint. Provide us with some examples of how you do this, and what challenges you face…
“We truly believe that sustainability should be synonymous with good design, much like quality and function are, and that this is the answer to over-consumption and the environmental challenges we face. We feel proud that sustainability has always been our bedrock, it binds our ecological processes, nature-inspired designs and the culture of our team. We care a lot about our ecological footprint as a company and therefore, have ensured that we’ve developed our processes to protect the environment accordingly. By its very nature, steam bending is a low-energy process that relies only on heat and water and consequently, produces very little waste. We source all our wood (which is FSC rated) from sustainably managed woodlands and our fabric for our upholstered furniture pieces from British brands who produce natural, high-quality and hardwearing materials. The packaging we use is, and has always been, plastic free, compostable and recyclable.
Furthermore, our BREEAM excellent workshop and studios located in Cornwall run off renewable energy, our team often participate in local beach cleans and tree planting days to help create a greener environment. Tom Raffield work alongside an award-winning social enterprise and have also committed to the UN Global Compact corporate responsibility initiative – this means that we are constantly striving to become more active in our local community to support environmental charities and groups.”
#5 In terms of the future, are there further sustainable techniques and moves you’re looking to make as a brand?
“Every decision we make considers our impact on the environment, as we believe a sustainable ethos is key. Moving forward, our team will continue to collectively strive to be ahead of the curve and remain at the forefront of pushing a sustainable, positive way of working.”
#6 With bespoke projects, talk us through how you work with the client during this process…
“It can vary completely to be honest. Some clients will come to us with a design concept and we’ll then provide detailed drawings and CAD models (computer aided designs). Sometimes we’ll go to the site and measure the project, but other times the client will have all the above detail and we make the steam bent components for their intended project. The bespoke arm of our business is entirely new, and we love exploring the capabilities of steam bent wood on such a large scale, it’s such a versatile material.”
#7 What challenges have you faced with bespoke projects, and how have you overcome these? Do you ever turn bespoke projects down?
“Sometimes being located in Cornwall can be a little tricky if we are working away on site – in say London or further afield! We recently steam bent the cladding for eight new Colicci coffee kiosks in London’s Royal Parks, a project that spanned over a year in total, so we had a few logistical issues to overcome. It all worked out well though, I think our team can say they know their way around London pretty well now!
The bespoke projects we work on completely depend on our workshop capacity at the time of the enquiry. We love being creative, problem solving and coming up with new ideas on as many projects as possible, but we do occasionally have to turn down a commission depending on the time frame of a project and to ensure we’re delivering exceptional quality.”
#8 We loved the curving façade of the Tom Raffield steam bent kiosk collaboration. What was the inspiration behind the curving, organic shape of the kiosks?
“Thank you, it’s one of our favourite projects to date. Each wooden kiosk is united by a sculptural canopy that swells out like a tree’s crown and gives the designs their striking silhouette. Inspired by organic, naturally occurring shapes the kiosks were designed by Mizzi Studio to complement the Grade I listed backdrop and ideology of The Royal Parks’ sustainability.”
#9 In terms of material palette, which woods are your favourites to work with and why? Which lend themselves best to the steam-bending technique?
“We steam bend exclusively with sustainably sourced hardwoods – preferably air dried. Hardwoods tends to have a straighter grain with minimal grain run out (which helps prevent breakages or splits). It’s worth noting that not all hardwoods will bend as well as others and we avoid tropical hardwoods (such as mahogany). We’ve recently started experimenting with beech wood for new collections and it’s going really well, we’ve also worked with cherry, spalted beech and spruce as well as ash, oak and walnut wood that we currently handcraft our entire product range from.”
#10 We’re drawn to the curving, cone-shape of the Keel Pendant and the intriguing design statement it makes. How do you get inspired when creating a new piece for the collection – be it a new lighting concept, piece of furniture or accessory? Where can inspiration spring from? Can it simply form from manipulating the wood and experimenting?
“I always say that we ‘design through making’. Experimentation is key as you never know where a design concept will lead when you actually start to make it in the workshop! New products can come into fruition purely from testing out new methods and pitched curves. Equally, a lot of our designs are inspired by the natural world and consequently conceived from a wide range of organic structures. Our Arame Wall Lights and Pendants were inspired by a form of seaweed washed up on the Cornish coastline. The Keel Pendant was inspired by the shape of a conical shell – it just so happens that the sleek curving lines that are reminiscent of the Cornish coast also look great in lighting form and can transform a space so well!”
#11 What draws you in in terms of aesthetics? Who or what inspires you?
“I like unusual shapes and structures, things that catch the eye. Sometimes it’s the sights we see every day that can be the most inspirational. The majority of our products take inspiration from the landscape and nature that surrounds our studios here in Cornwall; it could be a flock of birds, a leaf, branches of an ancient tree or the barrel of a waking wave. There’s so much beauty in nature and I sometimes think we become oblivious to it. Otherwise, architects such as Zaha Hadid, who design incredible buildings also inspire me. There’s a real push in the design industry at the moment towards biophilia and bringing the outdoors in… this pretty much ticks all of my boxes!”
#12 Which of your designs could you imagine filling the enki magazine offices with, and why?
“I’d probably say our Morvah Wall and Ceiling Hanging Planters from our Green Range. The Morvah’s feature a steam bent oak band that cradles a handcrafted earthenware ceramic bowl. Our Tom Raffield offices are full of the planters, they’re everywhere, kitchen, bathroom and even in the workshop! The Morvah’s can house a range of indoor plants, there’s such a range to choose from. Some of my favourites are trailing succulents and ivy, ferns and herbs such as mint and thyme. Every office needs a good dose of greenery as there’s so many health benefits associated with biophilic design.”
#13 If you could collaborate with another brand, architect or maker, who would it be and why?
“That’s a tough one! There are so many companies out there, from artisan makers to big architectural firms who we’d love to work with. I’d probably have to say Thomas Heatherwick – a design and architectural practice in London who design and make buildings, spaces, master-plans, objects and infrastructure. The company has a great ethos and their designs are innovative and refreshing. I’d love to learn more about the design processes involved in creating such a vast range.”
#14 What’s the best thing about your job(s)?
“Sharing my passion for handcrafted, sustainable and quality designs with our amazing growing team.”
#15 Where do you hope to see the brand in 10 years time?
“Still creating honest handcrafted designs that will become heirlooms of the future. I’d love to engage more people in our brand and story. I also aspire to encourage other businesses to become more sustainable and share our passion for the natural world.”
The Quick-fire Round
#1 Natural or metallic? “Natural.”
#2 Vibrant colour or pale neutrals? “Pale neutrals.”
#3 Pendant light or chandelier? “Chandelier… preferable our Giant Flock Chandelier!”
#4 Tea or coffee? “Tea… but I’m currently trying not to drink caffeine which is proving challenging with three children.”
#5 Perfect getaway? “A wooden cabin in the middle of a Scandinavian forest – roaring fire, amazing landscapes and great walks. I love exploring.”
#6 Favourite book? “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a must read, honestly.”
#7 Favourite way to relax? “Exercising, I really enjoy rowing and running – our team recently ran the Royal Parks half marathon in London for charity which was great fun.”
#8 Favourite wine? “Hmmm, a red Bordeaux.”
#9 Dream house and location? “We were recently lucky enough to be able to design and build our own steam bent house in a small Cornish valley in the middle of a woodland. It’s beautiful and I love it, but if we’re talking dream location I’d probably move it to the coast with a sea view!”
#10 Favourite thing about social media? “It’s amazing to see how people have used our designs in their spaces. Our audience often share images and feedback which we really value.”
#11 Least favourite thing about social media? “That everyone is always on it.”
Want to discover more from Tom Raffield and the brand’s incredible steam bent designs? Click here.
For more Meet the Maker interviews on enki, click here.