Philip Koomen designs and makes furniture: his forms are developed and revealed through his playful curiosity. We managed to catch up with Philip to ask him a few question about his practice, creative process and workspace.
Design-Nation asked: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began.
Philip Koomen answered: I originally studied applied social science, but realised I had to create the “job” I wanted to do because it didn’t exist. Designing and making bespoke furniture appealed to me because it combined a high level of creative autonomy with entrepreneurship. This was back in 1974 and I didn’t know any furniture makers, so I’m still not sure where the inspiration came from but it was definitely in the zeitgeist. I didn’t know anything about design or craft so enrolled on a furniture technology course at Buckingham College, High Wycombe. After a year I decided to study part-time and start my own workshop, learning the craft by restoring and copying antique furniture; this was really my apprenticeship. Looking back, I now realise the creative path follows a universal pattern: apprentice, journeyman, master-craftsman and story teller/mentor.
D-N: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?
PK: When I started there was no one that I could approach… and I looked! There were a few role models, including the designer-makers Alan Peters, Edward Barnsley and John Makepeace, but they were unapproachable to a novice like me. Many years later my PhD supervisor was my first real mentor – he accompanied me through the gruelling marathon with his belief in my ability. He taught me how important encouragement can be to one’s self belief.
D-N: What inspires you?
PK: Curiosity. And I love the creative freedom of doing only what I want to do.
D-N: Please tell us a bit about your design process.
PK: In recent years I have concentrated on developing my own designs, rather than rely on clients coming along with their requirements. I am fascinated by the body in motion, especially dance, and spend time drawing dancers. I will play around with ideas and once an idea gains traction I make models, usually 1:10, and then work up to a full-size mock-up; this way I can resolve the problems as I find them. The act of making the final piece then becomes relatively smooth.
D-N: What is the best thing to have happened in your business to date?
PK: Making my living for 45 years from my practice and doing what I want to do. Furthermore, that I was able to train over 20 aspiring craftspeople who are all still furniture makers; ten now have their own independent practices.
D-N: What is your workspace like?
PK: I have a large (350 square metres) flint and brick barn that I’ve occupied since 1984. It is located in the Chilterns so I’m surrounded by woodland; my neighbours are sheep! I spend most of my time in my hand workshop but I also have a studio, machine shops, two showrooms and a timber yard where I dry and store timber that I source locally
D-N: Do you work hard on your PR or do others help you to market your business?
PK: I don’t do much but my wife and business partner, Esmyr, does – she has the best ideas. I have a loyal client base many of whom regularly commission furniture. New commissions can also come through word of mouth. We usually have an annual workshop exhibition and sale but Covid-19 stopped this from happening in 2020.
D-N: What are the main challenges in your practice?
PK: Working to commission can be feast or famine. In 2020 four clients have kept me busy all year; I’m not always this lucky. Since working on my own in the workshop from 2018 I sometimes miss having help lifting things and sanding.
D-N: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?
PK: I’m 67 years but feel I am now in my most creative phase of my life. One reason for this optimism is that I can take more creative risks, compared to when I was organising a team of craftspeople and responsible for keeping them busy. I also only do what I want to do! BTW, it may be surprising but I know quite a few creative practitioners in their 70s and 80s who are still making and I hope to follow their example!
D-N: If you could collaborate with someone new who would that be?
PK: A blacksmith/metalworker or sculptor.
D-N: If you weren’t a designer what would you like to do?
PK: I’d be either an architect or a sculptor but furniture making combines the best of the two.
D-N: What projects do you have coming up?
P.K: I hope to have a new website completed by spring, to reflect my new creative ethos and direction. I have no exhibitions planned but am looking for opportunities. 2021 looks very promising for commissions: I’m currently working on a design for garden seating for one of the Oxford University Colleges and also designing seating for meditation at a sacred space.
I’m also currently designing and making furniture for clients using their timber from an oak tree in their garden, which had to be felled. This will keep me busy for a few months.