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Interview with Sally Burnett

Sally Burnett creates unique decorative pieces in turned wood. Using ethically sourced native English timbers Sally explores the natural properties of wood using a woodworking lathe and traditional chisels and gouges alongside modern techniques and tools.

Sally is exhibiting at our sister gallery The National Centre for Craft & Design as part of ‘Women’s Work Pioneering Contemporary Craft’ from 7 July to 2 September 2018. Design-Nation caught up with Sally to find out about her practice, inspiration and future plans.

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Sally Burnett: I initially trained in 3D design and for many years specialised in the design and manufacture of hand blown glass vessels and panels and large ceramic tile installations, for both private and commercial clients. Six years ago, I was given a lathe by a friend and that was the start of my passion for making in wood.

For 3 years working in wood was an all consuming hobby but in 2015 I was the recipient of a Bursary from the Worshipful Company of Turners which enabled me to spend time working with Jacques Vesery in the USA. That year I was also invited to participate in the UK Crafts Council ‘Hothouse’ scheme for emerging makers and this prompted me to decide to become a full-time maker in wood.

I currently work from home in my studio making pieces for interior designers and private clients. This year 60% of my work has been exported, mainly to the Middle East.

DN: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

SB: When I first began making in wood, I struggled with the complexity of my designs and my lack of technical skill to make them. I began to train with a professional maker and great teacher, Tracy Owen. Based in Northwich, he has helped me to expand my knowledge, improve my skills and encouraged me on my journey. He continues to be both my mentor and friend.

DN: What inspires you and your work?

SB: Texture, texture and more texture. Texture in nature but also architecture with Santiago Calatrava my personal favourite. I try and take a couple of days every month to sketch most recently at the British Museum for my Byzantine pieces.

DN: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

SB: I develop ideas through drawing but also ‘playing’. Experimenting with different tools and surfaces is important, it increases my design vocabulary. New forms I usually make directly in the wood, gradually refining the curve.

DN: What is your workspace like?

SB: My studio has been recently extended and is divided into two linked spaces, one for turning and the other for the decorative process. Most pieces are turned on a lathe using freshly cut timber known as ‘green’ wood. I use English native timber, primarily sycamore and maple which both turn well and provide a surface which can be easily textured, coloured, burnt and stained.

DN: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

SB: I spend about 50% of my time making and the rest is marketing, PR and general admin.

I had struggled to identify where to sell my work which was both expensive and frustrating. Finally I realised that the route to my clients was through interior designers and architects. I chose to exhibit at the trade show, Maison et Objet and it was the absolutely the right decision. The research before attending the show made me aware of trade grants and my local Chamber of Commerce, the Craft Council and the Stoke on Trent Creative Hub have been particularly helpful and supportive.

DN: What are the main challenges in your practice?

SB: The shift to making work for large spaces has meant that my pieces are getting larger. This presents a challenge to find suitable large trees which in turn need to be dried slowly to prevent cracking.

I work on my own and although I enjoy my own space there are times when I miss the stimulation created by dialogue with fellow creatives.

DN: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

SB: I have worked in a creative practice now for over 30 years. At this stage in my life there is a greater urgency to create and I have shortened my deadlines so I currently have a 1 year, 3 year and 5 year plan.

I am rarely able to see where my work goes as my clients are often very private. I hope that in 5 years I have an established international reputation which would permit me to work on bespoke installations designed for specific spaces.

DN: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

SB: I have already combined wood with other media in a limited way but it would be fascinating to collaborate with an exceptional maker in another field. I think that my choices would be Tania Clarke Hall (leather jewellery designer) and Emma-Jane Rule (silversmith). I love the structures and surfaces that they create.

DN: If you weren’t a designer what would you be?

SB: Marine biologist

DN: Why did you join Design-Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?

SB: I work alone and it can be quite isolating. Hothouse made me appreciate how important it was for me to interact with other creatives and Design Nation has provided that opportunity.

DN: Do you have any upcoming events or exhibitions?


Women’s Work: Pioneering Contemporary Craft, at The National Centre for Craft & Design, 7 July – 2 September 2018

Maison et Objet, Paris, 7 – 11 September 2018

The 2018 Second Half Art Exhibition: Celebrating Living Old Masters, London, 11  – 12 October 2018

Interview by Rhea Clements

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Clare Edwards


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