North East Life Magazine (UK) January 2011
30/12/10 Filed in: Design Publications
Jolyon Yates makes chairs that he poetically describes as functional sculpture. ‘They’re a combination of form and usefulness,’ he says. ‘One doesn’t come before the other - the adventure is finding the combination that does both.’
He calls them ODEChairs, explaining: ‘Each one is a tribute to things I appreciate. For instance, the Ocean Rocker - I can’t live without the ocean, I love it.’
Jolyon says: ‘The chairs are carved, not bent. I carve them in layers, then glue them together. They’re all handmade, and it’s terribly time consuming - it takes about six weeks to make one chair.’ It’s an unusual way of using wood. Jolyon says: ‘People warm to wood, and I like the reaction I get when I’m working with wood.’ The time taken to make each chair makes it an investment piece. ‘People love them, but they are expensive, because of the time taken to make them. So people don’t buy them on a whim - they have to really like it.’ And people do. But for people who love the style, but want something smaller, Jolyon makes bookends with off-cuts from the chairs. He began making them because, he says: ‘I didn’t want to be wasteful and throw stuff away.’ The bookends offer the same distinctive style, but are more affordable - and smaller if the house is already full. Jolyon’s work sells internationally, and, he says: ‘I’ve always thought that if you put your heart into creating great form and function, then people will be interested. That’s what I’ve experienced.’ However, he is delighted with such a response in a relatively short time - he only launched ODEChair in 2008, but had worked in design for twenty years before that. Jolyon grew up in a creative family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He says: ‘My father was an architect, and was forever putting models together on the kitchen table - to the dismay of my stepmother.’ The creativity rubbed off on Jolyon, who studied Industrial Design at University. This led to an international career working for iconic brands, including Porsche. ‘As a corporate designer, typically, they’ve already developed their signature personality, and you work in this style.’ His designs had to please many people. ‘It’s lots of people’s job to make their mark on the product - say if they’re in marketing or manufacturing. It’s part of the job to design a product that everyone’s involved with. It’s a great way to learn design, but I was a tiny individual in a large process.’
Jolyon says: ‘As my design skills matured, I felt that I had a personality and something to say, that I couldn’t do in a big corporation.’ He also missed working with his hands. ‘In the old days, a designer would spend a lot of time in the workshop, making models to show people his ideas. Nowadays, it’s all done on computer. ‘It’s terrific what computers can do, but if you’re a creative person, it can be very frustrating to spend all day in front of a screen.’ He yearned to use his hands, and to make his own designs - and the opportunity came when friends at the Product Group, a design consultancy based in Cramlington, offered him use of their workshop. The offer tempted Jolyon back to Newcastle from New Zealand, where he was designing boats. He says: ‘The Product Group have been brilliant. I couldn’t have done it without them - it costs too much to equip a workshop for only one person to use.’ He arrived in 2007, spent a year making prototypes, and launched ODE Chair in 2008. Jolyon thinks worldwide, and used the Internet to bring his chairs to a wide audience. They have been especially popular, he says, in Germany and America. He also uses his design skills to make fun decals for brightening up homes. ‘They’re affordable. Rather than treasuring them for a lifetime, people can enjoy them only for a season.’ ‘They keep me fresh too - fun things that I can make relatively quickly. The decals include humourous pieces such as a silhouette of a cat and spider.’ Although Jolyon gets great satisfaction from working with his hands, there are downsides. He says: ‘By handcrafting, the numbers I can make are limited. It’s also hard work, and makes your bones ache.’ It’s worth it, though, when customers appreciate it, and get in touch. Jolyon says: ‘For instance I sold a Savannah Rocker to a Belgian dance company, and they dance round it on stage.’ Jolyon relishes working for himself. ‘It’s very refreshing after pleasing others for so many years. There is lots of agony, but it’s your agony. Whatever you create is your responsibility - you’ll get the applause or the boos.’ So far, it seems, there’s more of the former than the latter.
See Jolyon’s work at www.odechair.com and at www.jolyonyates.com
With very kind thanks to Helen Johnson and North East Life Magazine