Craft&Design Selected Gold Award 2009
by Helen Johnson
Jolyon Yates was delighted to win Craft and Design’s 2009 Selected award for wood and metal, despite only launching his business in 2008.
However, he says, “Although I opened my website in 2008, I started making prototypes in April 2007. I’ve also had 20 years design experience to prepare me.”
Winning the award, he says, “Was great. It was the first significant pat on the back I’d had for my chairs. I’d like to thank the magazine: the competition was a terrific idea, and I thought the way they did it was very clever: I haven’t come across anything else like it.”
“I’d also like to thank The Product Group, a Newcastle based Industrial Design studio. The people there have been brilliant - they’ve given me lots of advice and support and allowed me to use their workshop.”
It all began, he says, with his father, who was an architect and a painter. He says, “My father was forever sketching, painting and putting together models on the dining table, so I grew up surrounded by colour and home made things.”
Jolyon trained in Industrial Design, then embarked on an international career, working in Germany, Britain and New Zealand. He says, “It was a great way to learn design.”
He specialised in transport design, working on cars and boats. The work involved a delicate balance between applying his own creativity, and working within a corporate ‘signature’.
He says, “A signature style is very important in the car industry. Typically, they’ve developed a company style - a sort of fingerprint. You‘re given a certain breadth to work within, and you’re expected to explore this channel.”
Although it is a skilled job to create something that pleases everyone, Jolyon says, “I always felt I was a tiny individual in a large process. That was frustrating: I felt I had a personality, and something to say, but in a big corporation, it can be hard to do that.”
He comments, “In a big company, there are lots of people who feel the need to make their mark on a product’s design. As a designer, you don’t pretend you can engineer a product or manage the company, but most people think they can design an object. It’s part of the designer’s job to develop a product that everyone feels they’re involved with.”
He also missed working with his hands. He says, “In the old days, a designer would be in the workshop half the time, making beautiful models. Nowadays, it’s all done on a computer. It’s terrific what computers can do, but if you’re creative, it can be frustrating to stare at a tube all day.”
This change in designers’ work, however, provided Jolyon’s big break: the Product Group offered him use of their workshop. The opportunity enticed Jolyon back from New Zealand.
With a sketch book full of ideas, he lost no time in perfecting his signature products in the guise of ODEChair. He says, “The chairs are tributes to things I appreciate: things from nature; people who have affected me and so on.”
He adds, “Coming from a different specialisation means that I bring different ideas to wood. The chairs are carved, not bent, and glued together. It’s very time-consuming: a rocker takes around a month to make.”
He says, “It’s interesting to see people’s reaction to wooden objects. People warm to wood, and are much more accepting of it as it wears and bears the marks of its existence. But with painted products or plastics for example, it devalues as soon as it’s scratched.”
“I’m keen to develop more ideas in wood. But I’m also interested in metals. I have a local foundry, and am excited about casting some of my wooden objects. I’m also keen to try milling aluminium - I have too many ideas, and not enough time.”
Jolyon is a mature designer, and says, “It’s the coming together of form and usefulness. One doesn’t come before the other, but they must marry. Finding the combinations that do that is an adventure.”
“Now, being independent, I don’t have to worry about incorporating other people’s ideas. It’s very refreshing after pleasing corporate clients for many years. I’ve not made to commission yet. When the time comes, I might find it frustrating - or it might be good to have something to peg me down. If you have too much freedom, it can be hard to know where to begin.”
Currently, says Jolyon, “I do all the work myself. Later, perhaps I could have someone help me with the ‘toil’ aspects - things like sanding and finishing - to let me get back to design.”
He adds, “I don’t like to be wasteful. So I make smaller things, such as wooden bookends, bowls, and jewellery boxes with the left-overs from the chairs.” These, sold over the internet, can provide welcome cash flow.
Jolyon’s main driver is design, and he says, “There is an unrecognised craft aspect to industrial design. There’s no reason why mass-produced goods shouldn’t be beautiful as well as useful. The majority of production work is almost brilliant, but often falls into mediocre because it lacks love and finish.”
“Craft has that love. It’s up to we craftspeople to explore avenues that allow more people to experience owning craft objects. For instance, I exhibit my bookends next to my chairs. People who maybe can’t buy a chair might buy the bookends.”
Jolyon is still in the early days of his venture, and says, “I’ve had a lot of support with marketing from various magazines and blogs and of course Craft and Design. I’ve had a brilliant response from the Internet. If you google ‘ODEChair’, you get blogs from people saying ‘look at this!’. I get a lot of e-mail enquiries from around the world, particularly from America. I’ve always thought that good work is viral - if you put your heart into it and create great objects in beautiful materials, with good finish, then people will be interested. That’s what I’ve experienced.”
See Jolyon’s work at:
The Biscuit Factory, 16 Stoddart St, Newcastle upon Tyne
Jolyon is planning a London exhibition in 2010 - details to follow
Special thanks to The Product Group