FOR the past 39 years Philip Koomen has been quietly carving and chipping and sanding away in his workshop in Checkendon, crafting bespoke pieces of furniture commissioned by private clients. Now, at the age of 60, and with a lifetime of experience behind him, he is striking out in a new direction — one which even he describes with a wry laugh as “pretty nebulous”.
He has been awarded a £10,000 Arts Council grant to carry out an 18-month project into the nature of creativity. The project, Ideas In The Making: Researching Creativity, will culminate in 40 different ideas for furniture designs — one for each of his years as a wood craftsman — and, he expects, half a dozen actual finished pieces. There will also be an exhibition at the River and Rowing Museum from February to June 2015 to showcase his work.
He said: “I’m interested in showing the creative process that goes behind designing and making furniture. People who aren’t design-educated, who don’t understand the design process, just look at a table or chair or cabinet and they either like or they don’t. But everything is created twice — first in your imagination, and then materially, in the physical world. It’s a twofold process. So I thought what would be interesting would be to represent the creative process behind, to show where ideas come from, how they are born, and how they evolve and develop.”
Koomen started making furniture in his twenties. After attending Henley Grammar School he studied sociology, but then decided as a young graduate that he wanted to dedicate his life to making things.
He said: “Once I decided I wanted to be a designer I found my way to High Wycombe Colllege to study furniture design and technology. My parents lived in Mill Lane at the time, just behind the lake, and my first workshop was there. The house was on stilts because it’s a flood plain, and we had to dig it out underneath the house. We dug out three metres by three metres, so that we could stand up, and then put in a concrete base.”
He spent a year as a jobbing builder with a friend to make cash and, advertising in the classified section of the Henley Standard, started to take on small furniture projects such as restoring antiques and polishing.
He relocated to his current workshop in Checkendon in 1984, when he was able to take up his craft full-time.
The workshop and gallery are testament to his underlying ethos of sourcing local materials, making his business as sustainable as possible. In the yard out back are piles of timbers from local woodland laid out to dry, many of them still with their frilly, barked edges intact.
If you thought that oak was oak, a visit here will prove that you were deluded for there are at least four diffeent types, including Thame brown oak, English burr oak and cat’s paw oak. Koomen has also worked with cherry and pear wood, as well as local beech.
“I don’t use hardwood from rainforests, for ethical reasons,” he says. “About 50 per cent of the timber trade in the world is illegal, and our fifth or sixth biggest import in this country is timber yet there are huge tracts of woodland that are an under-used resource.”
Although most of Koomen’s work is making bespoke pieces for private clients he has also been commissioned to make some impressive grand-scale pieces including new choirstalls for Dorchester Abbey and all the stage furniture for the Hay literary festival in 2008. His work has been exhibited all over the world, including America, France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates.
His work is functional but at the same time it displays the eye of an artist, such as the recurring Pondlife motif with its distinctive chestnut spikes that have been employed for large-scale benches as well as a glass-topped coffee table.
He hopes that the new project will enable him to delve further into the artistic process and push the boundaries that restrict him, both materially and mentally. An important part of this process will be collaborating with a number of other professionals — an eclectic bunch including an art theorist at Oxford Brookes University, a jazz musician, a forest scientist and the design and technology teacher at Langtree School in Woodcote.
The project has already started. In between his commissioned work he fiddles about with bits of wood, cutting them in new ways, and rearranging them, and coming up with new ideas for designs. On a more esoteric level, he also encourages his mind to go off at tangents and take risks — lateral thinking and spirituality, are important facets of his work.
“I like the notion of playing with ideas for their own sake, the way a child might do it,” he said. “Picasso said he spent his whole life trying to think like a child, without any preconceptions.”
And even though we come back to the notion of being a “bit nebulous”, Koomen is hoping that the project will provide a springboard for other people to discuss different ways of thinking.
He said: “You have got to aim for the stars to reach the top of the trees.”