Matthew Burt

Matthew Burt Leaf Table Vase Cabinet by Matthew Burt Bench Chest by Matthew Burt
Pyramidalised Chest by Matthew Burt
Leaf Table by Matthew Burt

Furniture designer-maker Matthew Burt produces a wide range of both free-standing and fitted furniture in his Wiltshire workshop but all of it is characterised by the respect he shows his beloved wood and an attention to detail. He says, 'I am not ashamed of the craftsmanship that goes into both the design and the making of my furniture and I am dedicated to understanding my material and using it responsibly.'

Photography by Photo Ikon Studios


You studied zoology at university, what made you decide to change direction and become a furniture maker?

While I was at university a friend of mine made his girl friend a chest and I was incredibly impressed by his achievement. I had spent all my life from about the age of 7 to 23 taking exams and it was as though he was speaking a different, practical language that I didn't understand. So I enrolled myself on a furniture-making course and at the end of year got an apprenticeship in the Cotswolds. The idea that you could think of an object, make it and then successfully sell it seemed a wonderful thing to me and I never looked back. Although it might seem quite a surprising decision, as a child I had spent a lot of time creating structures with a pen knife and a roll of baler twine and I had always been very interested in how things looked and fascinated by objects.

How do you think your background in zoology feeds into your furniture-making practice?

I suppose I see wood from an ecological aspect - as recycled sunshine and rain water - and I want to memorialise the fact that it has been a living thing in my work. I am particularly interested in memorialising elms at the moment - elm is a particularly awkward and cussed wood to work but I want to remember these trees which towered over my childhood and whose loss I see as a major catastrophe. I see wood as a precious material that needs to be treated with respect. But I also love wood for its malleability and versatility and its wonderful animate quality. It is a very sensuous material and very generous and I want to express its character in my work.

What are your sources of inspiration?

My design mentor at university was a very opinionated and exacting character called Natural Selection. I try to emulate in my work the way natural selection produces the most exquisite solutions in nature. I also see natural selection happening in furniture design. For example, if you look at a piece of country furniture - the Windsor chair say - you can see how it has evolved through an exquisite understanding of the material over several generations. I also love the honesty and integrity of Arts and Crafts furniture; when I first started making furniture in the 1970s I felt my role was to take the Arts and Crafts baton and run with it into the 21st century, although now I am also fascinated by Modernism - and, of course, our own cultural times.

How do you go about designing individual pieces of furniture?

My designs are not flippant or sensational merely for the sake of it; they are beyond fashion which begins to pall after a while. I try and create succinctness and an appropriateness. I think that if an object is well adapted to its function it will be aesthetically beautiful because it is mechanically well considered. I would like my furniture to endure both in terms of construction and in terms of design.

You've said that you want your furniture to reflect our times and play a role in design evolution - can you explain what you mean by this?

I want my furniture to speak for our own times and to try and say something that hasn't been said previously. I don't want to merely make what's been done before. I try and make something that's new and adds to the design story. For example, my key cabinet is very simply constructed with hardly any joints - it's made using curved components resting in grooves - and is a totally new shape which responds to a new modern-day need.

Are you happy to use new high-tech tools in your work or do you prefer using traditional hand tools?

We use tools from the biblical to the digital in the workshop! I consider myself privileged to be alive in a world where we have access to all this new technology - I think it's very liberating. It's not enough to merely design furniture, it has to be made, marketed and sold with equal skill and we need to be able to call upon as many allies as possible - including the computer - in the process.

What interests you more - making furniture on commission or making speculative pieces?

I like to work in both ways - sometimes I like working as unadulterated 'me' and at other times I feel the need to be checked by interpreting the needs of others. Working on commissions can be extremely exciting - meeting other individuals who place new demands on you and force you to think outside your box can rattle your prejudices unexpectedly. You have to be pragmatic - I run a workshop and so need to consider the cash flow, although I consider myself an artist first and a business person second - and I look upon commissioned work as paid research and development. Speculative work is expensive and time consuming although it can be a wonderful release from the tyranny of the commission.

Over the last 30 years you have trained several apprentices and currently employ still more in your workshop. Can you explain why you think the apprentice system is so important?

I want to support the culture that is makers and making and this is a way of helping keep it alive. It's all part of recognising the heritage of people toiling away in sheds - something the British are particularly good at - and what they've achieved.

Matthew's work is currently exhibited at the Crafts Study Centre,
University for the Creative Arts, Falkner Road, Farnham, GU9 7DS

4 November 2008 - 21 February 2009