A piece created by Gareth Neal is the first thing that visitors see at the Victoria and Albert museum’s furniture gallery. But the soft-spoken Briton actually considers his mission to be much more than just designing and making furniture.
He is passionate about honouring “people, process and place. I try to keep it local,” he said, by championing the use of indigenous materials and traditional processes while at the same time exploring new ones. And he also makes an effort to respect the environment.
In 2012, Neal decided to set a carbon-negative challenge for himself. He and two students from the University of Brighton, where he is a senior lecturer on design and craft, biked 160 miles into the countryside of Herefordshire, where an 80-year-old English ash tree had been cut for a project but then was left there, unused.
Without the benefit of electricity, and using only hand tools — axes, draw knives (which have a long blade with two handles) and pole lathes — the three created a table, four stools and 12 candlesticks, which, he said, “we placed on a cart and biked 160 miles back to London.”
Gareth Neal believes that as a hands-on designer and maker, he is fascinated by process, whether that be with traditional tools or the latest computer controlled router. This, combined with a fascination of historical techniques and aesthetics, roots his design within a specific context with rich narratives and contextual reference points. Good design emanates from a depth of knowledge of the medium, and his ability to reconsider it for a contemporary audience.
While creating one off pieces, he pushes himself and some of the best craftsman in the UK. He loves working collaboratively, and this provides a rich stream of inspiration within his practice which has cultivated some of their humblest and progressive designs. Privately, he likes nothing better than a rummage around a car boot sale or junk shop, this in many way has instilled in him a desire to make things that have a longevity and a resistance to fashion, and installed a healthy respect for the environment, and a desire to make sure his studio’s objects stand out and shine for all time.
Gareth Neal lives in the East End of London, which used to be a centre for veneers and marquetry work, “which are all but lost from London,” he said. He paid homage to his neighbourhood’s woodworking roots, as well as to “objects that talk of the woodland,” with his “Urban Picnic” project.
In 2010, Neal entered a competition with the theme “The Great British Weekend.” He decided that “the picnic bench is so simple” and so elemental to British life that he proposed making one, along with other leisure items such as a cricket bat and a hula hoop. The pieces then would pop up unexpectedly in various parts of the East End, inviting residents to enjoy themselves. The project proposal won its category hands down. “I was one of the judges, and his work stood out,” said Josephine Chanter, head of communications at the London Design Museum. “It was experimental and incredibly beautiful.” And in honour of the veneer craft that once flourished in the East End he gave the finished pieces intricate “stringing line” inlays made from combinations of geometric pieces of thin veneers.
1996 - Graduated with a BA in Furniture Design & Craftsmanship from Buckinghamshire New University
1997 - Exhibition at Sotheby’s in London selling Gareth’s graduation pieces alongside Ron Arad and John Makepeace
1998 - Gareth is invited to exhibit at the Bowes Museum alongside Edmund de Wall and Tom Dixon
1999 - Sotheby’s invites Gareth back and he sells all 3 of the pieces of the work exhibited
2001 - First international exhibition at Sotheby’s in New York followed by an exhibition at the William Zimmer Gallery in Chicago in 2003
2005 - Gareth sets up a small workshop in Hackney Wick alongside 2 international artists, Paul Noble and Georgina Star
2007 - The design of the Anne Table initiates the experiments surrounding digital fabrication and craftsmanship. This piece is exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of The Collect Art Fair, is sold to the Crafts Council and is now housed in their public collection
2008 - The George Chest is exhibited during The Collect Art Fair at the Victoria & Albert Museum, 100 percent design and the Milan furniture fair where it captures international interest and intense publicity within the design scene
2009 - The George Chest is shown at the exhibition Telling Tales at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The show demonstrated the emerging design-art scene across Europe with work that pushed the boundaries between disciplines
2009 - Gareth’s first solo show Made to View fabricated a chest of drawers in the gallery space
2010 - The Windsor Chair, made from a bodging greenwood project, is exhibited in Milan. It is sold to the Shipley Museum and the project is featured in their catalogue publication British Design 1948–2012, Innovation in the Modern Age Victoria & Albert
2010 - Commissioned by Vauxhall Motors, we created a picnic and woodland scene using traditional veneers and exhibited them in derelict spaces of East-London. The Urban Picnic project is exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s most popular public exhibition, the Power of Making and is later acquired by the Crafts Council
2011 - Participates in an exhibition at No10 Downing Street demonstrating the best designs in the UK
2012 - The George Chest is acquired by the Victoria &Albert Museum and is now on permanent display in their furniture gallery
2013 - The studio’s work is celebrated in numerous publications on contemporary design and is constantly on demand by international cultural institutions
2014 - Collaborates with Zaha Hadid to create a set of table wear, these turn into highly developed pieces of digital manufacture and are exhibit in the Victoria & Albert Museum, and The Design Triennale in Milan, Italy
2014 - Hampton Court Palace also commissions Gareth to make a throne for the anniversary of George the 1st
2015 - Commissions from the Glenlivet, production furniture for Heal’s and The New Craftsmen and products for Case
2016 - The studio’s work is sold through international galleries while being exhibited in museums from Australia to Austria. We are also taking private commissions for individuals and the general public
“There are furniture makers who are great craftsmen, and there are those who are great designers. Gareth Neal is a rare find. He’s both.” Christopher Wilk, V&A Museum