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The useful suspects: three Scottish furniture makers

Rob Elliot is an unusual man.

Rob Elliot, Ross Samson and Iain Muir each came to furniture making having worked in other fields. Photographs: Colin Mearns
Rob Elliot, Ross Samson and Iain Muir each came to furniture making having worked in other fields. Photographs: Colin Mearns

He used to work in his father's saw mill but now the furniture maker will only use trees that have died naturally. "I can't be too airy-fairy about it, being a saw miller's son, but better to leave a tree as it is when I can use the trees that had died anyway," says Elliot, who works in elm. "Dutch Elm disease has killed many of the trees but doesn't affect the timber itself."

He is the third generation of his family to work with timber. After the First World War his grandfather went into agricultural fencing, a business which passed to Elliot's father, who expanded it by buying a saw mill in Selkirk in 1957. Elliot worked alongside his father from 1980 until the mill hit trouble and closed in 1987.

With time on his hands, he visited a Rennie Mackintosh exhibition and was inspired.

"I saw the curved-back chair from the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow and thought I fancied making one," says Elliot, 49. "I had no training as such but one thing working in a saw mill does teach you is how to use the machines so, being a fairly practical person, I got myself a photograph of the chair and worked it out from there."

From these early Rennie Mackintosh-influenced pieces, which still have a place at his mother's house, he began to experiment with Waney-edged furniture where the natural shape of the wood forms a wiggly edge. It's a style which still informs much of his work.

Sometimes the shapes of the boards coming off a cut tree immediately suggest a piece of furniture; other times Elliot will go out to find a piece of wood with a specific piece of furniture in mind and use his skills to show the natural forms and grain of the wood to best advantage.

His signature work is the shorthorn desk, a stylish object with more than a hint of Dali to its seemingly fluid shape.

"The piece that gives me the most pleasure is the flow rocker, a two-legged rocking chair with a cantilevered wooden seat. A friend is a remedial masseur, and he says that it's just the right curve for lumber support.

"With all furniture, you have to have the function first – the aesthetics of it have to be secondary. Some people might argue with me, but if it's nice to look at but makes your bum sore, it's just an ornament."

Iain Muir has had a more traditional route into furniture making, having developed an interest in it as a boy, and training as an apprentice ship's joiner at the Govan Shipyard from 1979-1983. "At school I enjoyed wood work but I wanted to be electrician," says Muir, 49. "When you did your apprenticeship you went round all the trades and when I asked to be an electrician they said, 'No, you're a joiner.'

"The first year was at training school, the second year was at the yard. I was in the workshops making the furniture. It was mostly mahogany cabins – beds and wardrobes but the odd different piece.

"There were five of us taken on that year and we were the last five apprentice joiners, so I do feel like we were part of history."

After finishing his apprenticeship, Muir did various jobs in joinery, including working on the sets of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre. "I loved it. It was a great experience. I built the sets for them and at night did the set changes. I met a lot of good people and a few famous people – Glenda Jackson stands out. It was a good experience working on a live show."

Muir completed a two-year furniture design and restoration course at Glasgow College of Building and Printing, since when he has been self-employed, working largely to commission at his workshop in Gartmore, near Aberfoyle.

Muir specialises in fitted, contemporary furniture and one-off pieces. "My personal taste is modern but with a hint of the traditional, so that's clean lines and simple designs. I made a pair of 4ft-high speakers by hand. I'm particularly proud of those."

Ross Samson decided to change career after working as a historian and archaeologist for 20 years.

Samson, who was latterly based at Glasgow University, where he ran an archaeological publishing business, says, "I was very jaded and one day my computer broke and I had to send it to London to get fixed, so I had six weeks of doing nothing.

"I went round telling all my friends: 'I'm sick of this archaeology, I'm going to be a joiner.' A friend called me up the next day and asked if I would sand her floor. The neighbour said it was lovely and asked if I would do her floor.

"Then I was asked by a fellow academic to build a library in his home. I thought: 'How appropriate. I sell him books, I might as well sell him a library to put them in.' I worked on that for months and I thought: 'I'm never going back.'"

During his academic career, much of his own research had been on architecture – an interest born of a teenage obsession with castles. "I loved architecture. Once I got, not quite a castle, but a tenement flat of my own, that architectural bent meant I hated all the modern things in it so I ripped everything out and put original features back in."

It was the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts period, 1890-1914, which appealed to Samson. With an archaeologist's eye, he studied the construction details of antique furniture and taught himself how to make it through trial and error. His work often includes a Pictish symbol, a throwback to his former career. "Some stones in Scotland from 700-800 AD were covered with these mysterious symbols."

Having come from academia, he enjoys the contrast of working with his hands but old habits die hard. "I read endlessly, like an academic would. I've a huge library on Arts and Crafts architects and designers so I have an encyclopedic knowledge of their stuff. I now build the cabinets to put them in."

In 2000, Samson founded the Scottish Furniture Makers Association to bring furniture makers together to lessen the cost and increase the impact of mounting an exhibition.

The organisation sprang from a casual conversation at a trade show at the SECC in Glasgow. "An old sea dog named Tony Gill stopped at my stand and talked to me. He had started making furniture at home. I told him he should join me in my association of furniture makers, which I had made up on the spot. I roped him in and two other guys and declared us an association."

Twelve years on, the SFMA has almost 70 members and their styles encompass the spectrum from honest rustic to the highly decorative and the sleek lines of futuristic minimalism. n

The Art Of Furniture Art, an exhibition by the Scottish Furniture Makers Association, runs until October 21 in Gallery One at The Lighthouse, Glasgow.

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