Hay Festival Furniture

Species: American red oak

Furniture fit for a festival

In 2008, AHEC commissioned renowned UK furniture maker Philip Koomen to design and make the stage furniture for the Guardian Hay Festival.  The result was stunning bespoke stage furniture pieces in American red oak - 10 chairs, a discussion table, 4 lecterns and 4 small tables.

At the heart of the brief from event director Peter Florence was the requirement to reflect the unique style of Guardian Hay Festival stage presentations, which invites audience participation, encourages the exchange of ideas and stimulates lively debate. At the same time, comfort for the speakers was paramount.  So for Philip Koomen, the commission represented the perfect opportunity to apply ‘body conscious’ design principles, which go well beyond ergonomics to incorporate the study of posture and the impact of seating on the human body.

This commission was an opportunity to specify North American red oak, a lesser known species. The wood is very attractive with its distinctive figure and salmon pink to light brown colour. The finishes bring out the subtle hues of the wood.  Working with red oak for the first time Koomen was “Impressed by its colour, consistency and strength” and has used its distinctive grain patterns and warm tones to make a strong contemporary design statement. Koomen goes on to say, “As a designer I think it is important to specify under-utilised species and this project was an ideal brief to do so; the clients were particularly receptive to using wood from a well-managed sustainable source. I chose American black walnut for the details as it makes a rich dark contrast to the red oak.”

Red oak is an under-utilised species and yet the dominant species grown in North America. In order to ensure a sustainable future for our global forestry resource we need to align demand for the timber products we use with what actually grows in the forest.

Koomen’s design philosophy is rooted in the Arts & Crafts ideal but not in the style: design, craftsmanship and materials are approached as an integrated whole. He pares his designs to a minimal form, to the essential elements, so that the character of the wood is celebrated through the design. The wood is oiled, waxed or finished in a clear satin lacquer. Attention to detail becomes very important in this approach so craftsmanship has to be of the highest standard.

Here Philip Koomen, ‘avid follower’ of the Guardian Hay Festival for many years talks in more detail about the furniture:

The Hay Table

The Hay TableThe table is inspired by an opening book - a literary reference seemed to be a most appropriate theme for this design. The form of the table, with its elongated elliptical top, was dictated by the requirement to accommodate up to six speakers. The radiating ‘pages’ or arms produce a subtle but dynamic form. I particularly like the rhythmic quality they create. The inner space acts as a container and conduit for the microphone cables. The triangular panel reflects the inverted shape of the opening book. It also, I am told, references the hills in the area and perhaps this was a subliminal response to the brief! I think the use of the walnut for this element gives greater definition and clarity to the total form

The Hay Chair

The Hay ChairChairs are the most challenging things to design. I don’t like chairs that immobilise you, i.e. fit you like a glove. Chairs should be emancipating. We should feel that we can move relatively freely and yet feel support when we need it. I’ve been designing chairs for over 25 years and have come to the conclusion that the chair is no more than a cultural artefact. Physiologically, we are not designed to sit in chairs; autonomous sitting is the most natural sitting position. Chairs are largely a product of a civilisation that is no longer in touch with its nature. However, we are all largely dependent on chairs and, like everyone else, I want to be able to sit on a chair that is both supportive and enables me to move.  The Hay chair tries to address these requirements as well as providing a sense of security in what could be an intimidating situation with hundreds of people watching you!

The Hay chair is designed to give the sitter back support through the curvilinear contoured back which mirrors the natural curvature of the spine. The gap in the back eliminates pressure on the spine. The narrowness of the back is deliberate as it allows the upper body to rotate, a requirement that is particularly important when engaging in dialogue with fellow speakers.

The wooden seat eliminates padding as sitting stability is achieved through good contact with the ‘sitting bones’. The arms, which are deliberately too low for resting on, give the speaker a sense of defined space as well as a contact point to dissipate nervous energy.

The chair design is constructed for longevity. The joints are what are called ‘through tenons’, i.e. the seat rails extend through the legs and are visible as exposed end grain. These tenons are secured with small walnut wedges that take on the appearance of rectangular inlays. I’ve also used walnut for the connecting elements between the legs. These joints make the chair incredibly strong and they make an attractive feature.

My intention with this chair design is to create a body tool that helps the speaker feel as relaxed and engaged as possible. I’m looking forward to seeing the speakers’ behaviour on stage. If the speakers are oblivious of the chairs they are sitting on then I will regard the design as a success.

The Hay Lectern

The Hay LecternThe lectern was the most difficult piece of design. The information I received on the requirements changed as I was designing it. I’ve previously designed lecterns which proved to be very helpful. My original idea was to create an elegant female form. As the information changed the final version became a bit squat by comparison; I still like it though. I think I’ve managed to incorporate the technical requirements for cable management and lighting on the one hand and fitness for purpose on the other and still created a soft curvilinear form that is going to sit well on the stages.

The hand curved lettering was requested by Peter Florence and it had to be subtle but effective. The crisp carved letters will be highlighted when light falls on them at an angle, casting strong shadows. The wood carver, David Williamson, has done a skilful job interpreting The Guardian and Hay Festival typography.

Guardian Hay Festival Director Peter Florence is delighted by the collection. He says:  “This is a landmark project for us, combining creativity with the sustainability and beauty of the most natural of all materials.  The red oak is warm and exciting and Philip has matched our brief perfectly, reflecting his understanding of the unique character and style of our event with an enduring furniture collection that speakers and audiences will appreciate and enjoy for many years to come.”

Philip Koomen

Philip Koomen is an internationally renowned designer-maker whose inspiring design and craftsmanship is committed to global responsibility through creativity. He has undertaken commissions for a wide variety of public and private clients

Philip Koomen is a Fellow of the Society of Chartered Designers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and an Associate of the Institute of Wood Science. http://www.koomen.demon.co.uk/



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