In 2012, Southwark cabinetmaker Jeff Segal was commissioned by Dulwich Picture Gallery to design a custom-made plinth on which a scale model of the Gallery could be displayed. Designed for use in the cloister as well as the enfilade, the plinth had to be mobile enough to move around the Gallery and able to store Gallery equipment in a discreet manner.
Perhaps at odds with these practical concerns, the piece also had to look solid and austere enough to fit well into the Gallery’s Soanean interior spaces. Earlier this year we saw the arrival of the finished product, which fits the brief perfectly. The fact that Jeff has managed to negotiate two rather contradictory criteria and create an object that fulfils them both is testament to his skill as a cabinetmaker and designer.
Jeff’s work is made to commission and each piece is entirely handmade and original. He works closely with his clients to develop bespoke furniture that fits very closely to their individual needs and environmental specifications. As a cabinetmaker, Jeff takes inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement, a style originating from the late 19th century that emphasises the importance of vernacular methods of working and a reliance on local materials.Although the Dulwich plinth’s design does not correspond to the Arts and Craft style directly, Jeff has taken from the movement a respect for more traditional woodworking techniques, and uses locally sourced English walnut. Consistent with his other work, the plinth’s functionality is not compromised by its design. Rather than creating beauty through ornamentation, it is suggested through the qualities of the materials he uses.
Dulwich Communications Intern Edward Stone asked Jeff about his career as a cabinetmaker, the major influences on his craft, and the process of making the new plinth.
Hi Jeff, how long have you been working as a cabinetmaker? Where did you begin your career?
Actually I’m a novice in this game. I got the chance to study cabinetmaking full-time in 2005, when I left Reuters after 30 years in journalism and signed up at the London College of Furniture (now part of London Metropolitan University) for two years. I’ve been in my Bermondsey workshop, just off the Tower Bridge Road, since 2007. Before 2005 I’d attended City and Guilds evening classes in woodworking, a summer school and a short residential course, but I’d never had the opportunity to make furniture professionally.
You have lived in Southwark for 30 years. Do you know Dulwich Picture Gallery well? Do you have any special connections to it?
I know the Gallery well and I love introducing friends to it. One close friend, who studied art history and has a beautiful collection of pictures hanging in his flat, could hardly believe his eyes when he first stepped through the doors. The huge significance of the paintings on display, all together in such a small space, just astonished him. He kept grabbing my arm and saying: “Do you realise what that painting is? And that one? Do you have any idea how important they are?” And of course my children used to come here with their schoolmates from the infants and juniors to learn about pigments and drawing and Rembrandt and Rubens and all the rest, and to soak up the knowledge and enthusiasm of the Education department.
How were you approached to design the plinth?
I had a very generous sponsor in Dulwich Storage Company, which wanted to make a gift of a furniture commission to Dulwich Picture Gallery. We had a number of meetings with Gallery Director Ian Dejardin, Head Curator Xavier Bray, Antonia Coonan and other members of the management team and over time their wish list – which at one time included items like a donation box, a lectern and an art materials trolley – was whittled down to the plinth. They had a number of very practical functional requirements for the piece – in particular, that it had to be moveable – but they were happy to leave the details of the design almost entirely to me.
How long did the plinth take you to make?
On and off, close to a year. By far the most time-consuming and technically challenging sections were the arches on the sides and the doors at each end.
Talk us through the plinth’s design. What do you think are its strengths and influences?
The influences are easy: I tried to visualise what Sir John Soane, the architect of the Gallery, would allow in this magical space. How could I pay tribute to that wonderful, stripped-down classicism? How could I make what Xavier Bray, was so keen on: something “Soanean: very austere, very simple”, as he put it?
What I came up with in the end incorporated virtually all the parts of a very simplified classical architectural order: starting at the top, the cornice; the frieze of hand-cut dentils, or dogtoothing; the pilasters or flattened columns; the blind arcades; and the base. The round-arched niches in particular feature in some of the other Soane properties I visited while working on the design: Pitzhanger Manor-House in Ealing, St Peter’s Church in Liverpool Grove, Camberwell, and Soane’s own house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
I think the finished product has got a certain dignity, but modesty too: it doesn’t try to force itself on the viewer and deliberately doesn’t overwhelm anything else in the room. “Everything in the Gallery is about proportion rather than scale”, as Gallery Director Ian Dejardin told me: “Great simple shapes that make the place look monumental.”
In terms of materials, the Gallery was looking for a dark wood, and I gave them oiled samples of a number of timbers before they settled on the walnut. The walnut is opulent, I suppose, especially the dramatic swirls in the door panels and in the six arched niches, but that’s just the inherent beauty of a natural material. It’s not shouting at the viewer; it’s just calmly saying “look what nature can do, all by itself.” No gilding, no carved mythical beasts.
Academically I’m certain my attempts are crude, but I hope I’ve achieved some of what Xavier and Ian were looking for.
Did you encounter any problems during the construction of the plinth? How did you overcome these?
Looking back, I think that what I designed would have been relatively easy to make in stone. A master mason could have done it without too much trouble. But to be totally honest, it was a pretty impractical proposition for a cabinetmaker working by hand in wood. I constantly had to think about factors like expansion and shrinkage, grain direction, strength and stability, matching figure and colour, and how to do the complex engineering.
There were times when conventional joints wouldn’t do, and I had to improvise adaptations and combinations. But a lot of my problems stemmed from the unpredictability of the timber. English walnut seems to have lots of invisible fault lines, where hidden weaknesses and sudden changes in the structure of the wood can turn a routine bit of joinery into a near-disaster. Little flakes or sometimes big chunks had a very unhelpful habit of breaking off suddenly.
Of course you never stop making mistakes in cabinetmaking – it’s the way you learn – but being able to cope with catastrophe and retrieve the situation is what counts.
How does this piece compare to your previous projects? What are the personal highlights of your past works?
It’s a lot more elaborate than most of my previous work, and on a totally different scale. In some ways it’s been like building six or eight cabinets in one huge single project. All my earlier commissions now look a bit elementary to me in comparison, although I confess I do love the suite of three desks in pippy oak. They feel so rustic.
I hope there’s a recognisable thread running through all my work, both in the look and the feel. It’s a shockingly immodest thing to say, but perhaps some learned antiques dealer in a future century running an eye over the plinth might be able to say, “Ah yes, that’s clearly a Segal.” And if not, then the little maker’s mark sunk into the back of the door should provide a helpful clue!
Do you admire any other carpenters, cabinetmakers or architects? Does anybody influence your practice?
I guess in England my greatest motivation has come from three architects, Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers, Sidney and Ernest, who set themselves up as furniture makers in rural Gloucestershire 100 years ago and produced really revolutionary work, working mostly with local materials and learning from local craftsmen. I also like C. F. A. Voysey’s more flamboyant pieces, the elegance of Philip Webb’s work and the simplicity of Ambrose Heal. And I admire traditional Japanese carpentry too, its simplicity and strength.
One of the pillars of Arts and Crafts thinking is respect for the vernacular: for simple, conservative style, and for the country carpenters who could build unpretentious, functional and sturdy chairs, dressers, chests and tables that displayed great balance and harmony. It’s that blend of utility and beauty, that natural evolution of style, and that respect for the past that’s always worth striving for.
All of the timber comes from within 50 miles of Dulwich. Was it important to you to locally source the timber? How hard was it to find your materials?
It’s really important to me to use local timber. For one thing, it re-establishes the link that traditional village woodworkers once had with the woods on their doorstep: using what was available and working in step with woodsmen. It avoids pointless “timber miles”, using dirty bunker oil to ship wood in from distant forests or plantations where environmental management is often questionable. It relieves pressure on tropical forests, where demand from overseas has brought many species to the verge of extinction. And it encourages foresters and landowners in Britain to plant and husband more native hardwoods and generate a valuable raw material.
English walnut is expensive and hard to find – the wood in timber yards is usually from old garden specimens approaching the end of their life and infested with rot – but I believe there are one or two growers in this country now planting it for timber as well as the nuts.
What about English walnut do you find preferable to American walnut?
It’s more variable, more dramatic and wilder, just like English cherry in comparison with American cherry. To me, most North American timbers look over-managed, a bit bland and homogenous, with all the ‘defects’ successfully bred out – in other words, typical products of commercial plantations.
Now that kind of uniformity is vital if you’re working on a big architectural project, say, or a batch of identical pieces. But a one-off commission deserves something unique – although, as I mentioned, that same wildness makes English walnut very unpredictable and sometimes infuriating in use compared to its U.S. counterpart.
Did you look to any other pieces of furniture within the Gallery for inspiration?
I wish I could say that I did, but in truth it was more important to me – and certainly to the Gallery management – to build something quiet, practical and perhaps less ornate than some of the furniture on display. The plinth mustn’t distract the visitor from the model that it supports, from the furniture collection or from the paintings, but it should humbly reflect the architecture and dignity of the environment. I wanted it to do for the model what Soane did for the paintings: in other words, to provide a subtle, functional and understated environment that shows them at their best.
Do you see a comfortable relationship between the style in which you constructed the plinth and the William Morris Arts and Crafts movement, or did you have to alter your working methods and designs for this commission?
The furniture I design and make is inspired by, but not ruled by, the 19th century English Arts and Crafts movement. For some people ‘Arts and Crafts’ has come to signify a particular style, eminently collectible these days, but for me it’s much broader than that. It means a set of radical principles that rejected commercialism and vulgarity, promoted simplicity and functionality, and reasserted the importance of craft, creativity, beauty and nature in work and everyday life.
It’s an approach to handwork, materials and labour, rather than a prescriptive style to copy slavishly. As long as I can adhere to that approach, and as long as I feel I’m doing something sustainable and ethically sound, I’ll be happy with my work and comfortable that I’m continuing the tradition. Individual designs should emerge naturally.
In terms of appearance alone, I suppose the neo-classicism of the plinth is a bit of a departure for me. After starting out fascinated with Gothic Medievalism, like the Arts and Crafts pioneers, I’ve come to respect the classical orders and increasingly admire the beauty of Georgian design as I’ve got older.
I hope people can see the plinth as an organic development from my earlier pieces. It’s still got that chunky, utilitarian and maybe rough-hewn look, especially compared with the delicacy of much of Soane’s work. But that’s because it’s a working piece of furniture, designed to do a job well and last for many generations.
I barely had to change my working methods at all for this commission. All my joints are hand-cut with traditional saws and chisels, and all the surfaces are smoothed with hand planes. I did get some help from technical specialists towards the end of the project, though. There are hidden workings to the plinth that the public will never see: a high-tech system of retractable wheels and steering arms designed and manufactured by Dorset-based engineer Paul Edmondson that allow the piece to be easily and safely manoeuvred by staff between the main Gallery and the cloister. That’s despite its enormous weight – approaching 150 kg.