The Welsh artist's designs recall reptile skins and seashells
At the age of 10, Fflur Cadwaladr Owen began carving wood at her father’s home workshop in rural Snowdonia. That precocious enthusiasm for the material has never left her, and she now has her own studio at Cockpit Arts in Deptford, south London. Today, her projects start with wood (or occasionally clay), which she combines with leather. Using traditional techniques, she creates objects ranging from round-bottomed vessels to sinuous abstract sculptures. ‘I refer to them all as my Specimens, because I think of them as alive,’ she explains. ‘They’re always inspired by natural objects and textures that I’ve discovered on the beaches in Wales. I love collecting strange bits of wood that have washed up.’
When I visit the studio, I spot the bones of aquatic creatures and scaly skins pinned up alongside fashion photographs of Alexander McQueen’s creations. ‘I worked as an intern for McQueen for a while, and his sense that anything was possible really inspired me. I also love Kate MccGwire’s sculptures made with feathers, and work in wood by Eleanor Lakelin and David Nash.’
Owen studied fashion design, and it was during her final degree project that she discovered leather. ‘Rather than doing my research properly, I started to work with leather in the same way as I’d work with wood,’ she says. ‘I knew it wasn’t the right way, but I was really happy with what I came up with.’
After graduation, she worked as a design assistant for clothing retailer Karen Millen where, as she puts it, ‘I was always harassing the people in the accessory department, trying to learn more about leather.’ Hungry for more hands-on making, she applied for a Masters degree in accessories at the Royal College of Art with one aim: to develop leatherworking skills. She spent her days experimenting with moulding leather accessories over wooden forms. From her fascination with this process, the seeds of her practice were planted.
Winning a scholarship from The Leathersellers’ Company in 2015 gave Owen the funds to move into Cockpit Arts with the intention to make accessories. But, as she puts it: ‘I was obsessed with intricate textures, which weren’t practical. Each took so long to make that I had to charge a lot for them. I began making figures of animals instead, but that soon felt too literal.’
Today, it’s hard to imagine her creative approach as over-literal. While the surfaces of layered Specimens recall the scales of reptiles, and dotted designs are reminiscent of sea-urchin shells, all are open to imaginative interpretation. ‘Some people say they remind them of aliens and science fiction. I love hearing what different people see in my work,’ she says.
Each piece is created through a process that spans two workshops. The first is in Owen’s native North Wales, where she sources all her wood. ‘My family lives in a national park, so you can only fell non-indigenous trees. As a result, I use a lot of holly, which isn’t protected.’ This wood then dries over months or years, and once ready for use she carves on-site, before bringing the results back to London. ‘Using natural tannins, I then stain the wood. I gradually build up the intensity of the colour to get a rich, dark blue that shows off the grain.’ Next comes leather, which she works using traditional cordwaining techniques and tools. Each sculpture features hundreds – sometimes thousands – of small pieces of leather applied with glue to create geometrical patterns. This repetitive process is unsurprisingly time-consuming, and decorating a single piece can take weeks.
Sourcing leather is easier, but comes with ethical considerations. ‘I buy traditionally tanned leather from an Italian tannery; it’s a by-product of the meat industry. I don’t think it’s right to kill the animal just for the skin – at least this way, hides that might otherwise go to landfill are being used.’ Owen is careful to mention, too, that the water used in the vegetable leather-tanning process is purified before re-entering the Tuscan ecosystem. It’s clear that her commitment to the natural world goes beyond borrowing from its forms.
After having her first exhibition with other Cockpit Arts makers at Fortnum & Mason in May, the next challenge was London’s New Designers, where she was showcased among other rising talents in the ‘One Year In’ section during Part 1. For this show, Owen explored fresh ideas that complement her existing pieces. ‘I’ve been looking at historic cuir de Cordoue leather wall panels and playing with designs based on the techniques behind them,’ she explains. ‘These pieces are leather only, but I wet-mould the material using a wooden form. Once it’s dry, I can remove the wood and the leather will keep its shape. Wall works feel more resolved than other objects – you can easily imagine them in your home.’