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Maker of the month: Angus Ross on skill, sustainability and steam-bending

Angus’ practice consists of three fundamental pillars: design, craftsmanship and wood. 

From industrial pharmaceutical design to a cabinet making course to working directly from a sustainable, co-owned Scottish woodland, these pillars developed alongside his career while nurturing his value system along the way.

With a “Good Life type” childhood spent in and out of his father’s metal workshop and “making things from clothes, to woodwork bird houses and odds and sods”, Angus was initiated into the craft world practically from birth. At school the art department played a prominent role, but like a lot of young artists he was at a loss when it came to further education. “I discovered this course called Industrial Design, which seemed to blend art, science and technology. I got a bit of a realisation that things are actually designed… you take objects for granted a lot of the time; we don't think about their creation”. Cue Angus’ first pillar. At Napier University Edinburgh, he received a “very good all-round education” engaging in psychology, painting, materials, techniques, technologies and the “classic approach to industrial design in line with the Bauhaus ‘form follows function’ principal”.

As expected, most students went into commercial product design and Angus was no exception. Starting at Glaxo Smith Klein, he worked on drug delivery systems using injection moulded plastic (think asthmatic inhalers) and then moved on to Bissell where he designed for MotherCare, Boots and Marks and Spencer. With lots of freedom to create, “it was a great place to work as an industrial designer. We had 26 injection moulding machines, an assembly line out the back and design office at the front, so the whole thing was integrated from design and prototyping to testing and through to production”.

But this was the early 90s, and the recession hit big. As consumer and business confidence fell “the development budget for products from MotherCare, Boots and M&S just dropped off the planet”. A couple of years prior to this Angus had taken a sabbatical and gone to Kenya to help build schools in the outback: “I’d got a slight realisation about how little you need to live on…. When I came back, I always had in the back of my mind – we’re generating this huge volume of plastic and where is it going? I started to think, this isn’t really what I want to do… I want to develop my own work that will be, in a lot of ways, more sustainable. And that’s when I started looking at wood”.

Step one was to learn more about the material, so he enrolled in a cabinet making course at Rycotewood college in Thame – another “fantastic, very intensive course for people over 25 who were looking for changes in career”. They started with back-to-basics hand tools and a small table, and through a series of projects looking at chairs, cabinets, tables and finally developing his own design work, Angus achieved a “very good, though brief grounding, in manufacturing wood”. Cue Angus’ second pillar: craftsmanship. 

Medicine Cabinet, 1992, made at Rycotewood College and shown at New Designers 1992

From here, Angus took his piece ‘Medicine Cabinet’ to the 1992 edition of New Designers, where it was highly praised. Built using all-natural materials for his wife Lorna who was working as a community midwife, the cabinet could store a collection of aromatherapy oils, and had two small lidded drawers in the centre that could be pulled out to take to home births. Inspired by the “sense of mystery and magical healing power” imbued in Beninese witch doctor masks, as well as in aromatherapy and childbirth itself, Angus made the front and back of the cabinet look the same so that “it was not obvious initially how it ‘worked’”. “These are the differences between one-off bespoke pieces and mass manufacture: it was for a specific person, for a specific function, and it had a rich narrative”. 

Angus then spent nine years in a shared workshop with two other craftsmen, before heading back up to Aberfeldy, Perthshire Scotland, in 2003 to set up his own workshop in an old joinery workshop. Here, “a forester came to see me one afternoon and said he had just got an opportunity to buy 55 acres of oak woodland, and he was looking to put a group of people together who might be interested in using the timber”. Four families, some foresters and an environmentalist later cue not a bad joke but Angus’ third pillar: the woodland.

“It’s a bit of ancient woodland. For about 100 years the woods have been used for coppicing oak trees, growing until they were about 25 years old, when they were cut down and the bark sticks and oak were used for tanning in the production of leather. That stopped when using oak to tan leather came to an end and the First World War reduced people working on the land. The woods were left to their own devices. A lot of the trees growing today are around 100-120 years old, while the root systems underneath are probably about 200-300 years old” 

Winged Shelter, 2002. Angus was the lead artist for the Phoenix Trail public commission for Sustrans

The wood is not high-quality timber as you might find in France where “they have beautiful stands of nice tall, straight, well looked after trees that go into fine furniture and woodwork” but instead is “more gnarled and old, coming out at different angles, pippy and knotty”. Now Angus embraces the eccentricities of wood that he may well have rejected in the early years of his practice: “I want to make it work,” he says, and he most certainly does. By selectively thinning the overcrowded woodland he and his team are creating space around stronger trees, while the increased light improves biodiversity (oaks have the most associated species of wildlife than any other UK native trees, from bacteria and fungi to birds and mammals).

As a natural material wood continues to move and breathe, expanding and contracting with moisture. With the help of his dedicated team, Angus specialises in steam-bending: an ancient process whereby steam is used to soften the glue between the undried green oak’s fibres. This provides a brief window for the wood to be bent and sculpted into new and exciting shapes, using both traditional techniques and modern technologies. “We tend to fell the trees in autumn and early winter and leave them for about a year as a full log before we slice them up. When you take that first cut through the log and see what the grain is like within it – that’s a really exciting moment. If it’s nice and straight with no pips or knots we’ll use it for steam bending, or if it’s really characterful with lots of knots and a wild grain then we might use it for tabletops or cabinet tops or a chair seat”.

Dressing Table, 2018, with Unstable Stool, Angus' first steam-bent product designed in 2009  

After New Designers, Angus had drifted into doing commissioned work and thanks to his idiosyncratic style and open approach they just kept coming in… “I try to develop a narrative that resonates with the client and produce something that becomes personal to them and that space”. This commitment to the unique needs of his clients has challenged his practice and allowed it to grow exponentially. His latest commission? A whole library, complete with shelving, desks, chairs, sofas, hidden doors (sadly no secret rooms), sliding ladders, a balcony and railings, which will be installed in Connecticut where “we just have to hope we got our measurements right!”. Where these pieces require meticulous design and 3D model-building, for his personal exhibition pieces Angus relinquishes control, and heads straight to the bench to “sketch in wood”.

Angus has been making for over 25 years. To those starting out he suggests you “go to as many workshops as you can because if you ask 10 woodworkers how to make one thing you’ll probably get 10 different answers about how to do it.” To those who don’t make, he hopes you might: “For millennia people have been hunting and gathering, making tools and pots, gardening and things… It all speaks to the hand to head link. For the last hundred years or so that link has been broken, and if people could get back to it, I think there’d be a lot less mental angst.” You heard the man, get crafting!

Peruse the Directory (including Angus' profile) here!

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