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  • Rustic Stool in maple, part of Mark Laban’s furniture collection from his 2016 Design MA

When man meets machine

Furniture designer, Mark Laban talks tradition and technology

‘I’m very St Martins,’ furniture designer Mark Laban tells me midway through our interview. And he’s not wrong. In fact, he appears to have seen the college from all sides, having studied there for foundation, followed by a BA in fine art and then worked as a technician in its workshops. This summer he graduated from the Design MA course with a series of intriguing furniture pieces that deftly combine a traditional hand-made sensibility with cutting-edge technology.

While there’s undoubtedly a debt owed to Japanese design and that nation’s penchant for a pared-back aesthetic, what really sets his chairs, stools and benches apart is the three-dimensional patterns he creates on the underside of the seats, backs and legs using a CNC machine. As he puts it, he’s working in ‘an intersection where I can see a new opportunity. I’m re-examining or re-interpreting or sometimes challenging something contemporary or something traditional with the other.’

We meet in CSM’s workshops, which are largely empty during the summer, and where the designer-maker is working once again as a technician until his business takes off – though he’s decided to cut back his hours. ‘Working here too much is like having your nose against the sweetshop window,’ he explains. ‘You want to do your own stuff but you’re constantly doing others’ work.’ He is able to use the equipment during the evenings, but he’s aware that he can’t run his business through the college.

It’s the week before the London Design Festival is due to open and he’s wrapping up a couple of his graduation pieces, made from American maple, for the college’s show. Meanwhile, he has new pieces – this time created from planks of oak – on the Corinne Julius-curated Future Heritage stand at Decorex.

At the moment you sense he’s still getting to grips with his work, realising he’s potentially on to something good but in the process of forging his design personality. Unlike Sebastian Cox, for instance, the type of timber he uses isn’t yet part of his ongoing narrative. ‘It’s not part of my identity that I’m working with British hardwoods,’ he says. ‘But I’m happy to experiment with it. Initially I liked how pale and how pure maple was. It was a ghostly canvas to work with.’ 

For Decorex though he says he’s ‘pushing a bit more on that sense of rusticity’. Working in a different material has provided a few new challenges: ‘You get a different kind of breakout with the grain. It’s something I’m still learning. With every wood there’s a slightly different machine setting,’ he confirms.

Laban became interested in art from a young age. Born in London’s Palmers Green, his father was a graphic designer for an advertising agency before he started a business restoring classic motorbikes. ‘I think I get a bit of my hands-on, enquiring nature from him because he takes things apart and puts them back together again.’ He decided to study art during his GCSEs. ‘It was the only subject I really enjoyed,’ he recalls. ‘It was kind of a no-brainer… I hadn’t considered that a lot of artists don’t eat.’    

At that stage his work was conceptual and self-referential. However, during his studies he began to notice that his practical side gave him something different. ‘I realised if you’re a fairly pragmatic, hands-on person, you can get a lot done. There were many people doing a lot of thinking. There weren’t many picking up a drill or able to put up a shelf. So I just got into being handy – I was like the studio technician at times.’

Did he ever want to be a fine artist? ‘I sort of did but I wasn’t ambitious about it. I was very mindful of the immediate present – paying the rent, being able to eat… Back then I wasn’t brave enough to take a risk on it. I was just getting more and more into facilitating others, which was comfortable.’

It led to him being offered a part-time role as an assistant in the workshop at CSM and allowed him to play around with the college’s new CNC machine. ‘I discovered there’s a lot of interesting stuff you can do. I almost use it in an intuitive way, where not everything is as designed and considered in a conventional sense.’ In other words, he likes to play and experiment, producing in the process the fascinating patterns that adorn his furniture. ‘You’re meant to be careful and methodical, but I’m like: “Let’s see what it’s doing and react”.’

After Decorex he has a couple of commissions to work on, and in the future he wants his own workshop space (buying his own CNC machine might be a tougher challenge). ‘I definitely want to have a studio practice where I’m making commissioned one-off pieces. I’d be really happy at some point to work with furniture producers or someone who is willing to use me as a named designer, but I think that’s a way ahead yet.’ 


Photo: Camilla Greenwell