Swiss designer Anthony Guex came to Fogo Island by way of Anniina Koivu, Fogo Island Workshops Design Consultant, author, and professor at the renowned École cantonale d'art de Lausanne (ECAL), a university of art and design. Anthony, a former student and now colleague of Anniina was asked to take part in the design of a new collection that rested on a premise for Premises; How can we connect the culture and experience of Fogo Islanders to an urban residential ones?
AK: What was your first impression, when you arrived on Fogo Island in the summer of 2018?
AG: I was probably most surprised to see that there was so little forest – after all, I had been invited to work on some wooden furniture pieces for the Fogo Island Woodshops. What I saw were low, wind beaten trees.
AK: Yes, we had invited you to spend a month’s time on the island and develop some kitchen furniture for the new collection that we were creating. As a trained cabinetmaker and designer, you began working right away alongside the team in the shop. What was your starting idea?
AG: I had some initial ideas in mind, I knew of yellow birch, the wood typically used on and around the island. But I tried to keep a clear head and not assume anything or get fixated on any detail, which might not turn out to make sense on Fogo.
AK: Your brief in fact was straightforward: create a new kitchen furniture collection that could be produced by the local woodshop. And that, at the same time, represents the attitude of Fogo’s people and makers.
AG: Pragmatic, stubborn, sweet natured and… what was it?
AG: Well, I think we managed quite well…
The first days I spent learning about the shop, its supply chain, machinery and how the craftspeople work – that was the most important point. There are different ways to create a wooden furniture piece, so it’s important to understand the available tools and how the makers use them.
AK: In a month’s time you created a table, a bench, a stool, and a chair which together form a family. Tell us about the distinct pattern of the wooden slats, that you used in all the individual pieces.
AG: On one hand, these wooden slats give the pieces their desired lightness, transparency, and sense of place – by the sea. On the other hand, the use of slats was a very pragmatic choice. In Switzerland, for example, wood arrives from the mill as raw cut wooden planks. But on Fogo the wood is delivered as cut-to dimension boards. I refrained from going bigger in size, because that would have caused unnecessary additional work – cutting and gluing. So, the idea of the slats and their dimensions came naturally to me.
AK: Taking advantage of the available slats was a very rational decision.
AG: Yes, after this key decision, the design questions developed quickly, and the collection fell into place.
Also aesthetically: after all, the linear, striped pattern of the slats can be seen everywhere on the island, in everything man-made, from the panelled facades of the houses to the interior walls and the linear wooden flooring…
AK: It’s great when furniture design comes together so simply. But there was a more complex element, too, that had to be solved to guarantee the great sitting comfort on the chair.
AG: We could have simply made a flat seat, which allows for good sitting comfort for a chair typically used in the kitchen. But to increase this, I wanted the chair’s seat to tilt slightly backwards.
In today’s furniture industry, such modelling is often done with the help of a CNC machine, which calculates the exact curvature of the seat. Since the summer 2018, things have evolved quickly and now there is also a CNC machine in the Fogo shop. But when we started, we had to find an alternative way of working the kitchen chair’s seat.
AK: Here we come to the question of different techniques.
AG: One of the shop’s craftsmen was a skilled carver and proposed to sculpt the seat by hand, like he already used to do with other pieces of the existing collection. Instead, you introduced another trick to the shop.
AG: I have less experience in carving and feared it’d be rather time-consuming to sculpt each of the five slats into a continuous curve. After all, an important point to the new collection was to make furniture that could be produced quickly.
AK: So, what’s the trick?
AG: Oh, it’s not rocket science. By adding an under structure to the seat, each slat can be glued to this. Thanks to the strong connection that keeps pulling each slat down, the curved slats stay in shape.
AK: Surprisingly, the slats on the tabletop are not a mere visual feature either. They too have a very straightforward reasoning behind them.
AG: Yes, I like to start from limitations. I feel it gives an object reason and meaning.
In general, a large tabletop is not the simplest thing to create. It needs specific machinery, and it takes time and precision to glue the planks together into a solid board. It was clear that we did not want to use more common options like particle boards, or veneered MDF panels. But rather, we wanted to continue to work in the tradition of massive wood. So, the choice of single slats laid out in a frame, with a little chamfer on their sides and a gap in-between them, was a very straightforward and simple solution. No extra work was needed, and the gap had the additional benefit of allowing for the wood’s natural movement throughout the seasons.
AK: Nevertheless, the open gaps were the subject of long discussions within the team. There were those who enjoyed the transparency of this layout, and the positive side effect of being an easy-to-clean surface. Others worried about crumbs falling onto the floor.
AG: I guess, here our stubbornness won out, don’t you think? It just feels and looks like the best solution. But then again, as the shop is evolving and new machines are coming in, we could start to imagine producing our own solid tabletops, too.
AK: You are never fixed on one, original idea.
AG: Of course not. The whole project comes from logical decisions in response to given limitations. If things change, I love to see variations to come about.
AK: And then came the armchair. A year later you were back to Fogo Island, this time working on a wooden armchair. Can you tell us about its beginnings?
AG: Again, the idea behind the armchair comes from a specific tool they have in the woodshop: the vertical shaper. With it, we were able to create a surprisingly simple construction for an armchair. It is basically a shell made of straight boards.
AK: Though the idea is not only pragmatic. You were once again inspired by something you had seen on the island.
AG: Yes, I was looking at how the typical wooden houses have been built…
AK: Throughout the centuries, they have been made as a simple balloon frame construction: a wooden beam construction that is paneled inside and outside with wooden boards.
AG: Exactly. But in some cases, the outer panels have fallen off. Take for example a stage on Little Fogo. What is being revealed is a structure with a surface on the inside. The armchair is just this: an external structure that holds a smooth shell to sit in. The chair is very architectural.
AK: These are only the first pieces of the new furniture collection. Called the Premises collection, the pieces will soon find their place in new family homes, developed on Fogo, which fulfill all of the requirements of a small modern family, while still fitting in with the scale of the community’s existing historical buildings.