Words by Hannah Tapping | Images by John Hersey
Handmade outdoor furniture designed to withstand Cornwall’s elemental forces.
The location of Mena Woodwork’s workshop couldn’t be more apt. Nestled within the historic country estate of Boconnoc, surrounded by ancient trees and an abundance of wildlife, carpenter Olly Hill takes inspiration from his surroundings and Boconnoc’s shared sense of tradition and values that inform his work. Keeping with tradition is something that has been part of Olly’s journey from the very beginning of his relationship with wood. “I only ever wanted to work with wood. I was very lucky that I was able to find a traditional apprenticeship and at age 17 was taken on by a carpenter for a three-year apprenticeship and never looked back,” explains Olly. “I’ve always loved making things, and for me there’s no effort involved, because it’s something I enjoy so much. It’s not like work. It’s a pleasure.”
Olly’s apprenticeship was very much in traditional domestic carpentry, working on houses, extensions, new builds and loft conversions, learning essential skills from experienced master craftsmen. While working, Olly slowly started building a workshop of his own, moving more into the joinery side, making bespoke pieces: “The transition was quite gradual because building the workshop was more of a hobby at the time, but it allowed me to take on interesting and more specialised work. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of infrastructure to set up in a joinery workshop, so I didn’t just jump into it overnight. I slowly bought up second-hand machinery and built it up over the years.”
Olly was unusually young to become a self-employed joiner, but such was his focus that as soon as he finished his apprenticeship, he started working for himself. “I literally just started off with a van and a few tools and slowly built up my reputation. The furniture came about because I wanted more of a challenge; I needed to be more creative. “I love woodwork, and all aspects of it, but I really wanted to home in on something that I enjoyed and could really get my teeth into.” Olly chose outdoor furniture as his creative outlet as he felt that it aligned with his preference for traditional techniques, sustainability and love for the outdoor environment.
“I was lucky enough to do some work for the renowned and respected Cornish garden designer, Sam Ovens, on one of his Chelsea Flower Show builds,” says Olly. Using the revered traditional joinery techniques, Olly designed and constructed a ‘shadow gap cabin’ using 102 intricate finger joints from Western red cedar. While working with Sam, Olly identified that the modern-yet-natural design and subtle aesthetic of the garden was not really reflected anywhere when it came to sourcing outdoor furniture. Identifying a gap in the market, Olly set about designing and creating the first prototypes for the Mena range. “The very nature of outdoor furniture is that it’s open to the elements. It gets rained on, then the sun dries it; it’s ravaged by the wind and variations in temperature. This means it has to be strong, robust and durable. The joinery techniques that I’ve learned over the years lend themselves perfectly to this and have provided me with solutions to many of the problems this throws up.” Olly’s intention was that his furniture should be able to brave all that the Cornish weather could throw at it as well as being able to withstand the test of time. It’s furniture that can be left outside all year round, its patina weathering over time, ageing gracefully and in keeping with its natural surroundings.
European kiln-dried oak is Olly’s material of choice for the main body of his furniture due to its consistency of grain, stability and the fact that it is felled using sustainable forestry methods. Mixed with this, Olly adds in windfall Cornish oak for its character, beauty and the fact that it lends itself so well to being steam bent. There is also a circular economy when it comes to sourcing the Cornish oak as it comes from the very woodlands that surround Olly’s workshops. When the wind blows and an oak is felled by the force of nature, Olly is able to purchase the tree from Boconnoc and then mill it in the estate’s own water-powered sawmill – one of the few that remain in the UK.
“The mill is just 200 yards from the workshop, and it’s like stepping into a little museum,” says Olly. “The sustainability of the raw oak that we mill there is unique; where else would you be able to saw timber from mighty oaks that have fallen just footsteps from the mill? Boconnoc’s woodsman, Will Geach, is teaching me how to run the mill to ensure that the knowledge is passed down the line.” The resulting timber is used to create the natural curves of the seat for the Huers Chair. “As the Boconnoc trees aren’t managed as such and grow in a more natural way, they tend to have quite a number of structural imperfections and knots. This means that I can’t use this wood for the structural elements of the chair, but I can for the seat as it’s fully supported by the European oak frame.”
The traditional techniques learned in his apprenticeship taught Olly how best to work with timber that is to be used outdoors and under stress. The naturally non-perishable oak, when combined the techniques Olly employs, allows each piece of Mena furniture to outlast any commercially made alternative. The chairs, tables and benches are designed to be left untreated, instead taking on the subtle, silver patina of naturally weathered oak. Form and function grow organically from timber and technique; Olly decides on which joints he wants to utilise and the design emerges as a result.
For example, as Olly explains: “The joint I use on the corner of the frame for the table and bench is a bridle joint. The two pieces of wood intersect each other and then they are connected with an oak peg that goes into the joint. I also use a half lap joint, which I fix with traditional stainless steel slotted screws, that remain exposed. I love to look at things where nothing’s hidden; where you can just see straight away what’s going on and how the furniture has been constructed. There are no frivolous design elements, the details come from the construction. So, the bridle joint is used because it’s structurally the best joint in that application. The fact that it looks good and adds a little detail with the intersection of the timbers is secondary. Yes, it adds detail, but it’s not frivolous detail, it’s part of the heart of the piece.”
Olly admits that the journey from concept to finished product is something of an inefficient trial and error process. He explains that with the chair, the basic ergonomics are a given, based on tried-and-tested measurements and angles that have been informing furniture designers for years. “The human body doesn’t change so I was able to use basic design principles for the Huers Chair and then just keep tweaking the angles and proportions until it felt as comfortable as it could be. It’s designed as a conversational chair, one that you can sit more upright in, with a drink in hand.” Cornwall’s climate very much determines the style of the Mena furniture. The chair is quite squat, wider than it is long and that’s a conscious choice on Olly’s part. “My furniture is designed so that you can leave it out all winter, even in a gale of wind, and not worry about it. It’s also made that way to take advantage of those sometimes-fleeting dry spells and moments of sunshine we get in Cornwall in the shoulder seasons – I wanted there to always be a place to sit in comfort, even if for a few minutes.”
Olly’s designs are timeless, their look classic. Each is made by hand and the range is small but perfectly formed: “I believe that in order to produce furniture to a high standard, you’ve got to reduce down the amount you do, and really focus in on nailing the details on a few smaller pieces. Much of my pieces share the same design DNA, but are just changed and adjusted slightly to keep them interesting and have a personality of their own.”
Both history and science inform the form for Olly: “The Lantic Table has the same legs and connecting braces as the Lantic Bench, just scaled up. The idea for this particular joint came while watching a history documentary on Hampton Court Palace. There was a kitchen table in the background of a shot, that was likely made in the 15th century, and it had the very joint I had been looking for. It was something of a Eureka moment! Basically, the legs are connected to the top planks with one giant dovetail joint which, as it swells and contracts, allows the planks to slide along as they expand and contract. However, because they don’t contract and expand evenly, they twist slightly across the grain locking the dovetail tighter. When I put it all together in the workshop, it goes together with zero tolerance, with two dovetails lubricated with oil in order to slide them together. Then, when they go outside, the magic happens and the joint is tightened by the elements – basically, the worse the treatment the table and benches get from the weather the stronger they become. It’s very labour intensive and by no means cost effective, but I just love doing it.”
Olly is a Cornishman through and through and its elements suffuse the furniture: “The whole idea behind the collection is that it can be battered, especially by the coast. It can get pretty rough, wild and wet in Cornwall, and Mena furniture is just fine with that. It can just sit there and take it. I wish I could say that I’m inspired by the form of a wave or the shape of the cliffs, but it’s simpler than that. I’m just a little wood geek!”
Olly’s intention is to take the idea of outdoor furniture one stage further this year, foraying into the world of bespoke outdoor kitchens. When not whittling away in his workshop Olly spends his time outdoors, dog walking, spear fishing or surfing depending on the weather, and so it seems fitting that his work reflects his love of the natural world and the fact that it’s this environment that challenges and drives his creativity.