Carving out a career

Claire Darwent in her Brunner Road workshop
Claire Darwent in her Brunner Road workshop

Meet the Walthamstow furniture designer who turns school desks into kitchen workshops, writes Judith Burnett

I visited Claire Darwent, a furniture designer and maker, in her workshop in Brunner Road, Walthamstow.

Claire, carrying protective glasses and a hammer, showed me into her capacious workshop. Light poured in from skylights, illuminating benches, jigs and sanders, large-scale machinery, jam jars of small tools and brushes, and walls lined with shelves of boxes, tins and tubes. The scent of planed maple and tung oil filled my nostrils.

“Welcome to my world,” she said. Claire discovered design and furniture-making while on a one-year placement in Berlin for her languages degree. She explained: “I went to Berlin in 1988 and promptly fell in love with the place.

“ They were offering three-year funded apprenticeships in furniture making as part of a special scheme for women.

“I already knew I wasn’t destined for an office job, and besides, it looked much more exciting than translation. I was offered a place with master carpenter Andreas Bruggener in his Kreuzberg firm.”

As soon as she got her machine licence Claire began to learn a highly technical, construction-based approach “directly informed by German modernism and the Bauhaus”.

This grounding has stayed with Claire throughout 30 years of making furniture. She is inspired by Charles Rennie McIntosh, Japanese tradition, and Scandinavian makers. She gets out to see exhibitions whenever she can.

“I take pleasure from the knowledge that my pieces won’t fall apart and don’t end up on the scrap heap. I take time to develop things and I like to get it right. There is nothing like the final ‘ta-dah’ moment, seeing the piece in situ”.

Sustainability and recycling are key to Claire’s practice and she uses sustainable hardwood such as walnut and ash imported from North America and continental Europe. She is currently using ex-school science workbenches made from reclaimed iroko, a tropical hardwood, which come complete with holes from Bunsen burner fittings, stains and graffiti.

“I get rid of the damage but find ways to leave some of the character, some of the history, as I remaster them. They make great kitchen worktops, among other things!”

Claire had been enjoying some playful creativity before my arrival. “I am taking my core principles and materials to build new kinds of jewellery,” she said, holding up a prototype necklace for me to see. A unique and beautiful object gleams in the fading afternoon light.

As we stroll out into St James Street, busy with people on their way to the station, Claire says: “I’m lucky with my job. It’s creative and I need to draw and plan, use maths and photography, and best of all, get to build things. I would recommend it to anyone!”

Find out more about furniture designer and maker Claire Darwent: