The largest settlement in Dartmoor National Park with a population of just over 4,000 people, Ashburton, Devon, has been home to furniture designer Ambrose Vevers his entire life. His parents bought 20 acres of mixed woodland in the seventies and added a further 20 acres for Christmas trees in 2006. “I walk into these woods and can see the trees growing and I feel very connected to this land. Using these materials for my woodwork makes absolute sense to me. I actively manage this woodland where I coppice, fell and replant trees.” For Ambrose, sourcing sustainable, local and honest materials is the most important aspect of his work producing contemporary, made-to-order furniture.
The ash tree is abundant in Dartmoor. Both malleable and durable, it’s a prime choice for carving furniture. “I usually use ash but only when it has already been felled – either because it might have been falling and dangerous or due to overcrowding so the area needs to be thinned out,” explains Ambrose. “Sadly, a lot of these trees are getting Ash dieback and they’re just going to be cut up for firewood.” Dieback is a highly destructive condition, caused by disease or adverse environmental factors, that affects millions of Britain’s trees. “If I can use some of that wood to make beautiful furniture for people to enjoy for years to come instead of burning up more carbon dioxide, then that feels right.”
From a barn he built himself during his gap year after graduating from Falmouth College of Art, Ambrose employs traditional craft methods, some of which are hundreds of years old, to produce beautifully refined furniture. He steam bends, spokeshaves and block planes to create his pieces. At once delicate and robust, they afford a visceral quality that can only be achieved with hand tools. “I really enjoy the traditional techniques of English chair making. I don’t really like ornate turning, I like having clean lines, but even in this simplicity it’s carefully handcrafted. Each piece has a unique texture from the hand tools, which will age nicely and develop a patina.” Ambrose creates elegant, bespoke stools, streamlined benches and Windsor chairs with ash seats and rungs, cherry legs, all finished with a gentle wax (coming from his father’s bees) to highlight the ash grain or utilising further artisanal techniques, like shou sugi ban, a Japanese method that involves scorching the wood to preserve it.
Ambrose’s dedication to staying local extends to where his work finds its home. Shipping only within the UK, he can map his process from the very tree standing in the forest through to the owner of one of his finished pieces. “I don’t want to buy-in wood and not know where it’s come from just to churn out things. I like to go and cut down the tree, then sawmill it and season it for a year. I’m part of the whole process here.” With this careful usage, Ambrose can make one tree last for up to two years. “I select pieces of the tree that I know are good for certain things,” he says. This method, too, ensures he can make the most of every tree to avoid waste. “Even small offcuts I use for tongs and spatulas,” he adds.
These smaller items including tongs and chopping boards were part of his New Maker 2020 range for TOAST. Selected last year as one of five makers, Ambrose was offered production, design and business support as well as a platform to sell his pieces with full profits being returned to him. “I like making things that people use on a daily basis.” The spatulas and serving boards are now part of the House & Home range for TOAST. “I like the idea of these items being part of people’s everyday rituals, whether it’s stirring the porridge or taking the toast out of the toaster with tongs.”
Alongside his own projects, Ambrose takes great enjoyment from teaching workshops, offering contemporary stool-making courses and weekend bench-making courses. “It's very satisfying to share knowledge,” he says. “My most loyal customers have probably been on my course because they have a deeper appreciation of my work.” With syncopated movements the ash is planed, smoothed and assembled, a mindful routine where Ambrose gains as much knowledge from his workshop attendees as the skills he shares. “I learn a lot from teaching as I step back from my own process and see how elements can be simplified and improved,” he says.
With increasing demand for his courses and his work, Ambrose sees a growing passion for craftsmanship and a respect for the materials used. “I think there’s a fresh, new generation of people making in the UK. My dream is to build a few studios on this land for other makers to come and work from - sort of a community craft hub.” With an intrinsic appreciation and knowledge of the forest and a passion for creating long lasting works in wood that become more beautiful as they age, Ambrose has honed his own craft rituals that will remain forever bound to this treasured landscape.
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.
The Ambrose Vevers Scorched Ash Chopping Board and Scorched Ash Spatula for TOAST are available to order online.