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Fine furniture & woodwork by David Upfill-Brown – Review by Meredith Hinchliffe

Fine furniture & woodwork by David Upfill-Brown
Bungendore Wood Works Gallery

Until January 28, 2014

Although David Upfill-Brown is well known in the fine furniture-making scene, he is perhaps not so well known to those outside the circle.  In the 1970s, he was carving in wood and stone in Central and Southern Africa.  He then decided to focus on furniture and in 1980/81 studied furniture making and design at the John Makepeace School, Parnham, in England.  From 1982 to 1999 with his wife Hermione he ran a bespoke furniture workshop in Tharwa near Canberra.

He taught part time at the Wood Work Shop at the Australian National University and was appointed inaugural academic director of the Australian School of Fine Furniture in Tasmania in 2000.  He was the lead instructor at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine, USA for five years and moved back to Australia.  He continues to teach for up to three months annually in Maine.

Upfill-Brown’s website says that David believes that to begin to understand wood one has first to work it by hand and that once hand methods become habitual it is often more economical for bespoke or one-off furniture makers to work manually than to rely entirely on machinery.  Well-developed hand skills and his knowledge of his materials, also allow him to push the boundaries of design.  This is not to suggest that he eschews machinery when appropriate.

This fine furniture-maker loves the Australian bush and walks in it regularly.  When teaching at the Sturt Workshop, he walked on top of the Illawarra escarpment and now lives below it.  The cones from a plant that is found in the Sydney Basin Isopogon anethifolius or narrow-leaved drumsticks attracted his attention and he researched it and developed a series of tables whose tops capture the random, bushy and spiky foliage of the shrub.  Each table has a unique stance, with delicate fine legs, like twiggy branches from which cones sprout, holding the top.

The tops are also a reflection of a technique he has seen in New England exhibitions cracked ice – a form of marquetry.  Close observers will find a surprise on the under-side of the tops.

The central work in the exhibition is the Cabot Cabinet, a piece of furniture that evokes the delicacy and fine balance of a lightly elegantly- poised insect.  Four small drawers are held in the fronds of a plant, with a larger pair of drawers set in the fleshier part of the strappy leaves.  In contrasting colours of American Cherry, hard maple and Queensland silver ash, it is a striking work of art. 

Chairs are an area in which David Upfill-Brown has considerable finesse.  The exhibited chairs start from a similar design, with the back forming the back legs, a generous rounded seat and elegant front legs and arms.  The Blade chairs juxtapose sharp corners with the delicate curves of the legs and arms.  Thinking of his attraction to the foliage of his surroundings, I can’t but help think the back is formed from two large, flat leaves.  The back of the Burnt Orange chair – the name coming from the deep orange suede seat – softens the forthright and crisp back of the Blade chair.  Six strappy, curved leaves give the back a more fluid appearance, emphasising the sensuous flow of the arms and legs.  

David Upfill-Brown uses the colours of timber and elements of the work as the intrinsic decoration to the work.  He is a master of many wood working techniques and several are evident in the furniture on exhibition.  His work is understated and elegant. 

It is some time since David Upfill-Brown has had a solo show and this is a considerable body of work for a fine furniture-maker to be presenting in an exhibition.  It is outstanding and deserves our attention and close inspection. 

©  Meredith Hinchliffe
January 13, 2014

Wednesday 15 January 2014