Sebastian Blakeley – Serendipity and the Refining of a Design Process

As Sotheby’s celebrate 280 years as an auction house, Sebastian Blakeley celebrates 40 years since setting up his first workshop in Wadhurst, East Sussex. Prior to setting up his first workshop Sebastian had undertaken three years of a cabinet-making apprenticeship and a year working in and learning furniture restoration.

About Sebastian Blakeley

Sebastian is a product designer who is also an accomplished craftsman with skills ranging from furniture restoration and cabinet-making to metal fabrication. His aesthetics have been heavily influenced by 12 years living and working in Italy. From very early on in his career Sebastian was drawn to designing and creating his own concepts. Initially it was private commissions that allowed him his own creativity. Eager to learn and expand his creative skills, opportunities seemed to open up new doorways and directions for him. Chance meetings and a lot of serendipity led him to Tuscany, initially to help restore a 13th century farmhouse, but as the restoration drew to a close, Sebastian who, by now felt so at home in Italy, opened a workshop in Ville di Corsano, just south of Siena. The workshop soon attracted the attention of locals looking for something unusual and also local architects, some of whom asked Sebastian to develop their own prototypes. A continual flow of diverse and interesting projects ensued.

sebastian blakely
Antelope chair. This chair, inspired by the stylised forms in early cave paintings, is constructed in American Black Walnut with polished and powder coated CNC-cut aluminium legs. Upholstered in a cotton velvet.

Unique Handcrafted Furniture For Luxury Living

However it was his regular trips to see architectural student friends in Milan, driving around Milan and visiting furniture shows that really ignited a passion in him to find his own style and build on his skills and creativity. Serendipity again played a role in a chance meeting with a young man who had inherited a small tubular steel furniture factory from his late father. Unclear in how to move forward with the workshops, Sebastian teamed up with Simone, and over the next couple of years learned and mastered tubular steel fabrication, bending, braising and welding. It was in these workshops that Sebastian really started to experiment with form and function, creating his first series of tubular steel and fabricated steel prototypes.

It was Simone who suggested that in the case of his designs, namely the Antilope, Mantide, Toro and Parlare Chairs (seen on this page) that it would be a better to use cast aluminium rather than steel. Introducing him to the owner of a non-ferrous metal foundry in Poggibonsi Sebastian immediately recognised that this was the material he had been looking for. The boss of the foundry took Sebastian under his wing and taught him the intricacies of mould-making and the technicalities of molten metals.

sebastian blakely
The Toro chair. Capturing the dynamic of a wild bull, constructed in American Black Walnut with polished and powder coated CNC-cut aluminium legs. Upholstered in Cow hide.

This connection opened up a new and exciting world that inspired and motivated Sebastian to delve further into the Italian industrial design process. With this new found knowledge and the acquired skills Sebastian designed and created his first tangible series of designs, prototypes that combined his fine timber craftsmanship with industrially produced, sand-cast, aluminium components.

Having already developed in Simone’s workshop three tubular prototypes, designs that incorporated the idea of being able to ‘dress’ the chair in different ‘clothing’ to suit different occasion, armed with these two design concepts/collections Sebastian plucked up the courage to arrange a series of meetings with some of Italy’s finest furniture houses, Cassina, B&B Italia, Georgetti, Bernini and Sawaya & Moroni to name a few, orchestrating meetings and conversations with some of the top architects and founders.

Relationship – B&B Italia: Contemporary Furniture

Frederico Busnelli of B&B Italia and Doctor Moroni of Sawaya & Moroni were delightfully ‘candid’ in their opinion of British design and obviously highly complimentary of the Italian industrial design process, urging Sebastian to study in depth the relationship between the materials he was using and to understand and adopt the Italian component-build concept.

Unlike the British approach to furniture design and making, where the piece is viewed ‘holistically’, approaching construction with the whole finished piece in mind, the Italians break the design down into individual elements/components, and each element is then developed and refined with the objective of being able to be reproduced easily or at least relatively easily. Each individual component can be and often is viewed as a work of art in itself.

sebastian blakely
The Mantide chair, drawing on the dynamic of a praying mantis, constructed in American Black Walnut with polished and powder coated CNC-cut aluminium legs.

Spurred on by these meetings and combining his new found metalwork skills with his already accomplished woodwork skills, it is at this point in his career that Sebastian’s signature design approach begins to show itself very clearly, with hand-crafted, hand-finished tactile woodwork combined with extremely high quality industrially produced non ferrous metal and/or tubular steel components, the industrial cast aluminium (now CNC cut) or metal components expressing the organic linear forms of his designs, and the sensual, tactile but often geometric woodwork, providing the structure and the sense of classic craftsmanship.

This combination of traditional woodwork with contemporary metal work, the simplicity and elegance of linear form, with carefully studied ergonomics give Sebastian’s designs the ability to grace both contemporary and classical interiors with a flourish that will transcend time and fashion. It is this refinement of each singular element of Sebastian’s designs that allow his designs to stand out in the crowd as contemporary classic collectables.

Sebastian’s latest realisation is the Sebastian Blakeley Design workshops in South Devon, where he and his team continue this journey of creativity. Adhering to his own version of very high-end component built furniture, he continues to refine and redefine the art of his design process. Not only designing and developing new prototypes, the workshops also take on private commissions, designing and creating extraordinary statement works of art for clients all over the world.

Process – Bespoke Luxury Furniture

In the case of a private commission Sebastian will seek to understand and comprehend exactly what is is that the client is wishing to achieve. The interior design of the property where the piece will sit, the environment and country of the property, who will be using the commission and how it will be used – Sebastian will draw on all of these factors to then be able to visualise a concept, conceive an idea. At this point concept sketches can be produced and a to-and-fro communication allows the client to have full participation in the design process and eventual final outcome.

The Parlare chair. A play on suspended form with rigid and organic elements. Constructed in American Black Walnut, polished CNC-cut aluminium legs and upholstered in an Italian black leather.

It is profoundly important to Sebastian and his team that they deliver way beyond expectation. When it comes to a private commission there is no imposition on the part of Sebastian. In his own words, ‘ private commissions are all about relationships and collaborations’.

Sebastian has an ever-growing portfolio of designs that can be used as points of reference, as springboards from which a client can customise and tailor their individual commissions. His signature chair designs can be customised to a client’s individual taste and interior design. The workshop keeps up to speed with breakthrough technology and materials and above all, creates furniture with the singular objective that these statement works of art will undoubtedly become the design classics of tomorrow, 21st century collectables.

Photos by Steve Tanner

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