Joining digital and traditional
Words Vilma Paasivaara
Photographs Thom Atkinson
Furniture maker and designer Jan Hendzel talks about setting up his own studio, how to bring together the digital world and traditional craft as well as the importance of having fun…
Even on a cold spring day, Jan Hendzel’s studio is filled with light that pours in through the tall windows into the high room filled with tools, timber slabs leaning against the walls, and a couple of machines spread around. A staircase leads up to a small office which looks over the workshop. There are computers and sketches spread on the long desk but we sit at the sturdy dining table which was one of the studio’s first commissions. ‘We got a really amazing commission from UAL to produce a range of furniture, which is what we’re sat on,’ Hendzel explains. ‘It was amazing. We really put a lot of time and effort into it and it helped set the workshop up.’ For three years now, this has been like a second home to Hendzel and the guys he works with. ‘There’s a whole family around the workshop. It’s not just me, it’s my name, Jan Hendzel studio, but it’s a lie to say it’s just me cause it’s a solid team effort.’
Hendzel began working with his hands early on, starting as an apprentice at 15 years old in a pattern studio his father worked at. That is where he first learned the basics of manual work and what eventually got him into making. ‘You learn a lot of hand skills, not furniture making or cabinetry, but you understand material consequences accuracy, measuring, angles…’ he says. After having worked hard and risen through the ranks he found himself made redundant because of a CNC machine, which as he puts it ‘could do ten men’s work in an afternoon.’
That is when Hendzel decided to go back to school and went to study product design at Central Saint Martins. During his degree, he started working with a cabinet maker in London and eventually he went on to co-found his first collaborative studio in Peckham – with some old machinery acquired from his former boss. ‘I had just finished my first year and I signed a three-year lease on this pretty sizeable workshop and then the rest is history,’ Hendzel says smiling, ‘and that was now 12 years ago.’ Though the partnership found success, after a while Hendzel felt he wanted to start his own studio. ‘I wanted my own thing, to be free and not distracted,’ he says. That was when he moved to his current workshop and the start of Jan Hendzel studio. ‘I felt pretty lonely here,’ he admits, ‘but little by little I built it up.’
When I ask him how he would define their work he replies ‘fun’ without missing a beat. ‘We’ve got a lot of technical ability in the workshop, we like the challenge of how things join and go together but that is a time-consuming process – so we try to have fun.’ Traditional Japanese joinery is one of Hendzel’s specialities and the technicality of woodworking is what he seems most passionate about. ‘I like to explore the way things come together,’ he says, ‘whether simply through the texture of two timbers or the joinery and how that locks together.’ He pulls apart some of the model joints to reveal the patterns of holes and pins that are hidden underneath the deceptively simple appearance. The accuracy and problem solving of these ancient techniques are one of his biggest inspirations. ‘We’re into complicated things, I don’t know why,’ he says with a laugh. But almost as if to balance it out Hendzel often combines those complex technical concepts, such as the joinery, with playful details that give his work a whimsical streak.
In the workshop, most of the work is done by hand, with traditional techniques and tools, but they also embrace the use of technology or machines. ‘We mix a lot of handcraft with digital, trying to get the best out of both worlds,’ Hendzel explains. For someone who previously lost his job to a machine, he truly believes in integrating technology into the workshops. ‘Digital is the modern progression and it is ultimately just another tool. I guess it depends on the way you think about it.’ In fact, most of the studio’s own products begin their lives on screen as they are modelled digitally. The final work is very much rooted in making but he doesn’t shy away from using new technologies. Perhaps, because he doesn’t see it as synonymous with automation. ‘You always need the intervention of hand. Even with a machine, you have to tell it what to do,’ he affirms. Technology is also what allows for a lot of the creative ‘madness’ of the studio where prototypes constantly shift between screens and tangible objects. ‘If you want to push boundaries and new ideas you have to work with the tools around you,’ Hendzel says, ‘It is not about forgetting tradition, it’s about working with tradition and then bringing it into today’s context – mixing the digital with the hand.’
Sourcing his raw material sustainably is also an important part of the ethos of the studio. ‘It’s how we work and who we are – trying to be as sustainably conscious as we can.’ Using either British-grown or reclaimed timber is a way for them to try to reduce the environmental impact of a practice that could easily become wasteful. Telling the stories behind the various bits of reclaimed timber in his projects is also something Hendzel enjoys as it adds a new dimension to each piece. He is also a self-professed material hoarder – holding on to offcuts and small pieces of timber which he then tries to find a use for in the details of his pieces. ‘There are bits all around the workshop with great grain or little ends where the colour is so beautiful I can’t bring myself to throw them away,’ he says.
Despite his love for the organic warm material, for a detail oriented engineer wood is always not the most straightforward of materials with its capricious nature – but it is a challenge Hendzel enjoys. ‘That’s what’s amazing about working with timber,’ he says, ‘it moves around and you’re trying to master something that is nearly impossible to master.’ He admits that sometimes finding a piece he thought was perfectly cut has swelled or shrunk tests his patience. ‘It’s like an insanity, trying to chase this perfection that’s never there. But it’s good because it keeps pushing you.’