Tom Raffield: Bending Expectations

How Tom Raffield bucked conventional wisdom and founded a design empire in Cornwall
October 8, 2018Words by Luis Angel CancelPhotos by Jeff Masamori

What is this? How did this get here? Who made this? And, how? These searching questions pop up for our crew time and time again in Cornwall as we explore the ruins of Bronze Age and Medieval ritual grounds dotted all around the region.

Tom Raffield

Someone unfamiliar with the work of Tom Raffield could be forgiven for running through the same series of questions. Ribbon-like twists, perfect loops, and wavy curves are all formed by seamless planks of solid wood. Maybe we’d spent too much time reading up on Cornish folklore but it’s the kind of thing you could imagine as the work of a forest-dwelling wizard. At least half of that description fits Tom. From deep within a dreamy woodland plot in the village of Helston, Tom Raffield, his partner and wife Danie, and an evergrowing team of workers have nurtured a thriving furniture design firm centered around Tom’s process for steam bending wood. 

Tom Raffield sketching

Tom Raffield's sketches

“There are no straight lines in nature”

Steam-bent wood

Centuries ago, Vikings used a similar process to build their ships. Luthiers also use the process to craft violins and guitars. But Tom’s method, honed after countless hours tinkering alone in the woodshop, allows for much more ambitious and dramatic forms on an architectural scale. As we walked with Tom through the woods of the property where he and Danie have built a breathtaking home and workshop (featured in Grand Designs), his love of the land is as clear as a bell. Refusing the advice to move to London from his instructors at the nearby Falmouth Art College, Tom tells us the spectacular landscapes of Cornwall are what kept him living in the area.

Tom Raffield steam bending wood

To an outsider, it seems each time Tom bucks conventional wisdom for the hard road, things have a way of working out. He passed on the conveniences of the big city for a remote slice of Cornwall’s woodland. He moved his growing family into a nearly uninhabitable gamekeeper’s lodge on that same woodland. And all the while, he’s warped hardwood into never-before-seen forms. Each unorthodox turn contributed to his success. “We just try and do things that don’t exist. Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they’re not and you learn from it.” Together we loop back from the woods, following the scent of freshly-delivered Cornish pasties to Tom’s sunlit patio while admiring the path he’s taken to get here.

Tom Raffield steam bending wood

>>Next: How a Steam-bent Home Took Shape


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