Behind the scenes at RHS Chelsea with Tom Raffield

Tom Raffield bench in Royal Bank of Canada garden at RHS Chelsea 2015 | Design Hunter

To coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show, Design Hunter is this week focusing on gardens and outdoor living. Today I'm excited to be featuring a behind-the-scenes guest post from lighting and furniture maker Tom Raffield who has designed a specially commissioned feature bench for the Royal Bank of Canada show garden at RHS Chelsea this year.

Using a specialised steam bending process Tom created the 8m long piece at the request of the garden's designer, Matthew Wilson of Clifton Nurseries.

"The concept for the garden was inspired by the flow of water," said Matthew. "The various components of the garden weave in and out and I wanted the garden furniture to extend that theme. It was also important to me to use the skills of a crafts person employing traditional techniques and using sustainable materials, in keeping with the theme of the garden. Tom's work is in keeping with all of these ideals, and is a celebration of the wonderfully tactile qualities of wood. Because his design is quite open in structure the plants behind are visible, creating a wonderfully colourful backdrop to the flowing lines of the garden."

The complex sculptural form, made from sustainably sourced olive ash wood, is designed to mimic the flow of water. Here is Tom's account of the design process.

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Tom's workshop in Cornwall. Image: Gary Moger

Tom's workshop in Cornwall. Image: Gary Moger

As I write this we have just returned from London, more specifically from the grounds of the most prestigious horticultural show in the world, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Myself and Charlie, one of our skilled craftsmen, have just delivered a bench and table for the Royal Bank of Canada Show Garden.

We have been working on this bench for the past six months and it is with huge excitement that we have now delivered it to the show. It has been an incredible project for me as a designer-maker as it has allowed me to showcase my steam bending skills in a new way. Normally I design lighting and furniture for homes, offices, restaurants and hotels where space is limited.

Matthew Wilson, the garden's designer, hopes to raise awareness of Royal Bank of Canada’s Blue Water Project, a C$50m ($41.6m) initiative aimed at protecting freshwater habitats worldwide. The garden is full of drought-resistant planting and Matthew has used water-conservation techniques to help convey the garden’s important message.

The garden is a zero-irrigated space, which means that no extra water supply is needed to support the planting. I wanted the bench to reflect this so the structure has been made from individually steam bent slats of wood that wind and curve around one another to mimic the flow of water rippling through the garden. The shapes and curves within the bench also reflect so much of the planting in the garden as well as working with the water feature and curved decking area. The bench is made from the most beautiful sustainably sourced olive ash wood (from Ash trees in England).  We chose this wood to compliment the huge olive tree that will take centre stage in the garden.

Image: via the RHS

Image: via the RHS

The tree has an incredible history. As we know olive trees are grown all over Europe for their bountiful crops of olive fruit, however when they stop producing adequate quantities they are felled and burned. This tree has been recycled, amongst others as they are slowly being recognised as a thing of beauty. Matthew Wilson found this one had picked up a rock in its youth and this is now firmly planted in its crook. Poetically, the tree takes centre stage in the garden, which is actually divided into three parts; an edible garden, a zero irrigation ‘dry garden’ and a central water storage zone. My brief was to create a bench and table for the centre of the space where people could sit and take in the garden, and appreciate the ecological credentials of the space.

Image: via the RHS

Image: via the RHS

When I first saw Matthew’s plans for the garden back in December I was really struck and excited by the lack of straight lines and defined areas in the garden. His concept was full of complex curves floating platforms and fluid shapes; the perfect environment for a steam bent curved piece of furniture.

Image: Gary Moger

Image: Gary Moger

Because the bench design I had created for the garden consisted of several enveloping curves twisting around one another and spreading out to form seating areas, I had to adapt the steam bending techinques we use to make it work for the curves we made.

Image: Gary Moger

Image: Gary Moger

The first step was to make steel formers to bend the wood around. Once we made the steel work, we steamed the wood for a measure amount of time and wrapped the softened wood over the former. We then made a make jig for assembling each steam bent section into place. This was done whilst the wood was still quite plasticised so we could twist and bend the steamed wood just a little more exactly into place. It all sounds quite easy but it is a tricky job as there are so many variables in getting the wood to do what you want to. It was really a case of developing a method of making the bench through lots of experimentation, or I guess you could say trial and error.

Image: Gary Moger

Image: Gary Moger

Once we had made the steam bent seating sections we wanted to create the legs so they were minimal and almost gave the impression the curving form was floating. Not only did this help make the sculptural shape of the bench look beautiful and uncomplicated but it also allowed the garden behind to be seen so the bench was almost just another layer adding to the overall design of the garden. Using steel components which were glazed with a ‘skimming stone’, neutral colour helped to give strength to the legs without the need for extra leg struts.

The table was quite a challenge as I wanted the shape to be similar to the bench and consist of curves and have an organic appearance to help blend it in with the garden. It also needed to work as a table so a flat top and be easy to place glasses on.

Image: Tom Raffield

Image: Tom Raffield

To make this we worked off a full size drawing we had created, we then steam bent slats of wood which were just over 1cm in thickness and 5cm in width on various bending formers which we made off the full size drawing. The slates were pushed into place within an outer frame which held all of it in place. It is a great design as the pressure of all the slats pushing on one another helps to make a very strong table and although it has a very curved form still has a perfectly flat top - always good for when putting down the glasses of champagne at the show!

Installing the bench on site at Chelsea. (Image: Tom Raffield)

Installing the bench on site at Chelsea. (Image: Tom Raffield)

The finished design next to the olive tree in the Royal Bank of Canada garden. (Image: RHS)

The finished design next to the olive tree in the Royal Bank of Canada garden. (Image: RHS)

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You can vote for the Royal Bank of Canada garden in the RHS People's Choice Award until midnight on Thursday 21 May. The winner will be announced on Friday 22 May.

After the show closes the garden will be relocated to the Earl Mountbatten Hospice on the Isle of Wight, with the help of the Greenfingers, a charity dedicated to creating gardens in children's hospices across the country.