SCP’s editor Duncan Riches visits Sebastian Cox at his workshop and showroom. They discuss his involvement in the One Tree project at SCP, his thoughts on how the furniture industry is evolving, and why he cares less about designing new products than he does about designing a better society for all.
It’s a busy morning at Sebastian Cox’s place, the workshops are in full swing finishing off a new set of kitchen cabinets, while they also gear up to complete an order of side tables for a new 180 bedroom hotel in south London – one table for each room. The whole operation is also just beginning to expand beyond this work space, with a new workshop being set on a farm in Kent, which has 200 acres of woodland, all in need of management. It’s a mixed hardwood forest, explains Sebastian, with a lot of ash. The new location is part of a drive to become resource self-sufficient within a couple of years for their own product ranges. It’s a bit of an experiment, he says, but being closer to the resource is important, and it will allow them to be able to both air dry and kiln dry the wood, at a decent scale. Everything produced by Cox is made from British hardwood, and as he explains, that narrow lens has both its advantages and its complexities, but the key is understanding the resources.
View from the workshop doorway. Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
Staff at work on new cabinets. Sebastian Cox workshop, 2022.
For the new hotel, they are using the resources from within the hotel grounds to make the tables, but they have also got involved in how the land is being managed, employing a landscape architect to help with the master plan for the site. “We are doing biodiversity plans, and it’s ending up being one of London’s most important rewilding projects as a result of our intervention. So we are trying to bridge the gap between the designer and the product, the object, and then the resources. That has been huge for us in being able to offer that really holistic view. It suddenly made things really interesting.”
“We are really finding our niche in terms of being able to be involved in the sourcing. We say to clients that yes we can design and make for you, but actually what resources have you got?”
Window signage, Sebastian Cox studio and showroom, 2022.
It’s been over a decade now since Cox started the company (in 2010) while he was still finishing his masters degree in Lincoln. After speculatively taking a stand at New Designers and then at Tent, where he showed his major University project, he picked up a few clients and as he says “I was in business, and I then had to try to finish my MA alongside starting up.”
After a couple of years renting a workshop on a farm in Lincolnshire, he took the step to open a workshop in London. The first space was a small unit on the other side of the site here in Woolwich, and then as things expanded he moved to two larger spaces. “We are very lucky to be here, the landlord is fantastic, he could charge a lot more and would make millions if he bulldozed the whole site.”
“We are very lucky to be here, the landlord is fantastic, he could charge a lot more and would make millions if he bulldozed the whole site.”
Workshop, Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
Air drying wood in the workshop, Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
Did he have a specific vision for the business when it started, or has it grown organically?
“It’s probably grown slower than I would have wanted it to, if I am totally honest. I think I didn’t want something really big and stressful, and also I think I recognised early on that because the principles around what we make are probably quite niche, in terms of the market we can actually access. How many people actually know that they want solid British wood furniture? It’s a small number of people. I sort of realised that if you have a larger business, a lot of MDF has to go through that business to keep the doors open. So quite early on I decided we’re never going to make anything in MDF, we’re not going to use veneers, and as much as possible we are going to procure the wood from at least forest that I know, or from someone I trust.”
"I decided we're never going to make anything in MDF, we're not going to use veneers, and as much as possible we are going to procure the wood from at least forest that I know, or from someone I trust.”
Shelving detail, Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
Those basic principles have to a certain extent kept things simple, and with continued growth in consumer understanding about the provenance of objects around then, there is a sense that things are coming around to Cox’s way of thinking.
“For a time, it seemed that the kind of area of the design industry we operate in was trying to mimic fashion. In that it was about the individual designer, and whatever they put their name to was considered good, and there was very little scrutiny about what it actually was, because it was riding on reputation to a certain extent. I remember looking at that as a young graduate, and just thinking there is something I really don’t like about that. I think I’ve tried to shape a business that is much less about me, and much more about process. So we are talking about actually the process of design. I don’t spend a lot of time designing, but I have designed a business instead.”
Sebastian Cox, in conversation, 2022.
So what does growth look like going forward?
“I think we are in a really exciting period of transition. We’ve got this new proximity to resources, which I think is really going to be fantastic. I think we have realised over the last three years that our strongest commissions have come from one’s where we’ve milled the wood, for a number of reasons. So we are going to focus on that as being a key message. I just think that it communicates everything we do as a business so clearly. When you tell someone that we felled the tree to make the furniture, it communicates such a clear picture in so few words around who you are and what you do. So that is really important. That then opens up quite holistic conversations about how we use our land, and how we grow resources, and what that means for growing food, or for biodiversity, or sequestering carbon. Suddenly we are exposing ourselves to some really big conversations.”
Workbench, Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
It’s in those big conversations that Cox really wants to partake. After writing a fulsome manifesto for the business in 2018, it has given real focus to what might be possible.
“People like Thomas Heatherwick have shown that there is that sense that product design can become holistic thinking, which can span any discipline. I sort of feel like there is an opportunity for us to be more open than ever about what it is that we intervene in. It’s also because we do span everything from forestry to retail, there is a huge scope for it. We are in a period when we need to design society. We’ve probably always been in a period where there has been a need for that, but it feels really urgent now. We’ve sort of realised that actually the status quo is not going to get us there. We really need some big thoughts about how we structure things. It doesn’t necessarily mean a redesign, but it does mean we need to be quite sophisticated in our thoughts around organising things.”
"There is that sense that product design can become holistic thinking, which can span any discipline. I sort of feel like there is an opportunity for us to be more open than ever about what it is that we intervene in."
Bench legal detail, Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
Tool wall, Sebastian Cox workshop, 2022.
In relation to organising things, Cox has played a pivotal role in the One Tree project. Not only has he designed a pair of beautiful lights, but he was involved right from the outset, helping to facilitate the chopping up of the tree with his mobile milling setup, and the drying of the wood in his large container based kiln. Of the lights design, he says:
“I wanted to express our process a bit in the final product. So the use of our sawmill to create the most obvious surfaces was quite important to me. I am going on a bit of a personal project to find ways in which to use the sawmill, which is our biggest and roughest piece of industrial machinery, as a tool of fine woodwork. How can we express the tree that Sheridan has in a really fine way, and also express our processes in a way in which they are unique and different from other furniture makers? We can cut our own veneers, yet imported veneers are perfect. So an imperfect veneer is quite an odd thing to have. Why would you cover a low grade material with a low grade veneer? So actually it’s quite a nice starting point. I also loved the idea that the waney edge could express a bit of a softer light in a room.”
Batton light test hanging, detail for One Tree project, Sebastian Cox, 2022.
Batton light detail for One Tree project, with the waney edge on view, Sebastian Cox, 2022.
The whole project is aligned with Cox’s idea that “You can shape conversations that are shaping up in the industry.” While he also feels it has been a very enjoyable social exercise. “Sheridan got in touch about his ash tree a while ago. So it was great to be involved from the beginning. It’s been brilliant getting to know Sheridan, as I had never worked with him before, and great to meet all the other designers too.”
The view across the river from the studio. Sebastian Cox studio, 2022.
A big thank you to Sebastian for welcoming us to his studio and workshops, and for taking the time to talk.