For David Colwell of Trannon Design, form definitely follows function; style for him is a by-product of a piece’s use and its making, and its context.  But context is changing:  more than thirty years ago Colwell, who trained in furniture design at the Royal College of Art, decided that we would all need to take a radical look at the way we live and take account of the finite nature of the planet and its resources.  Context now must include the need for sustainability.  “For an object to be truly sustainable it must be sound from the raw material, through production, to life long use”, writes Colwell.


In terms of raw material, it would be hard to find a more natural source than wood; in fact forests are possibly the image that pops into our head when we think of concepts like “natural”.  But wood is not necessarily always a sustainable resource:  90% of British timber is imported, and timber is responsible for one third of Britain’s trade deficit.  The problem here is that the timber industry demands tall trees without side branches.  Trees must be planted close together to make them grow fast and straight towards the light, each tree trying to outgrow its neighbours.  Once the trees have grown up in this way, they must be thinned in order that they then put on girth to be usable as timber. In a mature plantation, four out of five of the original trees will have been felled, the thinnings sold cheaply for pulp or firewood or left to rot. 


But a problem like this can provide an opportunity for a different way of working.  Ash is one of the strongest and fastest-growing young trees, and the faster it grows the stronger it is.  The thinnings from ash plantations are able to absorb more shock than almost all mature trees, and wood “in the round” is structurally stronger than that which has been cut along the grain, as, for example, in making planks.  Trannon sources locally-produced ash thinnings (thereby reducing transport, encouraging rural enterprise, and developing strong local networks) from mixed woodlands (mixed woodland is healthier and supports more wildlife than monocultures).  The thinnings are steam-bent into the sinuous curves that are a hallmark of Trannon’s chair designs.  Ash has traditionally been steam-bent for chairs and for cart wheels:  steaming simultaneously curves and seasons the wood, doing away with long curing times or the need for kilns to season the wood, and the ash in the round is stronger than laminations.  Treated in this way it uses a tiny amount of the energy required in normal processes; and this technique is also suitable for batch production.


So the sourcing and production of Trannon furniture are as sustainable as it is possible to be, it seems.  But David Colwell is still mindful of the need for longevity of products:  things that use resources must be long-lasting.  In terms of its production that means that the furniture is strong, taking strength from an awareness and use of the principles of geometry, but it also needs to be comfortable and beautiful.  Part of an object’s sustainability is the wish for its owners to sustain it.


There is a link here with Jonathan Chapman’s work on emotionally durable design – the antithesis to the current “buy it cheap and throw it away” mentality.  Owners develop an emotional relationship with the object.  They buy fewer objects, look after them better, and feel happier with them.  Colwell’s first interest in sustainability – “on the principle that an interesting answer is most likely to come from an interesting question” – came from the belief that the driver of sustainability could provide the impetus for good design.  Hence the chairs are not only produced in terms of sustainable sourcing and production, but with comfort and strength equally high on the agenda.  They are beautiful to own in practical and visual terms.  All Trannon chairs are constructed in such a way as to support good posture, and with details such as being constructed in such a way as to be strong enough without the need for a front rail, so when you need to get up, you can put your feet under the chair and get up with minimal strain.


Colwell is certain that his customers appreciate all the blended elements of his approach.  Certainly the furniture is visually  beautiful and beautifully comfortable, and he believes that most people now have a concern for the environment, and that if they have a choice they will opt for eco-friendly products.  Not only private individuals see the value of the work, however; Trannon is increasingly asked to furnish public places such as the Creat Eco-Centre in Bristol, the Crafts Council, the National Trust, the Scottish Parliament’s main reception area desk, and the gallery seating for the National Museum of Wales.  Colwell is the recipient of numerous awards, including the FX Green Seating Award for the C3 Stacking Chair and the Royal College of Art’s Silver medal and 3D Design Award, and his pieces are held in public and private collections, including the V&A, the Science Museum, and Victor Papanek’s private collection.


Some of those who began their careers working for Trannon have taken the skills they learnt there and continued on in their own businesses, and Colwell encourages them, for example by featuring their work on Trannon’s website.  Running throughout the whole approach and ethos of Trannon is an almost invisible link which nevertheless pervades the work with a sense of joy, opportunity and delight, and which contributes to the aura of right livelihood which links Trannon to the tradition of Morris and others.  As Colwell says, “I still feel that an alternative future is possible and potentially more fun.”