Focus: John Beckwith Interview

Focus: John Beckwith Interview

Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.

It's fair to say that finding climbing changed John Beckwith's life. The Melbourne-based climber believes taking up the sport, and tackling the problem solving involved, led to his career as a furniture designer and manufacturer. 

How did you get into furniture design and production?

So fifteen or so years ago I was working at the very sharp end of inner city mental health working with families with kids on the 'At Risk’ register. I did a meditation retreat in California, fixed up a fence while I was there and had a full on realization that I wanted to work with my hands. Shortly after, a friend and climbing partner asked me for a bit of help with his built-in furniture business in East London. I discovered I wasn’t totally useless, and here I am.

I moved to Melbourne in 2009 and set up my business doing mostly solid timber work for individual clients. Being fully self taught, it could have gone badly. However, it has worked out pretty well. Interestingly my dad says I was totally useless before I found rock climbing and he thinks it was the process of embodiment and physical problem solving that pushed me towards making things and gave me a mix of physical confidence and intuitive understanding of three dimensional structures.

It's fascinating that climbing had such an impact on the way you think. How did you find the sport in the first place? 

Another mental health moment, but this time my own. I was at university and quite depressed and a friend said I should come along to the indoor gym—I think I said how lame it sounded and he said, "Well it can’t be any more lame than you right now, so you might as well come!".

Anyway, at the top of my first plastic route I was panting, ecstatic and utterly hooked. I had that full on light bulb moment that so many climbers know. About a year later I started going out with an Austrian from Vienna who was a climbing instructor so I had to get better.

A lot of people who found climbing can probably understand that. What goes into your process of designing and producing a piece? 

Ideally I spend quite a lot of time interviewing clients in their home or workspace and digging into their history, things and places they love and key stories in their lives. As we do this usually a whole image presents itself of the piece I want to make quite quickly—it can be literally in the first minute. I usually don’t say this at the time as the relational dimension to this work is as important to me as the making process and it would probably shut a client's process down prematurely. 

I also dislike the rigidity and imbalance that characterizes the classical designer/client structure. I know a lot of designers whose clients really only represent an opportunity for them to explore a narcissistic approach to object design. That kind of work is a bit dead for me. It's the frictional edge of collaboratively envisioning things that excites my imagination.

Stylistically I have quite strong influences from Japan, the Shaker tradition and of course modern Danish furniture. I also love testing my hand tool skills so i try to build this into the commission work that I do. 

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start in furniture design and production? 

Well, advice implies that I think its a good idea to do what I do and while there are great aspects to trying to make a living making objects, it is something that has largely been romanticized by a post-war, post-industrial 'arts and crafts' movement. We are essentially living in an age defined by the death of the true working class and the demise of the ubiquity of being skilled in the hand by necessity and so now we have this culturally self-indulgent thing we refer to as ‘being a maker’.

In this light, my advice would be to know yourself as well as possible as you consider your purpose. Investigate yourself, before you launch into an exploration of design. By all means develop skills and try to exist by the practice of these, but in my view working with materials, wood, metal, glass, is necessarily a moral act in that it is very hard to ignore the origin of and true cost of using these materials at this point in history.

My perspective is that all objects represent stories, are holographic in a sense in that they can reflect multiple narratives at one time; a commissioned piece can represent a life's endeavor to build hand skills, and an understanding of trees and the wood we take from them. It can also embody the love of one human for another and the desire to buy the labor and skill to create something to represent this.

In a nutshell, makers are some of the guardians of and interpreters of our ancient human stories. If you look around, you’ll notice that the story we’ve telling for about 150 years at the very least, has created a big mess. I would burden anyone interested in this way of living to try to consciously explore and reveal the deepest, most authentic story they have access to in themselves as this acts as a moral guide, provides strength when things are less than easy (which is common in this field) and finally makes it slightly more likely that the sum total of a life's labor will be more than just landfill and atmospheric carbon. If we are have to leave things behind us, they might as well be useful, well made and beautiful.

You can follow John on Instagram here