If the measure of modern life is the unquiet mind – that unquenchable thirst for the latest product or service, then Ben King lives by a different code. Antique perhaps, but rich in meaning, and an approach that informs his every action, every choice. It is a direct response to the ephemeral nature of contemporary culture. The throwaway society. Where the life cycle of goods appears to be measured in minutes, rather than years, or generations.
His is a perspective shaped by the physical, and measured by longevity. Nothing he fashions is here for the short term – Its life should outlast yours. “I love making tables because I know they’ll get a lot of use. A table has many functions. A coffee table is not just for cups of coffee. It will have feet up on it or it might be used to change a light bulb. A dining table might see years of painting and homework, and be used ten times a day. A table needs to be strong enough to be used for unusual tasks, and robust enough to be handed down. As well as being beautiful.”
Yet Ben is no Luddite – though he does place great value on ‘real’ experience, rather than one’s mediated by digital’s deadening hand, or engaging with products created for our ‘convenience’ by marketers. It strikes him that even the most basic skills are being sloughed from life. For him there is a simple pleasure to the ‘inconvenience’ of grinding his own coffee beans, or collecting wood for his stove. “Last year was the first time I’d managed to collect and dry enough wood for my stove, and so never had to use my central heating. Which was really satisfying.”
This very singular approach is reflected in his work, where even picking a sheet of plywood can take half a day. “The timber yards know me now, but at first they would look on wondering why I was taking so much care in picking products like plywood, never mind timber. Part of the satisfaction in making furniture is picking out the best materials. You might think ‘plywood is plywood’ but actually it varies a lot in grain, colour and consistency. The same is true of the construction of a piece where joints are hidden, but they took time to make. This is something that might not be obvious to the customer but these things are important to me.“
Usually working in English hardwoods such as Oak, Ash, Elm or Sycamore, Ben’s pieces have the plain-faced beauty and easy functionality of Shaker or Ercol furniture. Design that is both contemporary, and timeless. More recently he has also been combining high quality plywoods with the hardwoods, which lower the price of each piece. “I didn’t want to end up making furniture for the wealthy, so I looked at ways to bring prices down to be relatively affordable. The problem is that people have so many other things to spend money on these days.“ The experiment succeeded – with the traditional building material bringing an alternative beauty to the ‘table’. And tables are at the centre of his work. Not just for the challenge of designing and making them, but because of what they represent. A gathering place for people. “I find it strange when you go to a house and they haven’t got a table. Or if they have, the people prefer to eat meals off their laps in front of the TV. If I was lucky enough to be known for anything, I’d like it to be my tables.”
The rhythm of the workshop – which is shared with Charlie, and also a Man of the Wood – is at odds with the fractured nature of modern life, where the relentless clamour for attention provides little rest. Here there is a linear calm, with one job slipping seamlessly into the next. To watch Ben is to see a man at ease with his place. His work. Yet this life of wood has not been life-long. He came to it along the un-adopted road. And although every previous occupation required skilled hands, and an aesthete’s eye – he’s worked successfully as a photographer, bike builder, and leader of cycle tours – perhaps his background would appear to promise a different path.
His dad is Sir David King, the ex-chief scientific advisor to the government, and international figure in the climate change arena, his granddad is photographer and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky – who filmed the iconic British gangster movie ‘Get Carter’ – and his uncle, Peter Suschitzky, filmed ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ and has been David Cronenburg’s cinematographer since 1988. Yet even his striking out as a photographer was inspired in a less obvious manner. “It was my dad who taught me to print in the darkroom, and bought me my first cameras. He had wanted to be a photographer himself. I didn’t really know what my granddad and uncle did until I was older.”
Strangely, in an incidental way, Ben is every inch his father’s son. He may not be a climate change scientist, but he lives and works in a manner stripped of extraneous clutter. Direct action in the face of global warming, and the unbroken state of discontent created by a form of selfish capitalism, whose solitary function is to make us dissatisfied with what we own today, in the hope we’ll purchase something that’ll make us happy tomorrow.
It is the lucky man who, though beset on all sides by competing influences, can plot a path all his own – and love it. Yet Ben has, and on his terms.