MELISSA COLE - BLACKSMITH
'Is it a table? Is it art? Actually, it’s both!'
By Vanya Body
Have you ever thought about commissioning an artist to create a one-off and bespoke piece of furniture for your home? Does that sound like something that 'other people' do? Well, that’s what I thought…but we have done just that and are now the proud owners of atable that is a handcrafted showpiece –and definitely a one-off. It has been forged from raw steel by Melissa Cole – one of the country’s few women blacksmiths, whom we discovered living just down the road, and who brilliantly interpreted our slightly muddled ideas.
The story begins about five years ago when (husband) Duncan and I first discovered there was a thriving local arts scene and attended a brilliant sculpture show on a working farm, just outside Marlborough, Wiltshire.
The show's director, blacksmith Melissa Cole, displayed a range of beautiful sculptures form her forge at the farm– including a small but imaginatively designed coffee table, which we loved. This sowed a little kernel of an idea… We had been looking for a dining table for our awkwardly-narrow and long dining room. We’d already exhausted many possibilities – plenty of choices in wood and metal and none of them right. We had liked the idea of a modern glass table that would lend itself to the style of the room. The table had to be be large enough to fit the extended family around, but would not visually overwhelm what was a fairly narrow long space. But, having got that far... we simply couldn't find any glass tables we liked. Suddenly we could see the potential of having a blacksmith create a unique table base for us to which we could add a glass top. Thus we would, in one stroke, have introduced a bold piece of art in the heart of the house– useful and gorgeous at the same time. Even so, just thinking through this far took about six months…and then we plucked up the courage to call Melissa.
She was immediately enthusiastic –while she had tackled large one-off commissions for outside features, such as gates, she had never designed a large table. She came to our house and mused over the space. We went to her forge to see her work at close hand…
Our eyes take a minute or two to adjust to the darkness of the forge –lit by just the orange glow of the forge’s fire, Melissa keeps the room deliberately dark so that she can see the subtle changes in the colour of the metal she is working.
“You need to be able to see the colour of the metal as it heats,” she explains. “You get to know how the metal will behave by its colour and when it needs to be reheated.”
Along one side of the room are racks of raw metal bars in different gauges of thickness. On the floor is a large metal sheet marked up with chalk measurements of different projects underway. Spread about are other unidentified bits of blacksmiths kit. Her equipmentis a marriage of something old, something new... for instance, the 1936 foot-operated power hammer has been salvaged from a Sheffield knife-making factory. This pounds the glowing metal into submission and “makes life easier and a bit softer on the elbows, ”says Melissa. The fine shaping is carried out by hand hammer.
The furnace is fuelled by specialist UK-mined coal as used in a nearby coal-fired power station and a distinctive industrial smell pervades the space.
Melissa, with her strawberry blond hair un-fussily tied up or tucked under a jaunty scarf, doesn't fit my preconceptions of the burly blacksmith wielding hammers and heavy metal.
In fact, we discover although Melissa is one of a handful of women blacksmiths working in the UK, the craft is in her blood... her father Hector Cole is a renown Master Blacksmith, still working in Gloucestershire, who has just been honoured with an MBE for his Services to Heritage Crafts. He passed his knowledge onto his daughter…and after 21 years perfecting her craft, Melissa is now also, in her own right, a Master Blacksmith and in 2008 she became one of only a handful of woman to boast a Bronze Medal from the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths - the Guild which has overseen the craft since 1325!
Her work ranges from creating Gates for the contemporary Rabley Barn –as seen on Grand Designs –to working with her father on the entrance gates to Charlton Park – a large stately home, near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. She recently produced an interpretation of the river Isis which now 'flows' around the walls of a student accommodation building in Oxford, and a commemorative legacy sculpture at the UK Armed Forces JHQ Rheindahlen, in Germany. The Oxford commission has led to another for student accommodation, for which Melissa is working on an abstract theme based on brain mapping.
“I never made a conscious decision to follow my Dad in becoming a blacksmith. It just happened gradually. He used to teach metal working and had a forge in school, so I saw him working and was able to have a go. He taught me after I left art college and, I think he is immensely proud that I have become a blacksmith.”
Melissa also spends a lot of her time sharing her own skills by both taking classes at her forge and teaching at the craft centre of excellence and learning West Dean College.
At her Forest Forge Studio, Melissa has already produced initial drawings of ideas and some concepts to discuss and is keen that we feed in creative ideas of own own ourselves. She has drawn out a full scale of the dimensions of the table now we have to say what we want. But, we aren’t entirely sure actually, what we do want. We mutter, vaguely, ‘organic’ and ‘flowing lines’, which Melissa notes down. But, the truth is, we are complete novices at this commissioning game and want to be guided by Melissa’s intuition and design skills. And, over the next few months of phone calls and visits, we form a vision of how the table could end up.
To begin, at least we have a size.... we want a two-metre-long table will can seat about eight people around, but with a second table which will act as an extension – it could be used as a separate table for four and be pulled alongside the main table to create seating for 12. This is the most we anticipate seating at any one time.
The main table will have two central supports which will be roughly circular on the floor and bear eight branches–growing out of the floor to spread out, interlacing like vines with the branches from the second base. The whole base would appear to float under the glass top as this would touch only at a small number of points.
The drawings are very exciting. The next stage is to make a maquette which is a petite scale model of the table…this helps us envisage the final look. The process to this stage has taken more than a year – mostly because of our dithering, but also because Melissa is in demand for commissions and teaching and we are in a queue! Finally, about six months after finalising the design from the maquette, we have our turn at the forge... our table begins to take shape.
Perhaps because we are only a mile away, I am back and forth to the forge over the next two months. We discuss the finer points and tweaking the design. We watch Melissa deftly flipping the long heavy poles of steel from the furnace, hammering another new detail into shape. Her judgement is millimetre perfect. The big power hammer takes the stain of some of the initial shaping, with the smaller hammers for finessing the points on her several-hundred- year-old anvil.
While Melissa continues to work on the table base, Duncan and I have to find a glass for the table top. This proves to be more difficult than we had anticipated. Eventually, ‘Saint Google’ leads us to Cameo Glass in Farringdon, Oxfordshire. Not exactly local artisans, but able to provide us with a two metre-long by 1 metre glass table top. We visit the factory and talk options –there are more than we had thought possible! Should we go for completely clear glass, which has a higher the iron content (and is more costly), or the classic glass with a slight greentinge to the glass. We could, if we wish, laminate two sheets of glass together enclosing personal or design features between sheets. Have we considered colour-tinted glass, a different shape, rounded or square edges... Eventually, it is cost considerations which promptus to go for a simple solution of plain glass–but with gently rounded edges which would be kinder on passing hips!
Back at the forge, Melissa also talks colours. Once created, the table could be spray lacquered in any colour we wish. Hmmm…not sure... Something else to consider! Commissioning a hand-made piece of furniture requires us to be really actively involved with the birth. It is nothing like going to a shop and choosing between table A or B. We must feel our way out of the fog of trepidation and be confident and decisive! In the end, I have always really preferred the bare ‘gun metal’colour which simultaneously has echoes of the ancient, but is equally complementary to a modern interior. So, this is what we go for. Once we are completely happy with the design, Melissa sands down the metalwork and swiftly applies coats of a clear lacquer to the entire framework to prevent rusting.
At last, almost 3 years after the initial visit to the Puthall Farm Sculpture Show, we are back for the final inspection –our table is laid out a barn, with a rough wooden top to check size. We were thrilled. A week later, the glass has been delivered and the table is inplace in our own dining room.
The table fits perfectly into the space. It definitely is a showpiece... and has the 'Wow factor' in spades. We are proud to have commissioned of our very own piece of living art which we hope will be cherished by our children’s children’s children!
Now we just have to find the right chairs to match...