Andrew Varah, Contemporary Funiture Maker, Warwickshire Life
23:55 07 February 2010
Andrew Varah is one of Britain's leading contemporary furniture makers, with a worldwide clientele for his work. Catherine Thompson visited him at his workshop near Rugby.
I was recently introduced to a furniture maker at a party. We sought, as one does at such events, to find a conversational foothold. I shared with her that 10 years previously when I'd been a bit flush I had commissioned some furniture from a chap: "Did she perhaps know him? Andrew Varah?"
Did she know him? Was I kidding he was the Leonardo da Vinci of bespoke contemporary furniture and had I found Andrew's signature secret drawer, in which he placed an item of jewellery to be discovered?
Gratified and mystified and after having spent a not inconsiderable amount of time on my knees scratching about in my sideboard for fabled lost jewels I set off in search of Andrew Varah himself.
Sat in his beautiful study at his workshop near Rugby, he was just as I remember him - the quintessential English gent, beautifully spoken and just hint of rascal around the eye. I regale him with my story and he laughs out loud, in a charmingly self -deprecating manner at comparisons with Leonardo da Vinci.
Andrew is one of triplet boys, named them after a patron saint, an archangel and a disciple. Andrew's father was a chap called Chad Varah CBE an English Anglican priest, best known as the founder of The Samaritans, later to be elevated to Companion of Honour. When Andrew showed an interest in teaching his maths teacher assured him: "There is no way Varah that you will get into Shoreditch Teacher Training College."
In the age old tradition of 'I'll show you' he took his A'level woodwork exam in one year, rather than the two years it normally takes. He passed, and Shoreditch College offered him a place.
After qualifying as a teacher he taught in a London school where most of his students were using school as a waiting room for Borstal. After a particularly vicious fight in his classroom, Andrew came up with a plan to engage his fractious students. He showed the unruly pupils a simple version of a classical guitar he had made promised them if they behaved and there was 'not one more squeak', they could make one. From that point on, they were as good as gold.
Keen to see more of the world he took up a teaching post in Zambia, where he started to design furniture and hold exhibitions of his work. He ended up managing 45 talented Zambian craftsmen and designing furniture not only for the lodge house of the Zambian President (Dr Kenneth Kaunda) but for individuals and Corporations all over Zambia
With his two children approaching school age he returned to England where he was offered a job with John Makepeace, the British designer and furniture maker. It was an excellent opportunity but after much soul searching Andrew decided to go it alone.
He bought his current home and workshops at Little Walton near Rugby. The house and barns had been derelict for over 100 years and were completely inhabitable. With little money and a young family, Andrew turned to making deals. For two years he paid his rent by helping the manor owner build his own boat. Workmen developing his property were paid in bespoke furniture and finally he established his business in 1974 in the barns of his 17th century farm house.
The commission that established his business was to design eight pieces of contemporary Chinese furniture in solid rose wood, a project that took nearly a year to complete. Andrew's work came to real prominence when he was asked to design a pair of chairs to be presented to Gary Kasparov after winning the World Chess Championship in 1985. He came up with the idea of reproducing a chess board within an open lattice work chair back. He chose the position of the chess pieces at the end of the first of 26 games played in the tournament. In the dark rosewood back he turned the black chess pieces and inset them within the latticework, and placed the white pieces in the white holly chair back. Placing both chairs back to back allowed you to look through both backs which then showed the complete position of all the black and white pieces on the board. To Andrew's amazement, on seeing the chairs for the first time, Kasparov immediately recognised the game to which the chairs referred.
Back to my missing gems. Andrew looks rather rueful. He came up with idea of making a secret compartment when a friend of his bought a Victorian ladies writing box for a fiver from a flea market in London 20 years ago. Andrew studied it for a while then sprung open a hidden compartment which contained a ladies diamond ring. A quick trip to the pawn brokers and his friend was 200 better off.
He does not put secret drawers in all his cabinets but some clients insist on them as a safer way of keeping valuables than in a safe. He once received a panicky phone call from a client who had stored important documents in her cabinet and had forgotten how to get at them. She appealed to Andrew to come to London to sort it out urgently which he duly did.
"I stood in front of her cabinet 45 minutes before I was able to locate the secret compartment and I had designed it!"
Andrew is also well known for his unique infinity cabinets. The first one he designed was for Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd, the Conservative politician and patron of the arts. Andrew managed to source some special infinity glass, which as the name implies will reflect an image out to infinity, from Pilkington Glass in the USA who had produced it specifically for NASA. Several years later Andrew contacted them again to get some more of the glass only to find out they had stopped producing because it was just to costly to manufacture. By now Andrew had a number of clients waiting for his infinity cabinets and he went on a world wide search finally locating the last 26 sheets in the Middle East. When those 26 sheets are used up, that is it.
As we walk around the workshops Andrew stops to show me his extraordinary array of wood veneers and diverse collection of woods. He is passionate about wood and I am starting to fuse my circuitry trying to remember the different types as he reels them off. He pauses to show me a piece of English Fiddle Back Sycamore, especially cut for him at the saw mill, and because of the beautiful medullary rays (the pattern you see on the back of violins, hence the description 'Fiddle Back') is quite rare and difficult to find.
Britain is a world-leader in the production of contemporary furniture with students of the craft beating a path to our shores to study. Andrew currently employs four people in the business and recently a furniture maker from Japan has come to work alongside him offering the opportunity to exchange a wealth of ideas. He is also Chairman of the Guild Mark Committee which fosters the craft and the industry of furniture designing, making, marketing and retailing in the UK, mainly through its guild marks and training opportunities it provides.
It is time for us to part, I feel I have imbued not only a wonderful insight into a brilliant furniture designer but also my nostrils are tingling from the fantastic smells of resin and varnish. So I think he thinks I have forgotten, when I ask once more about my secret compartment. His eyes twinkle when he encourages me to 'keep looking'.