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I AM A CABINETMAKER (article first published : 2006-05-8)

Recently opened in the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg is a new exhibition which will score two firsts. It will be the first time the Tatham's new temporary exhibition space, the Schreiner Gallery, has been used and it will be the first time the Tatham has displayed contemporary furniture.

Robert Scott's I am a Cabinetmaker exhibition is made up of 19 pieces, most of which he has borrowed from their owners, and which range from work he did last year to items made in 1982. The works are large and small, from his reproduction of a Georgian bureau-bookcase, to an exquisite fly box made for the 21st birthday of a friend's son. But every piece is made with immense technical skill, coupled with an understanding of the material used and an eye for elegant design and functionality. Scott is the restorer at Heritage and Museum Services, a job that leaves little time for the cabinet-making that he loves, but this exhibition will give the public a chance to see his skill.

Many of the pieces are displayed on a raised surface, because, says Scott, the lines he has worked to create have greater impact close to eye level. As we talk, he illustrates what he means by lifting a small stool, the base made of laminated Finnish birch and the elegantly-shaped seat from Oregon pine, onto his workbench. Immediately it comes to life. I struggle to find a way of describing the shape of the base - "a curved triangle" lacks something. "A convex facetted equilaterally triangulated tube", says Scott. He explains how he watched a friend sitting by the fire on a carved African stool and the idea came to him to create a shape that would be both functional and aesthetic.

"Any studs in your jeans?" he asks. When I prove I'm not a hazard to the surface, he lifts the piece down to the floor and invites me to sit. The little stool is perfectly comfortable - the idea of sitting by a fire on it is very appealing.

Functionality is paramount to Scott - a piece of furniture might look good but unless it is right for its intended purpose, then it has no point. "A chair is four legs and a back, and it is limited by height - the seat mustn't be higher than 45 centimetres and not much lower than 38. But being able to laminate wood and bend it into a shape where it will retain strength is a major liberating factor in the design of both chairs and benches," he says.

As I look at the stool, a chair made from sneezewood and an Oregon pine table, its top set parquetry-style in squares and made from the wreckage of potter David Walters' bed after the floods in 1987 destroyed his home and studio at Caversham Mill in the Midlands, I realise that most of Scott's furniture that I have seen is in pale wood. "I have made pieces in dark wood - Georgian reproductions mostly," he says. "But the lines of contemporary furniture seem to work better in paler woods. I don't really think it's the influence of Scandinavian design - most of what they do is in pale wood because that's what grows there."

The use of dark wood for furniture is something of a hangover from the Victorian era of cabinet-making - not Scott's favourite period. He loves the work of their predecessors, the Georgians, and admits that the timeless appeal of 18th Century furniture, with its perfect proportions, exquisite workmanship, choice of materials and restrained embellishment is technically the ultimate challenge for the cabinet maker.

In three years' time, Scott will have a major exhibition of his latest work in Cape Town, curated by Julia Meintjies. Preparing for the Tatham has been a learning exercise in what is involved and even though he has not made new work for it, some of the pieces, which have been in regular use, have needed his attention. It was sculptor Gert Swart who suggested to Scott that he should exhibit. Tatham director, Brendan Bell, agreed and now furniture-as-works-of-art will be seen in a space usually the preserve of art on a less functional level. Though, of course, when Helene Train's portrait of King Cetshwayo is hung in the gallery, Scott's work will be there for all time in the beautiful, hard pearwood frame which he has now completed.

The Schreiner gallery where Scott's exhibition will be displayed is the new space for the kind of exhibitions that used to be in the West Gallery - now due to be redeveloped as part of the expanded Tatham shop. The new space, directly opposite the old one, across the entrance foyer, is slightly bigger and more flexible. It has been named for the Schreiner family, generous donors to the Tatham.

The exhibition runs until June 18. Margaret von Klemperer




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