Symmetry and balance. These are words that British sculptor Owen Bullett uses a lot in describing both his design for the ‘Love Rocker’ – created in partnership with Belgian table manufacturers and wood specialists Heerenhuis – and the collaboration itself.

On a typically grey Flanders day, Bullett is sitting on a table in the Heerenhuis workshop in a warehouse 25 minutes from Antwerp’s city centre, carving hefts out of an assemblage of wooden semi-circles that will, in a matter of days, become his contribution to our annual Handmade exhibition in Milan. Made from lightweight Thermowood (created by taking wood, in this case, African oak, and baking it at 200°C for a week until there is no moisture left in it), the chair is a lighthearted take on the theme of this year’s exhibition, love. Much like a seesaw, the rocker only really functions if two people are sitting in it. ‘That’s part of the humour of it,’ says the east London-based Bullett, whose sculptural pieces often play with ideas of tension and balance. ‘At the moment, if you’re a Brit coming across to the continent, you’ve got to have a good sense of humour.’

Love Rocker by Owen Bullett Studio and Heerenhuis
Love Rocker by Owen Bullett Studio and Heerenhuis
The ‘Love Rocker’ during stages of assembly at the workshop. Photography: Nicolas Descottes

The piece is made up of thick semi-circles of wood, which have been laminated together to create a mirrored, symmetrical structure. The straight edges form the seat and the back, while the curved rocking edges have a dappled surface, made by hand using a rotary cutter. A subtle gradient in the wood is created using oils, applied by Heerenhuis’ ‘oiling magician’, Mustafa. The lamination technique harks back to Bullett’s early career. Freshly graduated from the Royal College of Art and with limited resources, he had to work out how to turn affordable flat planks of wood into three-dimensional artworks.

The finished chair represents what Bullett describes as ‘a really wholesome collaboration’. It is also an unlikely one. Heerenhuis is a singularly-focused business – its tagline is ‘We make tables. That’s what we do’ – and it has only collaborated with an external designer once before. Bullett is not new to the idea of making furniture, and his studio regularly produces pieces for other designers to supplement its income, but he is very definitely a sculptor rather than a designer. Then again, this kind of unlikely but fruitful partnership has been a hallmark of the Handmade exhibition over the last ten years.

Love Rocker by Owen Bullett Studio and Heerenhuis
The ‘Love Rocker’ during a stage of assembly at the workshop. Photography: Nicolas Descottes

‘The first email contact from Geert [Legein, Heerenhuis’ co-founder] said, “We make tables. We hear you’re interested in making a seat. How do you suggest we proceed?”’ says Bullett, while sitting in the Heerenhuis office drinking coffee with the company’s other founder Louis Van Haesebrouck. ‘We share a great love of wood, so that was the starting point for everything. Right from the start, there was this idea of something having two parts. I was interested in it from a conceptual side, having these two entities that work together to create one thing, this idea of being in the same moment but looking in different directions.’

It was Heerenhuis that introduced Bullett to Thermowood. ‘We are always thinking about the practical side. In this case, firstly the weight,’ says Van Haesebrouck, who can reel off the cubic weights of different woods at will. He compares the semi-circles to half table tops. ‘You could make ten small tables out of them – it’s half a restaurant!’

Louis Van Haasebrouck and Geert Legein
Louis Van Haasebrouck and Geert Legein at the Heerenhuis workshop. Photography: Nicolas Descottes

The collaboration seems to be opening the business up to further experimentation. Currently, most of Heerenhuis’ products are designed by Legein, a former antiques dealer who started the company as an antiques business in 1978 before turning to manufacturing its own pieces in 1998. ‘We are hoping that this is just the start,’ says Van Haesebrouck. ‘We are open to change, but we have to find a compromise, because we have to find a balance between what we want to be as Heerenhuis and what is possible in design. Maybe in six months, you will see a Heerenhuis by Owen.’ §

As originally featured in the August 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*245)