For the love of wood

2011-05-11 00:00

HE lives in a world beyond time, his office is a collection of wood-working tools, historical memorabilia and a fridge in the corner because he often forgets to eat. He has hundreds of bits of paper tacked to the wall in random order. Some faded yellow — years old.

He may appear to operate in chaos, but Rob Scott is meticulous in regard to his actual craft — cabinet-making. He restores and presents historical artifacts in cabinets or wooden display cases. Among the mounds of things piled on his desk are empty packets, magazines and strange ingredients vital to his craft — rabbitskin glue, varnish and nails.

His day job is as a provincial restorer for the many museums in KwaZulu-Natal and he has dozens of jobs waiting for his attention. But Scott never seems to be in a hurry. He magically materialises a packet of biscuits and tea, and chats about the loves of his life — wood, furniture and history.

While some of his pieces belong in the homes of millionaires, Scott seems unconcerned about money. For him the pursuit of knowledge is what it is all about. His next adventure is to learn the craft of timber framing in the United States, an ancient woodcraft that is mostly forgotten in our times, but which has been revived in parts of the globe by groups of enthusiasts.

Scott is known locally for his artistic contribution to furniture and his unique crafting with indigenous wood. He uses indigenous wood like hard pear, rosewood, knob wood or sneezewood, among other indigenous species­.

When Scott showcased his furniture exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg in 2006 it focused on the beauty of function and form. He received wide acclaim, but still resisted the urge to become a commercial producer.

Scott, like so many artists, works only on commission, and when he has the time. Today so much furniture is manufactured in factories and assembled for sale, that handmade furniture using old-fashioned techniques is incredibly rare and sought after.

He said: “I try to use wood that has been felled for necessity. I have a network of farm friends who alert me when there is a fallen tree that I can use or one that has been struck by lightning.”

He scoffs at those who believe that yellowwood is the best South African wood on offer. He is an environmentalist at heart and is angry­ that plundering the yellowwood forests­ for timber has in fact caused the Cape Parrot to become endangered.

In his work as museum restorer, budgets dictate he must use wood that is most afford-able — mostly oregon pine. He makes exhibits that are functional and attractive, but when given free rein he tries to use all kinds of hard- wood. One day he may be mounting fossils­ on a board with labels that have been laser printed onto wood and the next week he may be crafting wooden stands for the skulls of various antelope that need to be displayed to show the different sizes.

All exhibits need to be shown in a correct format and should be educational and interesting. It is a benefit for Scott that he has an enormous interest in history. His office is littered­ with old photographs that have been removed from outdated museum displays.

Scott is known to be as outspoken about his ideas on history as he is about his thoughts on art. Ironically, he does not always make furniture that leans towards historical influences. He has made a name for himself by making modern functional furniture that uses­ old-fashioned techniques.

Two things drive his passion — a love of nature and a yearning to preserve ancient cabinetry techniques — which is why he finds himself about to embark on a new adventure. In the tradition of the West it would have to be bigger and better.

This time it is historical building that has captivated his interest. At the end of May he will take a two-month sabbatical to learn the art of timber framing.

Scott said: “I have always been interested in the way wood has been used in architecture and how the builders in historic times achieved the strength and complexity of their designs using wood. In cabinet-making I have learnt many things about joinery and design, but I believe this is the next step for me.

“Sadly, I don’t think I will be able to apply my knowledge very easily when I return to South Africa. People in South Africa are not adventurous when it comes to design. Our wooden homes are not creative.

“Using timber-framing techniques one can achieve incredibly beautiful structures — a good example would be the Globe Theatre in London. It has stood the test of time and it remains an architectural gem.

“Generally, people have a lack of curiosity — I am looking forward to sharing my passions. I am looking forward to coming back inspired and using opportunities to use our local timber more creatively.”



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