Head and Haft founder Chris Thorpe has ambitious plans to build a designer-maker collective on the beautiful Cornish coast. He is paving the way by designing and making striking furniture and homewares from locally sourced timber.
Within the timber of a dead tree lies a story. Unlocking that potential requires skill, care and passion. When his grandfather’s friend gave him a lathe, designer-maker Chris Thorpe found he had the patience and ardour to turn the lock.
“I discovered that it was one of the best lathes you could buy,” explained Chris. “I set it up in my girlfriend’s garage and started doing five to six hours every day, after college, learning how to use it. There was a lot of bowl turning. That’s how it started.”
At the time Chris was studying for a degree in 3-D design at Falmouth University.
“I fell in love with Falmouth when I went for the interview. The facilities were amazing and what really sold me was the ability to use them for your own projects,” said Chris. “From the start I wanted to have my own business so all my projects were devised around working as a designer-maker. I did a lot of strategic planning and projects that developed a business plan.”
At the end of his second year, Chris won a scholarship that funded a trip to research the art of axe making in Sweden. Cycling and camping across the country, Chris took lessons in axe making at Gransfors Bruk, the best axe making workshop in the world. He also took log framing and wood working courses.
Inspiration for the name of his business came from this trip. The head and the haft are the two parts of an axe.
As well as an interest in tool-making and woodcraft, Chris was keen to explore different natural materials. With the help of the University, he was afforded the opportunity to work with Amorim, the world leader in cork production and manufacturing.
“After I completed my A-levels I went to live in Portugal for a couple of years. I wanted to surf and so worked in a local school. The Amorim family sent their children to the school so I got to know them a little bit,” explained Chris. “On my course I started working with natural materials, especially cork. As a result, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Portugal with Amorim. I learnt everything from how they grow cork, harvest it and the products that are made with it. I developed a relationship with them that continues today.”
By the time graduation came Chris had built a steady flow of work, but not enough to sustain him full time. He took a job as a boat builder and continued to develop his business.
“After six months, I had too much personal work so quit the job,” recalled Chris. “My blog has always been my strongest marketing tool. I have always been a prolific blogger so that was a good way to attract customers. I was always keen to build a strong brand identity around the honesty of manufacture, materials, and where I source my materials. I post a lot about my processes and the day to day stuff. In part I am selling the lifestyle. Cornwall is a beautiful place and people buy into that, especially people in the city.”
A lighting designer discovered Chris’s work and started commissioning pieces for their clients. A wooden pendant lampshade that formed part of Chris’s final project was commissioned for a restaurant chain. This has led to further work including cork pendant lampshades and beads for a giant abacus.
“They come to me with an idea, sometimes a mad idea, asking if I can help design and make it. We spend around a week going back and forth designing the concept and making it work. Then I go into production. They are nice jobs because there’s no repetition. And sometimes they are a bit wacky!”
Chris’s ambition is to find a business partner and develop Head and Haft into a collective for like-minded designers.
“I would like a partner in the business,” said Chris. “It’s tough on your own and solitary. You get stuck in your own ideas. Sometimes, it’s hard to get outside them. Even someone who has no idea about design will point out something very obvious that you don’t see because you are so consumed in it.
I don’t want it to be just me and just about woodwork. I’d like to build a collective of like minded, multi-disciplinary designers focused on products, furniture and homeware. It would be great to find a ceramist, metal workers and for us to be a designers’ studio. The idea is to build a strong brand and for people to start recognising the brand for the quality of the work.”
Chris’s Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
1. You have to be really passionate because it is immersive; you live and breathe it. That is good in some ways, but it is also good to switch off and have a break. With handmade products, the streets are not paved with gold. Often people don’t realise the margins on the products. So you have to love it. It is a sacrifice and not the easiest way to make money, but it is the most enjoyable.
2. People always told me to keep your accounts in order and up to date. It’s not advice that I have followed! Now I have a build up of paperwork which I need to sort out. So, stay on top of your clerical work.
3. One of my mistakes has been trying to do everything myself. I struggle to delegate because the results might not be as I want it. I learnt to write code so that I could build a website, but that has meant I didn’t have a website until recently. There needs to be a balance between doing things myself and finding the right people for the job.