May 18

Meet Wood Awards judge Corinne Julius

Lead judge of the Wood Awards furniture & product panel, Corinne Julius is a journalist, broadcast critic and curator specialising in contemporary craft and design. In this interview, Corinne considers developments and innovations in entries over the past years, and the unique magic of wood as a material.

WA: What led you to want to become a Wood Awards judge?

CJ: I often joke that I’ve got sawdust in my veins. My family background is in furniture manufacturing, and my earliest memories include going to the docks with my grandmother to choose wood for the family firm, where I remember running up and down the huge planks. Even today, nothing makes me happier than going around a wood mill or furniture factory. I love the alchemy of seeing something that starts as a sketch, looking at the raw material, watching the making and seeing it emerge at the other end as a product you can use.

Wood is a magical material because it gives so much joy both when it’s alive and when it’s dead. There are not many things that do that.

I was surprised and delighted to be asked by Max Fraser to join the judging panel in 2015, and then to go on to become chair myself.

WA: How have entries changed over the eight years you have been a judge?

CJ: Overall, the quality of the work has improved. Although we still see some unnecessarily complex pieces of furniture; we see more now that allow the material to speak for itself.

Within the production category there are some very good things, but there is also a lot that isn’t hugely innovative. There was one year when we didn’t award anything in production because we just didn’t think anything was good enough. The subsequent years saw a marked improvement in quality.

CLEFT by Peter Marigold & Tadanori Tozawa, Bespoke winner 2018

The student work is often extremely competent, and the bespoke work varies enormously. There are excellent makers doing one-off pieces, such as previous winners Eleanor Lakelin and Peter Marigold, who have developed pieces that are very special and distinctive. This is what we are trying to show with the awards: that wood has a great many qualities.

Sustainability has been a big issue, and I’m grateful for the work that Sebastian Cox and Sean Sutcliffe have done on this. Now, it’s almost a given that if sustainability hasn’t been taken into account, we won’t consider the project. Many of the bespoke entries are now using wood from trees that have fallen or had to be felled for one reason or another. Sustainability is one of the huge plus points of using wood, and we take that very seriously. It could be waste wood and it could be solid wood, but it must come from a sustainable source.

WA: What are the qualities you will be looking out for in projects?

CJ: Across all categories, we measure the product against the intention, because it’s important that people live up to what they are trying to do. We assess how well thought out a piece is, the design, ergonomic considerations and how they are fulfilled, the quality of making, sustainability, and to some degree, price.

bio iridescent sequin

Bio Iridescent Sequin by Elissa Brunato, Student winner 2019

We don’t want to be prescriptive because the whole point of the awards is that they can show us things we hadn’t thought of. We want to see people thinking about how best to use wood, and to be imaginative in this. For example, prior Student winner Elissa Brunato used wood waste to make sequins. Wood can be anything, but we want to see designs that work with the wood.

WA: What changes do you want to see in furniture and product design in the coming years?

CJ: I don’t think we’ve reached where we should have with domestic furniture. We shouldn’t be producing mid-century modern lookalikes anymore – we are in a different century, and ought to be designing in response to the concerns of today. People need things that can be disassembled, transported, are well thought out and not too expensive. I’d like to see more work that tackles these problems.

I’d like to see more children’s furniture of high quality, because if we want to educate the next generation, we need to give them good things that can grow with them.

I’d also like to see early collaboration between designers and architects. This approach requires more effort, but by doing so, everyone learns from each other, and they produce something better as a result.

Finally, there are certain senses that designers tend to forget about. We know a lot about listening, speaking and seeing, but we’re not very good at considering smell and touch. Wood can have a wonderful smell, which shouldn’t be ignored! I think we are hardwired for touch. Touching wood is immensely pleasurable and is life-enhancing. It allows us to connect with something that was alive.

WA: What can designers learn from previous winning projects?

CJ: People should look at them critically and think about why things were done the way they were, and how they might do it differently themselves. Especially with the bespoke pieces, they will see that previous winners have been highly inventive and have developed their own techniques.

WA: Why is wood an important material now?

CJ: Because it is sustainable, and it brings beauty and connection into our lives.

I’m not saying it’s the only material, but it’s a lovely material. One that offers gentle joy. Sometimes it can be breathtaking, but amidst our complicated and fast-paced lives, the serenity and quietness of wood can be invaluable.

Beauty of course is all in the eye of the beholder: but there is a wood for everyone, and each wood is different. This is something important for designers to understand and explore.