‘It was a difficult time for young artists,’ says max. ‘We didn’t want to abandon everything we’d learnt, but also needed to earn a living. It seemed impossible.’
Walk through the woods with max bainbridge and abigail booth – the pair behind forest-and-found – and you will learn that you are never far from something useful. Where others see weeds, they spy vital materials.
A fallen birch branch can be whittled into a spoon, jolly yellow gorse flowers make an excellent natural dye, and a gnarled oak gall the size of a marble is so packed with tannin it produces a rare black ink.
Foraging is often presumed to be a rural pursuit, but max and abigail find ample supplies not far from their north london doorstep. much of the wood used for max’s turned bowls and carvedspoons began life in epping forest, while abigail’s graphic quilts and cushions are dyed using bark, flowers and plants gathered locally.
Combining foraged materials with traditional techniques, theduo behind home accessories company forest-and-found create beautiful and useful pieces imbued with artistry.
That was until the pair spent a rainy august holed up at max’s family’s house in france. Max honed his woodworking skills, while abigail taught herself patchwork and quilting using a book, an old singer sewing machine and a stash of french linen. The pieces they made became the foundations of forest-and-found:
chopping boards, spoons, bowls, cushions and quilts with a decidedly quakerish look. in order to fund the business, they did the odd bit of furniture restoration. ‘We’d buy something, do it up and sell it on ebay, ‘explains abigail. ‘With that extra £500, we could buy a car-boot load of wood, a lathe or a sewing machine.’
They now work with the forestry commission to source sweet chestnut, oak, birch and holly from epping forest; any walnut comes from a local furniture designer’s offcuts. ‘We spotted him burning heaps of the stuff at a barbecue, ‘says max. ‘Now he hands over any thing he can’t use and we get the most fantastic pieces in unusual shapes, which can determine the design.’
But the wood only does so much of the work. ‘It’s also about decision making and knowing when to stop, ‘explains max. ‘If a beautiful whorl appears on the end of a spoon, do you keep carving to get a good shape, or do you stop so that lovely detail doesn’t disappear?’
Max works slowly to transform an oblong length of wood into some thing fine and functional. He uses knives and chisels to carve deceptively simple forms, chipping away to make the fragile transition between the handle and the bowl.
In a pleasingly cyclical process, abigail uses max’s wood shavings to dye her fabrics. Certain woods contain a lot of tannin, which acts as a natural mordant; the heartwoods of different trees create different colours when soaked in water and left to ferment – brazilwood produces a deep magenta, plum wood makes pink and walnut creates yellow. If a metallic salt is added to the dye bath, the colour will swing from grey to green.
Abigail sources her unbleached calico from a mill in leeds. she submerges lengths of the fabric into her dye vats and, with each dip, the colour intensifies. she uses a quilting ruler and a rotary cutter to form her bold geometric shapes, which are inspired by english heraldry.
Yarn tends to stay undyed and each white stitch against the coloured fabric has a graphic effect. ‘I use colour sparingly,’ she says. ‘When a piece of fabric comes out of the bath, it might look horrible, but it’s all about perception. Put that scrap next to another colour and it might change into something amazing.’ Nothing goes to waste.
With a characteristically gung-ho spirit, max and abigail battled the elements to build their workshop during some of last winter’s fiercest winds. Thankfully, it remains in one piece, standing at the back of their walthamstow garden, where there is a constant hum of activity.
Strings of calico hang up to dry, coloured by plume poppies, onion skins, tea and indigo. Vats of dye brew, the lathe thrums and, slowly but surely, max and abigail achieve their goal of creating objects for an eager audience.
Forest-and-found supplies a few select retailers across the uk, including botany in east london and the future kept in sussex. ‘When we were at art school, we wanted to make things that would have some interaction with people, but rarely saw that impact,’ says max.
‘Now we’re making pieces that might be as rudimentary as a bowl or a blanket, but that people will use everyday. That’s what we love most about being craftspeople.’