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Introducing Western Living’s 2022 Designers of the Year Award Winners
WL Architects of the Year 2022: Measured Architecture
WL Robert Ledingham Memorial Award for an Emerging Interior Designer 2022: Studio Roslyn
Nicholas Purcell’s work pairs contemporary design with the craft of old-world furniture making.
We’ve all had those moments in our lives on which we can look back and think, that, that right there, was when it happened. When some trajectory—triggered by a decision, an impulse, a shot from the blue—was set in motion that brought us to where we are today.
For Nicholas Purcell, that moment was when, 20 years into a career in graphic design and living in New Jersey, he flipped through a woodworking magazine and spotted a set of ads promoting some British furniture makers. “I thought, this is what I need to do. And we need to pop over there and see if it’s going to work,” says our 2022 Furniture Designer of the Year.
Purcell (who had taken a handful of woodworking classes in the past) and his wife, artist Brangwynn Purcell, hopped on a plane to the U.K., where he met master furniture maker David Charlesworth, in the hopes of training under him. “It was this little workshop in an old stone barn in North Devon. And when we walked in, a chair maker was visiting, and the local potter—who happened to be the grandson of Bernard Leach, the great British potter,” says Purcell. “I thought, this is crazy, and said yes on the spot.”
And just like that, Purcell and his wife moved their family of five overseas to live in that small village for nearly a year. “It was a bit of a ballsy move, but it was just such a spectacular year,” he says. “We had sheep in our front yard, a garden—all in walking distance from the workshop.”
A year later, in 2000, they moved back to British Columbia—first with a short stint on Bowen Island and then finally settling in Purcell’s original home town of Vancouver. The skills Purcell had gained during his U.K. apprenticeship set him up perfectly to launch his own furniture design business, Nicholas Purcell Furniture. At the time, it felt like yet another leap of faith. Purcell was concerned that buyers in the U.S. and Canada might not be as familiar with the age-old furniture-making methods he had learned in the U.K. “I was aware that the whole appreciation for the craft, for the history of it, would be cut in half by the time you get to the east coast of North America, and in half again by the time you get to the West Coast, where things are much more contemporary,” he says. “I knew it was going to be a bit of an uphill battle coming here, but it’s home, and Vancouver is a beautiful place.”
READ MORE: Meet Western Living’s 2022 One to Watch in Furniture Design
Purcell started to build relationships with local designers, creating custom pieces for their clients and pouring his love for the fine detail of the craft into them—something he still does with every piece today. If he’s asked to design a desk, for example, he’ll laboriously create hand-cut dovetails for the drawer. And all for one simple reason, Purcell says: “Because I love that, and I think that’s how it should be done.”
Many of the pieces from his current body of work were developed for galleries, exhibitions or events like Crafted Vancouver. “I always try to do one or two shows a year, the hook being that I get to do whatever I want,” he says with a laugh. “The problem is that I can’t really afford to do what I want, but the hook is such a big hook that I do it.”
Take the Finn collection, a limited-edition series of benches and stools Purcell designed in 2018 for Crafted. This project was one of his first collaborations with an industrial foundry, which cast the bronze pieces that make up the side supports. “I said to the guy, I’d like as many flaws in there as possible,” he says with a chuckle. “And he said, well, we don’t actually do that.” So instead, to get the ripples and bubbles he’d hoped for—features he refers to as “the honesty of industry”—Purcell and the foundry worked with an ancient process of hand-casting silicone bronze in sand.
Purcell says that playing with new materials—bronze for the Finn series, leather in his Kick chair—feeds his creativity, and expands his professional footprint both in who he works with (blacksmith Stefanie Dueck is a regular partner in his designs) and in the paths he is able to take. For example, that Kick chair was not just a foray into leatherwork, it was the fulfillment of a long-held desire to design a chair. “I think everybody wants to design a chair—many of the greatest chairs are done by architects,” he says. “And they’re complicated, because they require a lot of research and development if you want to do it right.”
Inspired by Finnish kick sleds (used for winter transport in northern Scandinavian countries) Kick looks to be both perfectly balanced, and ready for movement—as if it could be a genuine transport device. The fine details of the English Bridle leather back, the perfectly counter-weighted headrest—there’s incredible precision and attention to each detail. Judge Jo Annah Kornak, SVP and executive creative director of Holly Hunt, celebrated Purcell’s beautiful craftsmanship and unique techniques. “This is art as well as function,” she said.
Incendio, a series inspired by the humble campfire, has the appearance of simplicity, but its base of stacked “logs” is anything but. “I believe there’s a huge value in trying to step away from being a perfectionist, and being more creative,” says Purcell. “Having something a little bit out of my control—the incentive to do something very asymmetrical.”
The design required extensive modelling—using real-world, physical models, notes Purcell, who adds that he’s not a computer guy—to ensure that the final design was both physically stable and aesthetically pleasing at any angle it might be viewed from. As a result, the three elements that form each base create the illusion that the pieces, barely touching, are lying effortlessly in place.
It’s work so skilled and precise that one might think Purcell was born to the craft, whether or not that original journey to the U.K. had taken place. But whether it was fate or a roll of the dice, judge Brent Comber of Brent Comber Originals is happy that Purcell found his path. “Nick is wildly talented and I’m thankful he has chosen furniture as his profession,” he said. “His daring approach to materiality and playful details makes his work really sing.”
Who do you admire most as a designer?
My wife, Brangwynne—a writer, bookbinder, assemblage artist, painter and more.
You’re organizing a designer dinner party: which three designers, dead or alive, would you want there?
Carlo Scarpa, Vincenzo De Cotiis, Frank Gehry.
What do people often get wrong about design?
Two millimetres can make all the difference, and it’s never as simple as it looks.
READ MORE: Meet the Winners of Western Living’s 2022 Designers of the Year Awards