Chester based furniture designer Suzanne Hodgson on the art of simple design
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 November 2013
Suzanne Hodgson left a successful career as a physiotherapist and now in a workshop near Chester, she puts her hands to a very different use
Suzanne Hodgson swapped a successful career in the NHS for life as a furniture designer.
She started out as a physiotherapist but for over 25 years has made high-quality contemporary pieces which grace the homes of clients from all over the world.
Born in Weston-super-Mare in 1953, she had a nomadic childhood in Africa and Canada, returning to England in 1973.
‘My father was a chemist working abroad and I had a very nice time travelling the world until I was 18 when I came back to England to do physiotherapy training. I am a very practical person and always liked doing things with my hands. I did not discover what I really wanted to do until much later.’
In the early 1970’s she qualified as a chartered physiotherapist, working in Oxford where she specialised in the design of specialised equipment for the severely disabled.
‘I did a lot of work with a sports injury clinic linked with an assessment centre for the disabled. We would look at a problem and then design and make equipment to match.
‘I loved the fact you could do something relatively simple to make people’s lives better. But in the end I left the NHS because there were issues over funding and I felt I was not able to do my job properly.’
Suzanne took a quantum leap and embarked on two years’ training with craft furniture designer John Makepeace at an idyllic country location in Dorset where he had founded a specialist college with an international reputation. Future alumni would include royal cabinet-maker Viscount Linley.
Suzanne recalls: ‘When I went for the interview I took some pottery I had made and also had to do a practical exam.
‘I was thrilled when I won a place because they only accepted 12 students a year. At 26, I was a mature student living in a Jacobean mansion and getting lessons from leading designers.They were fantastic teachers and it was just a brilliant start.’
Suzanne’s tutors included leading designers Ashley Cartwright and Hugh Scriven, part of the burgeoning craft movement away from mass manufacture and towards quality design and materials.
On leaving college, Suzanne set up a workshop in Northamptonshire and it wasn’t long before she was forging a formidable reputation with clients in the UK, Northern Europe and the Middle East.
Channel 4 fame came in 1996 when one of her dining tables featured on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV Dinners.
Early customers included the Harrods furniture department and her wooden backgammon and chess sets were exhibited at the Dorchester Hotel.
Suzanne moved to the north-west nine years ago and now lives in a house in Ruthin with her partner Russ. Her workshop is in Great Barrow, near Chester, and at just-turned 60 she is working harder than ever.
‘My design style is very clean lines, simple and elegant.I don’t do curly twiddly bits. It’s the material that makes the design and I like to let materials speak for themselves. Occasionally I will combine wood with metal and other natural materials like stone.
‘I really like the making side of things. It’s hard graft and long hours but I absolutely love it. I’m very fussy with my materials. I work mainly with native and sustainable exotic woods. and I spend a lot of time sourcing them.’
Quality comes at a price and a typical chest of drawers might cost around £7,000. But, as she points out, it’s an investment many people are prepared to make.
‘Some of my clients are very wealthy but others save up money for a particular piece because it’s something special to have in their home.’
Suzanne’s work has been showcased in recent exhibitions at The Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester, the Liverpool Design Festival and the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.
Recent Hodgson originals have included a Deco-inspired chest of drawers and matching bedside units in solid London plane with drawers lined in Lebanon cedar and suede.
Her ‘River’ console table was one of three Highly Commended pieces in the Design Prize 2013 by The Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers.
Whatever the commission, Suzanne always works closely with the customer. ‘If somebody comes to me to commission a piece I will work with them and talk about it first. They might have certain ideas as to a style they want but it is always a very personal approach.
‘Taste is a personal thing and people should follow an individual style. You don’t have to have the whole house co-ordinated - that can make for an unexciting place to live in. I think it’s nice to have pieces with a history and that mean something to people. It’s all about being true to the materials.’