Furniture designer: Katie Walker

We visit the West Sussex studio of this award-winning designer-maker, whose simple, functional and superbly crafted pieces are contemporary classics.

Meet Katie Walker

With a design approach similar to that of a fashion house, Katie Walker produces ‘couture’ furniture for shows, galleries and one-off commissions, while creating a ‘ready to wear’ collection under her own label. Characterised by their simple elegance and inspired by the mathematical perfection of nature, her pieces are a distinctive combination of function and sculptural structure. Recently, her work has been introduced to a wider audience through collaborations with design-led retailers such as Benchmark, John Lewis and Heal’s.

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Katie Walker furniture designer

Katie Walker with her Windsor rocker, winner of the Furniture category of the Wood Awards, 2011. The chair is made from a continuous band of steam-bent ash with a solid seat supported by turned spindles that resemble the spokes of a wheel.

My passions have always been sculpture and architecture. As a child, I was forever engrossed in art projects. Both of my parents were graphic designers and I have fond memories of growing up in London in the Seventies and Eighties, meeting lots of inspirational people at my father’s studio. After completing a foundation year in art at Kingston University my love of design led me into furniture. I took a degree in furniture and related product design at Ravensbourne, followed by an MA in furniture design at the Royal College of Art.

Katie Walker furniture designer

Katie at her work bench, creating a small-scale model of a chair.

I set up my practice in 1994, after receiving commissions at my final RCA show. My formative years were spent working as a designer-maker on corporate and private commissions, and developing the inaugural pieces in the Katie Walker Collection, some of which are still available. During this time, I was awarded a grant from the Crafts Council and a loan from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust, which allowed me to set up my workshop. I still use the original machinery for developing designs, but the furniture is produced in larger, more specialised workshops elsewhere.

Katie Walker furniture designer

Traditional methods are used to make the components of a 3D model.

I draw mainly on visual references from fine art and sculpture. I am always aiming to combine these disciplines with practical design, architectural detailing and the geometric patterns found in nature. I am constantly looking for ideas that can trigger a fresh solution to structural problems. My inspiration for the Ribbon rocking chair was the combined feel of the sculptural forms of Constructivist Naum Gabo and Japanese basketware. For the Windsor rocker, I applied the techniques behind the creation of Windsor chairs to the concept of the Ribbon chair. It was something of a eureka moment when the form emerged as a perfect translation of the wheelwright’s craft – the spindles are made in the same way as spokes.

Katie Walker furniture designer

The Marilyn side table.

I work predominantly in European hardwoods – ash, oak and cherry – and American walnut. All of the timber I use is renewable and sustainably sourced, mostly from the UK. I firmly believe the most ecologically sound approach is to source materials locally and to design with longevity in mind.

I usually start with words that relate to the form or feel I’m looking for. Then I search for visual references – this could be just a part of a shape or a sense of something . The initial ideas vary from being fully fledged, as with the Windsor rocker, to barely recognisable. At this stage, I might show my sketches to someone else as a reality check. My husband, Roland, an RCA graduate, is my harshest critic. Following this, I create a scale model; even with computer modelling, I believe a 3D version is unbeatable in terms of getting the concept across and giving the client something physical to handle. Next, I move on to the drawing board for full-sized detailing, then finally prototyping. Sometimes, especially with a more innovative piece, multiple prototypes are needed to get it right; some projects have taken years to produce.

Katie Walker furniture designer

A one-off version of the Windsor rocker.

My days vary enormously. They can be spent in the studio creating concepts or tackling business tasks such as invoicing, accounts and marketing; in my workshop, building models or prototypes; visiting the workshops where my furniture is made; meeting prospective customers, retailers or galleries; or on the road, delivering finished pieces. While I essentially work on my own, over the years numerous friends and family members have been involved with the business, as well as the dedicated craftsmen in workshops around the country who have been willing to push the boundaries of traditional processes to realise my designs. My daughters are very familiar with the furniture workshops and the exhibitions. It gives me great pleasure to see how interested they are in my work.

Katie Walker furniture designer

Katie Walker Furniture, 07747 615323, katiewalker

Photography/ Alun Callender