Wax Meets: Ash & Plumb
Posted on: January 29, 2023 – Words by
This week we met Barnaby Ash and Dru Plumb at their beautiful studio in the South Downs of Brighton. Ash & Plumb focuses on creating artistic sculptural pieces inspired by neolithic forms from English Oak. We chatted about everything from how they met, to their travels from London to Australia and back to Brighton, to inspiration, to their dogs and what they’ve got coming up in 2023. We were even lucky enough to get a sneak peek and some new forms and witness firsthand the incredible skill it requires when Barnaby turns a piece at his lathe. Read more below.
Can you tell us a bit about Ash & Plumb…
Ash & Plumb is a woodturning studio based in the South Downs of Brighton. We make sculptural forms out of responsibly sourced timber that is native to the UK. We began our studio in June of 2020, I’d been made redundant from my role, and we’d been focussed on making pieces for quite a while so it was the perfect time to launch our business online and explore our craft further. We focus on sculptural forms that reference ancient ceremonial ceramics.
You said you worked in PR/Fashion before starting Ash & Plumb .. What made you decide on such a career change?
[Barnaby] We did all sorts before we started Ash & Plumb. Dru and I [Barnaby] worked in Fashion, among doing other more physical jobs. Leaving fashion was a big move for us, and we were looking for something that involved a more practical element - we really like working with our hands and exploring creativity without having to work according to trends. We tried all sorts, we made fermented foods and even considered a street food business! And then we found woodworking and we really loved it and it just felt like the right for us to be doing.
How did you both meet?
[Dru] Barnaby was a Fashion Editor at a men’s magazine, and I was working for a PR agency based in London. We actually met in Switzerland at an event where I was working with a brand and Barnaby was reporting on the event. It wasn’t until a year later that we got together as a couple, 10 years ago now, and shortly after that we moved to Australia because we decided we needed a change and to explore. We moved around Australia for jobs, but it just didn’t quite feel right for us so then we actually moved back over to where my family are based, on the west coast. And then after a few years, we decided to move back here and settled in Brighton.
Why Brighton? What drew you here?
[Barnaby] We’d lived in London previously before moving to Australia, and we still had a lot of friends in London but after living in rural Australia for years, London and a city, wasn’t the most appealing to go straight back into. We have friends and people we know down here, and people are just a bit nicer when they live by the sea. I don’t know if we’ll stay here forever but it works for us right now.
[Dru] Yeah. We found that Brighton, for us, was the right kind of community, it was something we could relate to. It’s such a creative hub as well, and it’s super easy for us to get into London on the train.
How do you manage the business? Do you split certain tasks or aspects? Or do you both do everything together?
[Dru] We’re quite fortunate that there are two of us and we’re able to divide our roles into two different areas. Barnaby is responsible for all of the woodwork and turning, and creating the pieces..
[Barnaby interjects] I do all of the messy work!
[Dru resumes] And I do all of the marketing (digital, social media etc), the business side; overall admin, the photography and the stitching. So between the two of us we’re able to cover all of the needs of the business where we’re currently at.
[Barnaby] Yeah I’m better at the messy work, and the inspiration behind the collection and Dru is better at the details and feeding back into the project from the bigger picture. Such as curating the works and expanding the narrative and inspiration of each collection that way. We’re very fortunate to have such a medley of skills between us doing what we do.
Tell us about your creative process.
I do a lot of research, I have a fascination with what forms inspire certain emotional responses in people. There seems to be a universal language of forms that people are drawn to, and then there are variations on that theme.
[Barnaby] Generally, I’ll get loads of reference points together and then narrow down things that we both really like, and the forms we’re drawn to and then I try to translate this into a language of cohesive familial aesthetic that pulls together all of the inspiration. And then I start from there, not necessarily accurately to the sketches but the sketches give a feeling and then I refine it as I make the piece(s).
[Dru] A lot of our work is about the imperfect nature of things, so Barnaby will sketch things out and then there’s a lot of trial and error, adjustments on proportions or size/scale. And we do a lot of experiments on things to see what works, what we want to explore further. It’s really given us the freedom to adjust and refine our work to what it is now, and continue to do so.
How did you find your aesthetic?
[Barnaby] Our aesthetic has definitely evolved. Over the last year and a half we have really developed both our inspiration and the functional skills it takes to make the pieces we do now. We started off making really functional stuff, and then I made these tall dried flower vases that started selling really well which were more on the artistic side. They went down really well so we figured we would just indulge the less functional side of the work and see where we went from there. It’s hard to say when exactly it happened, I wanted to develop some unique finishes and develop this aged aesthetic, and that lead into researching ancient ceramics and then it all fell into place really.
How do you get your finishes?
[Barnaby] A lot of wild and messy experimenting I would say! There’s a lot of deconstructing traditional methods and doing them in alternative ways to see what works. 90% of things don’t work, but a small percentage of things do and then you’ve got something generally original.
How long does it take you to from start to finish create one of your pieces?
[Barnaby] It’s really hard to say, our size ranges from very small pieces to very large pieces. The smallest pieces could take 20 minutes, whereas the larger pieces can take up to 3 solid days of turning.
[Dru] Yeah and that’s just on the turning side. Firstly Barnaby will spend time chainsawing the wood up to get the blanks (we start with a whole tree), and then once it’s been turned and the base has been carved off as well, then they need several weeks to dry. This is a process that takes weeks for the wood to naturally warp and naturally dry. On average it’s about 4-6 weeks for each piece.
You work a lot with English Oak, why this particular wood?
[Barnaby] Yeah we work almost exclusively with English Green Oak. It’s one of the only woods that reacts with finishes, all of our finishes are achieved through a reaction with the wood. The tannin structure and the grain of Oak and the way it reacts with the finishes is what we’ve really fallen in love with. It doesn’t mean that will be something we always do per say, but we’re really having a love affair with it at the moment.
You also do bespoke pieces and creations, how does this process differ to your normal creative process?
[Dru] For us, it’s really a collaborative process. A client will come to us with what their needs are, what they’re working on, what the space is, and a bit of a general idea with what they might want. A lot of our commissions come through from people who have seen our work on Instagram or our website, and also QUEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) which Barnaby has just been awarded a scholarship from as a Turner’s Scholar. But it is very much collaborative, we take the lead advising what we can craft or what we might recommend for that project and putting together a response to the initial brief. Every piece is bespoke and a one off.
Congratulations on being awarded a QUEST scholarship! Can you tell us a bit about that, how does one become a QUEST scholar?
[Barnaby] Thank you! So, it’s a very competitive process. You have to already show an established practice and a commitment to the craft and doing it as a career rather than just a hobby. They also like to see evidence that you’re going to innovate your practice and promote the craft sector as a whole across the country. It’s a three month long process, 200 people applied when I applied and only 20 people got it. It’s all quite intense, but you also receive funding to do further training which is amazing, so I’ve got training with three different master trainers. Hopefully I’ll learn some really amazing stuff which will take our practice to a whole different level. It’s a very special thing to be involved with.
Lastly, what have you got coming up in 2023?
[Dru] So 2023, is an exciting year for us! We’ve got a lot coming up. We’ve got big plans for how we want our work to grow and evolve, now that we’re in a new space. This has given the option to really explore some of the plans and ideas we’ve had in mind for a while. We have got some exhibitions coming up.. one at FLOW Gallery in Notting Hill from 27th March 2023. We also have an exhibition at Gallery 57 in Arundale in June and September (two separate shows). We’re really looking forward to working with those galleries and spaces on new work which we haven’t shown before.
Alongside that, we have got some smaller shows and collaborations we’ve been working on. Some with other designers which we’ll be releasing more information on soon (we can’t say anymore at this stage!).
[Barnaby] Yeah, and with all the extra training I’m doing, we’re doing a lot of research into experiments into new finishes and new processes to add to what we do. So it’s really important for us to make sure there’s enough space throughout the year to indulge that side of things and meet the need of people who still want work directly from us as well.