Hugh Miller | Furniture Designer | Studio | Liverpool

Hugh Miller | Furniture Designer | Studio | Liverpool
My design language is a splice of Japanese influences, Scandinavian timber design principles and arts and crafts detailing and articulations.
— in conversation with Liverpool-based furniture designer Hugh Miller.

Hugh, what is your most vivid childhood memory?

I remember my dad trying to take a photo of me when I was around 3. I was awkward and shy and kept looking away. I still have the photo he took.

What was the first piece of furniture you’ve ever made?

When I was 15, I decided I wanted to make a writing desk, so I went out to North Wales one weekend to a sawmill I’d heard about in the Mostyn Estate. I ended up buying a piece of 1 inch ‘Welsh Green Oak’ around 14 feet long, which the guys there cut up into 3 boards so I could get it in the back of the Fiesta. I didn’t realise that ‘Welsh Green Oak’ isn’t a species. ‘Green’, as you may know, means unseasoned ‒ freshly cut down. Wet. So, once the desk was finished and placed indoors, it all buckled and shrank and warped. It was this experience that made me become obsessed with wood.

How does your background in architecture influence your approach to furniture design?

My architecture background is totally intrinsic to my work. I see furniture as small architecture, and I approach my design work using the same process I used during my architectural education ‒ sketch, model, draw, make, amend, talk, present, redraw, remake……… I think I also compose my designs like buildings ‒ I tend to design ‘plans’ and ‘elevations’ in my furniture, and I end up having my work photographed in the same way.

How would you define Hugh Miller’s design language?

My design language is a splice of Japanese influences, Scandinavian timber design principles and arts and crafts detailing and articulations. I hope people would see these constituent parts in my work but, most importantly, I’d like my design language to be recognisably mine.

What are the major trends happening in the furniture design world at the moment?

There’s a lot of technology being adopted, for better and for worse, in furniture right now, but I’m not really interested in this. I’ve also seen the ‘i-podification’ of design over the last decade ‒ everything had rounded corners and is clean lines. I find this a bit boring as well. One trend I really like is the repurposing of traditional materials and details into contemporary design. Vo Trong Nghia does this with bamboo, and Kengo Kuma is an expert in doing this with traditional Japanese timber detailing.

What does it take to become a successful furniture designer-maker?

Tenacity ‒ sticking at it. I also think it’s important to do the ‘dirty work’ ‒ calling, emailing and self-promoting. Success doesn’t come to you, you have to go out and get it. Talent is a prerequisite ‒ it’s tenacity and grit that makes the difference.

You also give lectures, teach and write. What motivated you to become an educator and what do you aim to equip your students and readers with?

I didn’t really set out to teach, and it’s not something I’m naturally predisposed to. But my time in Japan was and is so inspiring for me, that I found I had a lot to say about it. After I wrote my book about Japanese wood craftsmanship, I started getting a lot of invitations to speak at universities and other places. Although I’m a bit of an introvert, I actually really like public speaking, so it’s something I’ve embraced wholeheartedly. It’s also given me the opportunity to go to some great places, including giving lectures in Osaka in Japan and in Venice, Italy.

Who do you admire in your industry and why?

I have three parts to my work ‒ architecture, furniture and art ‒ and I have people I admire for different reasons in each part. In terms of architecture, I really admire FT Architects, who are a Japanese practice, and who make beautiful timber buildings. In furniture, I love the chair designs of Hans Wegner (but who doesn’t) and also a Japanese designer called Santaro, who’s designed over 100 chairs. Santaro is really influential on my work. In terms of art, I love David Gates. He’s inspired by industrial architecture, and his work has an extraordinary balance and hierarchy in its composition.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

I’m not sure there are questions I wish people would ask. There are definitely questions I wish I didn’t have to answer so much ‒ ‘Where do you get your wood from?’, ‘Do you ever use recycled wood?’, and ‘I’ve seen this piece in a magazine/shop/on the TV, can you make it?’ would be three that I wouldn’t mind not getting asked. In case you’re wondering, the answers are ‘a bunch of different places’, ‘No’, and ‘No’. Haha!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

It may sound a bit trite, but I think I’ve come to learn that what you project out into the world is what you get back in return. I’ve had times when I’ve felt quite negative about work or personal things, and it’s felt like the world’s against me. Similarly, I’ve had times when I’ve been really ‘up for it’, like when I was in Japan doing my research, when opportunities and wonderful friends and amazing experiences just seemed to fall into my lap. I’ve come to realise that it’s not the external world that’s creating these different experiences, it’s the mindset that take into them.

What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?

I go climbing. I absolutely love it, and I’ve realised that it’s because it’s an activity that is entirely in the moment. It’s the essence of ‘mindfulness’, because you simply can’t think of anything else when you’re climbing. I’ve also started to really enjoy the heights. I used to be scared of heights, but now I like to look around when I’m high up on a cliff, and wonder what business I have being up there.

What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?

I’m really interested in Moral and Political philosophy, so my unanswerable questions are from there. I think the first ones that would come to mind would be…

What’s the right thing to do in the case of ‘The Trolly Problem’

Whether free will exists, or if the universe is deterministic, or if it’s a universe of chaos

I can’t think of a third one right now...

What are you working on at the moment?

My most exciting project at the moment is a piece for the National Trust to be added to the collection at Red House, William Morris’s iconic residence in Bexleyheath, London. It’s a contemporary response to the cast iron range that once sat in the kitchen at Red House and, as the piece will sit in a fireplace, part of the making process is that it’s set on fire and partially burned. The ‘Burn Ceremony’ will take place in the garden at Red House on the 29th September at 6pm. It’s a free public event, and everyone is welcome.

When you think about the future of Hugh Miller Furniture, what are you most excited about and why?

My goal for HMF is to buy a plot of land and build my own studio and home. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I can remember, and I can’t wait to do it. I’d love to do more design work for established brands, as I’ve done with Benchmark and Savoir Beds. It’s really interesting to design for manufacture, and create pieces that have a life of their own outside of my studio.

And now a Max Frisch question: Are you convinced by your own self-criticism?

I’m not sure I understand the question.

Can you recommend us:

A book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

A song: Life’s A Bell by Langhorne Slim

A film: The Graduate

Thank you, Hugh, for welcoming us into your studio and for the insightful conversation.

Hugh Miller Furniture