However, Duke’s training and experience is firmly rooted within a furniture making tradition. Having always enjoyed working with wood as a child, rather than train as a joiner he chose to concentrate on furniture design and cabinet making. He studied in Herefordshire and went on to work in various places around the world before returning to Scotland and setting up his business in Moray.
While Duke’s current passion lies within the more sculptural pieces he produces, furniture making still lies at the heart of his business. He uses local timber and knows that clients are keen to seek out not only local materials but often local craftsmen too. For example, he recently made a dining room table and a coffee table from a tree that had come down in the customer’s own garden. He uses local ash, oak and elm as often as he can. However, there are times when homegrown timber is not suitable for the design in hand…when he made a four metre long bookcase for a building with underfloor heating, for example, he had to use imported timber as the moisture content in Scottish timber meant it was not suitable. He finds that imported wood can often mean using planks that are not from the same tree, which, for high-class cabinet making, is hard to match.
In addition to making furniture, Duke is interested in restoration, and has found that a knowledge of older techniques and traditions informs his work. He carried out restoration work on a 17th century castle, restoring panelling that had been ‘worked on’ during the 1980s…this meant bringing the original panelling and the ‘attempted rescue work’ together in a proper restoration. Often this sort of job leads to other work, and in this case he was commissioned to make furniture for the castle.
Duke used to carve particular pieces, a skill which is useful in restoration work. Now, however, he sees little point in carving something life-like when the wood itself already suggests a natural design. He likens this way of working to the thinking behind an abstract painting. Indeed, much of his work is closer to art than furniture. He continues to experiment with different techniques and materials, for example, burning parts of an object to create variations in texture.
Duke’s business is busy, and while he would like to spend more time creating his sculptural pieces, he continues to make furniture and carry out restoration. As he chooses projects that particularly interest him, he only has one person working with him, partly because it is hard to train someone when he has little idea of what the next job might entail. He likes to express his own personality in his work, and that of the client when a commissioned piece is being created. A commission will depend on the client’s wishes and the location for which a piece is intended. After an initial consultation, Duke may produce sketches or make maquettes to enable a client to understand the working process in addition to the intended outcome. This means that clients are always welcome to come and see the work as it progresses, or photographs can be emailed when this is not possible. He rarely works from rigid blueprints and likes a piece to evolve naturally.
Duke’s work, with its continual element of experiment and exploration, is an evolving process in itself. As he says, he does not like to force a material to ‘go against the grain’…the wood itself acts as his initial inspiration, which means something unique is created with every project.