Remembering George Ingham 1940–2003
George Ingham with his Bush Cabinet (1994–1998) made from corduroy tamarind, saffron heart, brown tulip oak and MDF. This cabinet is now part of the Canberra Museum and Gallery Collection
One of the awards for AWR Studio Furniture 2018, an exhibition of work by 65 makers, was named in honour of George Ingham. Created and sponsored by Adelaide designer maker Adrian Potter, the George Ingham Fine Chair Making Award paid homage to its namesake’s influence. At his passing Australian Wood Review published several reflections on his life and work and they are reprinted here, along with some images of George Ingham's work.
Linda Nathan, Editor Australian Wood Review
George Ingham was known to have uncompromising attitudes towards fine design and craftsmanship and his own work served as the best evidence of this. He came to Canberra in 1982 from England where he had studied and worked as a furniture and industrial designer. He was commissioned with setting up the Wood Workshop at the Canberra School of Art and directed its focus towards furniture design and making. It was the first place ever in Australia you could go and study to become a furniture designer/maker.
In 1993, in issue 4 of this magazine I attempted to summarise George Ingham’s attitude to design: ‘A designer should be part of the evolution of style, part of and cognisant of the historical chain of that process, aware of the technology he is surrounded by and proficient in the techniques required, and lastly, mindful of the ecological impact of his products, both in the sourcing of materials and the survivability of the finished product. A good design is a total integration of these qualities.’
From the time he arrived in this country George exhibited annually in various venues and exhibitions, but he remained primarily committed to teaching rather than selling his work. In 1998 the Wood Workshop became involved in a project to research the use of spotted gum as a timber for commercial furniture production. This project was of great importance to George and typified his deep commitment to research and to using Australian species.
George was born in Pakistan in 1940 and lived there till the age of 10 when his family returned to England. He was forced to retire from teaching in 2000 and on May 12 this year, after a long battle with cancer, he died, survived by his wife Pru Shaw and his children. His legacy is the knowledge he passed on to hundreds of students who have in turn influenced others. More than that though, George personified a striving for extremely high standards of woodcraft as well as refined and sensitive design.
Above, left to right: Dining Chair, 1994, spotted gum, wenge, cane; Curved Back Chair, 1983, New Guinea rosewood, nylon; ‘Ming Chair’, 1998, blackwood, ebony, cane, stone.
Robert Ingham, UK, brother, furniture designer/maker, teacher
George and I had much in common, particularly our love of and aptitude for making things. From a very early age we played with cutting tools to shape and assemble materials, and it is not surprising that we both got involved with furniture design and making. Although only a year and eight months separated us in age, the choice of careers that led us to our final professions was determined, upon leaving school, by the quirks of advice that led him to Huddersfield College of Art to study design and me to Loughborough Training College to become a woodwork teacher.
I have George to thank for encouraging me to add the dimension of furniture design to my curriculum vitae by suggesting that I go to Leeds College of Art. He in the meantime, having graduated from Leeds, had gone on to the Royal College of Art in London and a post graduate degree in furniture design.
Some ten years later we were dis-cussing our futures, as brothers often do, and decided that our talents were not being exploited effectively. He had just returned from an exhibition in Germany where he was trying to sell his designs to manufacturers. What he discovered was a lack of interest from industry but a lot of enquiries from the general public. Where could they buy these pieces that they could see as well crafted prototypes? This prompted us to start our own workshop and become two of the pioneers of design-and-make in the UK.
We ran the venture for almost five years but decided to end it when we realised that the travelling entailed was having a detrimental effect on our families. George returned to Hertfordshire so that his children could attend the school that he wanted them to, and I took up my appointment as principal of Parnham College.
It was when I was encouraged to apply for the post of the new department of furniture design at Canberra School of Art that I thought of George, and the rest is history.
Left to right: Two wall-hung cabinets, the first made from hard rock maple and leather, the second made from tulip oak and leather; cabinet in silver ash, ash veneer, MDF, studio marker; cabinet in Qld walnut and enamel paint.
David MacLaren, furniture designer/maker, artistic director Bungendore Wood Works Gallery
I brought a mock up rendition of George Nakashima’s Conoid chair to George Ingham in 1982. He was just then establishing the Wood Section at the Canberra School of Art. George had recently arrived in Australia from England with 20 years experience of design and making in wood and other materials. Definitely not a wide-eyed woodie of the recently converted kind, as I was. I asked George for his critical assessment of my proud mock up.
In his gentle way he pointed out that a bridle joint (or any joint) bearing weight on an angle other than 90° would invite failure over time because the wood will expand and contract with seasonal changes. The wood fibres on the shoulder will compress, and not recover, and the joint will fail. The joint at the cantilevered seat and sloping upright was at even more risk.
As I carried my chair out to my van, I thought, damn, micro details standing in the way of exciting furniture design. Such was the passion of a woodie fundamentalist. I really was not sure I wanted to make furniture under such constraints. So there.
I did continue making and I occasionally brought drawings and ideas to George to get his opinion. I often thought of him while working in my workshop. He was my conscience whenever I was tempted to take that easy shortcut. Damn, must I? Yes, I must.
Last year I visited George and Pru at their home/workshop in Mongarlowe to discuss a particularly vexing design project. This developed into often weekly meetings on Sundays. Our discussions ranged from future projects George wanted to do, to the more general limitations that wood presents to design. The following observations represent my understanding, not necessarily definitive statements, about George’s thinking.
Lacquer. The edge where one board meets another, say a mitre, or edge glued for a table top (especially at the ends), is where there are micro-dimensional movements, due to exposure to seasonal changes in relative humidity. There is no perfect vapour barrier even with lacquers. Glue lines represent points of greatest vulnerability. Eventually, lacquer finishes will lift and separate from timber at the glue lines.
Glue Failure. With certain (many or most?) eucalypts, gluing is problematic, regardless of the glue used. It is the oil in eucalypt that degrades glue over time. Strategies of gluing promptly after machining or cleaning glued surfaces with solvent will not be successful. The oils in the timber will migrate to the glued edge and compromise the glue bond at the cellular level. (It can be argued that using solvents on the joints prior to gluing will actually hasten migration of the eucalypt oils back to the glued surfaces.)
Steam bending not only distorts the cellular configuration on the compression side of the bend, but also ruptures the cells. George may have been referring to rather severe bending, especially those bends where you can feel ripples on the compression side. The loss of cellular integrity results in loss of strength and eventual cracking.
Screws. Micro-dimensional movement of timber will loosen screws in time when used as the primary fasteners holding timber components together. George speculated that one could use a neoprene washer to absorb the micro-dimensional movement that otherwise would compress timber at the screw head and result in the screw becoming loose.
I have travelled far from that day with the copy of a Conoid chair. I have come to share with George these limitations imposed on furniture design. I was fortunate to share many Sundays with George and Pru, to be with the furniture that he and Pru had made. They had great pleasure in the near completion of their home/workshop/studio, built with all the intention of design and attention to detail one finds in George’s masterpiece cabinets.
Above left: Spring chair, 2000, rock maple, kevlar lamination, mylon monofilament, powder coated steel
Above right: See Through chairs, 1991, wenge stainless steel trace
Mark Woolston, furniture designer/maker, software architect, former student
I find it hard to reflect on my time with George without thinking in terms of what I have learnt from him —perhaps a self-centred view but one that is probably shared by many of my colleagues. And really what better way to be remembered—an enduring legacy of knowledge, perspective and style. It will be even more fitting if those who knew him are able to pass these ideas on to subsequent generations of designers and makers.
George first opened my eyes to the riches he had to impart at a week-long summer school he and Pru ran to make a dovetailed box. These few days were enough to transform my perceptions of fine woodwork and in time change my life. My first epiphany—and I suspect this is not unusual when first exposed to the work of a master—was a vastly expanded sense of excellence in woodworking. To simply glimpse levels of skills and finish that you didn’t even know existed is a big first step to approaching those levels.
A year later I was undertaking full time study under George. Being trained as a scientist, it took me a while to understand and adjust to George’s style of pedagogy based as it was on a mix of the traditions of both European master/apprentice and Japanese sensei/student. In retrospect I can see that George carefully planned each step of enlightenment for each student. He understood the immensely greater value of coming to a realisation yourself rather than simply being told some truism.
Integrity was a foremost issue for George. At one level it meant being honest in applying your skills—famously in executing a hidden joint to the best of your ability, not simply because to take short-cuts may jeopardize its strength but because you, the maker, know in your heart/mind whether you have made your best effort. But integrity goes deeper than this. It goes to the heart of why we hand-make in an era of mass production. I think George saw a clear parallel between integrity in one’s working habit and integrity in life.
The lesson I most value relates to the balance between tradition and innovation. George’s line was simply that you should thoroughly understand the rules you are about to break. You should not trivially appropriate idioms from your past or other traditions but seek to understand how they arose and why they exist before adapting them. The design George practised and taught is based on respect for tradition without being constrained by it. This respect is grounded in a valid understanding of a joint, technique or style.
George’s teaching also had a sound logical emphasis. He taught that achieving consistently high quality outcomes was based on developing and understanding systems. Processes like creating sharp edges on tools, finely fitting tenons to mortises and bending by lamination are all systems that are learnt, repeated and refined by understanding. He saw the process of design and construction as a series of logical problems to be solved.
I feel very privileged to have been a student of George Ingham, to have experienced his style of teaching, his commitment, his gentleness and his passion. Many of these attributes have fallen from grace in the mainstream of life today, but I will continue to live by them and where possible preserve them. George will always be peering over my shoulder and guiding me in my work and I know many others will feel that same presence.
George Ingham’s concept sketches for Bush Cabinet, as shown in the image at the top of this page.
Adrian Potter, furniture designer/maker, former student
George Ingham was a remarkable man. He worked at a level of design and making that are rarely matched, and with a considerable output despite his responsibilities as Head of the Wood Workshop at the Canberra School of Art.
The Wood Workshop, George told me once, was run like a martial arts dojo. He knew about dojos because he had spent a lot of time in them as a pupil. In the Wood Workshop he was the Master who guided us as lowly pupils to do better than we otherwise could.
I have not met a student of the Workshop who was close to George the Master whilst still studying. Indeed there are few apart from Pru and their family who were close to him at all; he could be a prickly echidna sometimes. Nevertheless he was inspirational for many people, including myself. George set a standard of excellence in living that we can continue to strive towards, and showed astonishing inner strength and courage in the face of pain and death.
Since his death I have been asking myself the question: who was George Ingham the man? These I know he loved: Pru and their family, their home at Mongarlowe, grainy wood, the unpassioned beauty of a Wadkin machine, fine workmanship, handplanes and their gossamer shavings, chairs, the bow and arrow, a straight shot, sketching at the seaside, singing, skiffle music, ideas and intelligent conversation, witty humour, great trees, students who do well and groups of students doing well, the Wood Workshop, wisdom in others, the logic of design, a critical eye, the designs of Hans Wegner, old tools, the shapes created in the warp and weft of a curved chair seat, delicious food, life, simple forms, resolved designs, peace and quiet, the Goons, fine finishes and flawless joints, drawing, archaeology, optical illusions, play, recognition of his accomplishments, making exquisite objects, razor sharp edges, the aesthetic in all things…
Praise to you George, thank you for your gifts.
Reprinted from Australian Wood Review magazine issue 40, September 2003.