A conversation with Marc Fish
Words: David Luckensmeyer
In some ways Marc Fish is like other designer makers: hard working, full of passion and ideas, wanting to progress, and concerned about his bottom line. But in other ways, Marc is different.
He never uses solid wood to make anything but exclusively uses laminated veneers and non-wood materials, and looks to develop a progressive or innovative technique at least annually. And he often accepts projects that take thousands (not hundreds) of hours to complete.
Marc Fish, Vortex Dining Table (2018) made from resin, carbon fibre, oak and sycamore. The base is constructed from thousands of pieces of oak veneer, carved and finished with a unique squid ink dye. Made in a series of seven editions, each unique.
That said, there’s a commonality to Marc’s story that resonates with many of us. He didn’t enjoy school, and he didn’t know what he wanted to do in life. But he always liked making things: ‘Give me cardboard, give me Lego...’
I’m going to skip over the surfing, skating, working at a local bank branch, restoring classic cars, even his early years of making metal furniture which he sold in nearby shops at Brighton – and finally, his time training at City & Guilds (an educational organisation in the UK), and under a local antique restorer.
L’Orchidée Desk (2010) in ziricote, aluminium and leather features hand cut aluminium and timber joinery. Photo: ASA Infinity Studios
Early in his career Marc was drawn to designers like Wendell Castle, Wharton Esherick and John Makepeace. However, there was a structural disconnect between his training and experiences and what these designers were doing.
Insight #1: Progressive design is not taught. It is learned.
In other words, we must teach ourselves through trial and error and experimentation. Marc also isn’t afraid to engage outside specialists for help, whether for glues and joint stress testing, or accelerated ageing and UV exposure testing.
Marc’s daily routine starts between 6–7am, which gives him a couple of hours before the team arrives for the day. He jokes about breaking the peace and quiet with really loud music!
He has six staff currently working for him, including Chris Funnell his senior craftsman. The workshop is co-located with Robinson House Studio in Newhaven, UK, a school founded by Marc in 2009. Theo Cook is the lead tutor although Marc takes classes on occasion. Marc shares the 740m2 building with employees, teachers, students, as well as other makers who rent bench space.
Senior craftsperson, Chris Funnell sculpting the Vortex Dining Table. Increasingly, the studio is exploring the use of non-timber materials. Photos: Marc Fish
I was curious about the layout of his shop and he lists off various discrete spaces including a reception and kitchen, a machine room, shaping room and bench space downstairs, and upstairs there is a spray booth, Marc’s office and workshop, and
the school, including a small lecture theatre for students. The ‘shaping’ room caught my attention: ‘It is a place for really dusty work; angle grinder work’.
While the school and rent help with the bills, it is commission work that brings in larger chunks of income. But commissions are always a compromise because clients have a set of parameters to meet. And if we perform well, more of the same work usually follows.
Insight #2: ‘You have to make what you want someone to buy, because they won’t buy what you don’t make.’
Such a simple statement could have been lost amongst our discussion of how to balance commission work with projects we actually want to pursue as makers.
I asked Marc how to make that transition but he offers no silver bullets. Just the rationalisation that: ‘Surely if I make something that is innovative, progressive and different, that wowed people, then I’ll get more people wanting work like that?’ Marc has followed that ideal since 2008, and while it has strained the commerciality of his shop at times, it is paying off.
Marc places special emphasis on what he calls ‘prospective work’. This is speculative, future-forward work that he shows at art fairs and offers for sale in galleries around the world. He describes this prospective work as his best work, and is perhaps one of the secrets to his successes to date. It helps that Marc commands substantial prices for his pieces, sometimes well beyond $100,000 USD.
There are nine different projects on the go right now, along with half a dozen designs in process for clients. Design ideas progress from preliminary drawings (either in pen or on an iPad), to presentation drawings and often models (both CAD and physical). Choosing which commissions to take on and which to pass up is crucial.
Insight 3: ‘It is quite rare, but not always, that commissions drive the progression of the studio.’
Three views of Marc Fish's Mokume-Gane Console Table (2022), made from 3,500 year-old bog oak with mokume-gane bronze finish. Photos: Simon Eldon
Marc specifically mentions his iconic dovetailed aluminium drawer sides as an example of prospective work that drove sales. He came up with the idea of cutting dovetails in solid aluminium drawer sides and experimented at length on the best way to do this, including laser-cut and water-jet-cut techniques. Neither were accurate enough as inside corners are rounded and required too much hand-filing.
This style of drawer featured in his L’Orchidée Desk (2010), and commission requests abounded. Marc recalls potential clients asking for similar designs, in the same wood, and with the aluminium drawer sides. Sounds like success, except that he would have been making the same things for years.
To avoid creative stagnation, Marc engages in a continuous campaign of experimentation, or non-stop research and development (R&D): ‘Lots of working at silly o’clock.’ Another take- home message is this:
Insight #4: ‘Prospective work attracts commissions that pay the bills tomorrow.’
Sometimes all this R&D can be problematic. If it is part of a commission, there are tricky questions about who owns the intellectual property and whether Marc can use newly developed techniques in future work. If not, then the final bill is going to be very high.
Fast forward a few years and Marc is working with knife-cut veneers and epoxy resin to create sinuously beautiful forms that tickle his design aesthetic. When pressed to describe that aesthetic, Marc uses his hands to illustrate 90° joints between members as something to avoid entirely. Joins, if there are any, must be fluid and organic. He likes 0.6mm thick veneers, in ethically sourced and renewable timbers like sycamore or walnut.
Marc Fish on the cover of Australian Wood Review with his Ethereal Lounge Chair in sycamore and resin. Subtle shadows and colour variations derive from the arrangement of veneers. Photos: Simon Eldon
Marc’s more recent work – his Ethereal collection (2018 onwards) – embodies this aesthetic. He loves the interplay of shades derived from arranging very thin veneers by the thousands, and casting them in epoxy resin, and subsequently carving, sanding and polishing the fluid surfaces. The casting process alone can take many weeks to complete, and must be performed in strict, climate-controlled conditions. It should be noted that the studio has now sampled over 20 families – epoxy, polyester and polyurethane.
Babel II Drinks Cabinet (2021). Constructed from thousands of layers of sycamore veneer reinforced with carbon fibre, the cabinet has a 136kg carved and textured resin top and a 22 carat gold leaf and leather interior. It took 2,571 hours to complete. Photos: Simon Eldon
Increasingly, the studio is exploring the use of non-timber materials. Sometimes it’s cold sprayable copper or bronze (metal powder mixed with a binder), or gold or copper leaf. Such sprayable metal is 99% metal and allows a surface that has all the attributes of a solid metal finish. Alternatively, Marc also uses silver nitrate to achieve a mirrored finish.
A particularly distinctive look is Marc’s mokume-gane finish which appears on limited edition console tables and shelves. Marc is progressing away from making furniture that conforms to his aesthetic, and towards an unfettered celebration of organic forms that please the eye. ‘The next ten years will be more and more sculptural and in larger scales’, which finally leads to:
Insight #5: ‘Do not limit yourself to one particular style or material.’
Babel II Drinks Cabinet (2021). Photo: Simon Eldon
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Marc about the kinds of people who buy his work. After joking about the need for large disposable incomes, he says his clients are often interior designers, and ambitious about creating aesthetic spaces that suit his pieces. He smiles as he says in passing: ‘Our work doesn’t just “fit in”!’ For many clients, a Marc Fish piece is the only thing in the room.
‘If someone said to me, “You can’t do this anymore”, I’d be like, “Well, I’m done. Take me off the planet because this is what I do. It is not a job. Creativity is everything. It is not just a way of earning money.”’
David Luckensmeyer is a Brisbane based woodworker and furniture maker, see www.luckensmeyer.com.au and Instagram @luckensmeyer