Home and Decorating Magazine was lucky enough to interview Philip Watts, the respected modern blacksmith and sculptor. Nottingham-based Philip Watts has just opened a new showroom at the OXO Tower, London.
How did you first get your job?
I actually have never had a job. My dream was always to work on my own and use my creativity. So what I do now is translating ideas I have in my head into unique, handmade architectural ironmongery creations. I’ve been what you would call a ‘modern Blacksmith’ all my life, working on my products and projects since leaving college in 1992. That’s the only job I’ve ever had.
What is your day to day routine?
My days are split between running our workshops and checking emails. After 23 years, I now manage a team of skilled design and build ironmongers in Nottingham. We also have a showroom at Oxo tower in London. Once the “first offs” of the metal pieces are made they then tend to take on a life of their own and are released into society.
What are the best/worst bits of your job?
I love discovering one of my pieces being used, on a building for example. I love working on what will become a favourite piece of mine perhaps. For example, the most evocative for me is a huge sculptural spinal staircase – a project made of glass and timber for a private client in Northampton.
With regards to one of my best moments was the creation of George’s Kitchen Nottingham, for which we won Best Restaurant in a Heritage building on 1 October 2015 as part of the ‘Bar & Restaurant Design Awards’ in the city of Nottingham. This beautiful diner located in a stunning Grade II listed building has also been nominated as finalists for other two International Design Awards, which we are eagerly awaiting the results for.
Sadly, the worst bits of my job is constantly checking the price on bronze.
What reactions do you get from people about your job?
Nobody really understands exactly what I do. I tend to describe in detail about the metal pieces I create but sometimes, the closest to understanding what I do is when I simply say ‘The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker’. (And that was actually particularly relevant when we actually made candle holders).
Now I say it’s all about getting under the skin of your clients. It’s about understanding as much as you can about their values, beliefs and ethos. If you understand these elements, you are able to recreate a three-dimensional form from the brand vision of my clients. I am here to create and sell their ‘experience’. Perhaps what best tells the story is describing the strangest request I’ve ever had…the one that I will never forget was the commission of a coffee table. It was made with a glass top and four polished aluminium plaster casts of his actual feet. It was a present for a husband to his wife because she apparently ‘adored’ his feet. That cost approx. £1,500 piece (and the size of the feet was 9).
What do you most like and dislike about your job?
I dislike the usual mundane business stuff, recovering bad debt, dealing with the end of tax year and generally trying to be organised. More specific irritants would include working manually on something exciting in the workshop without changing clothes and realising afterwards I’m going to mess up my car interior.
What I like the most is a genuine desire to create something unique, spectacular and different. That usually involves spending time in our workshop, with a lot of noise, smoke, dust and grime and then something wonderful is born.
What’s an “average” day for you?
In honesty, my average day is split between liaising with clients and spending time down stairs in our workshops.
I also like to spend time examining and looking at everyday objects: like urinals or door handles – they are such over looked interior pieces. People often forget to spend time looking at them. They are viewed as a boring product that you just need to have in the house. People may think they are bland and undeserving of any inspirational effort. Spanish Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi once said “God is in the detail” and he was right. That’s my average day really: it’s all about researching, checking, and developing interesting details.
Tell me a little bit about the history of your job?
Craftspeople have been producing practical and decorative objects in the way we do since the Bronze Age, the casting processes we use have hardly changed since.
Personally, I approach ironmongery from a creative or architectural point of view, like a sculptor would use clay, marble or stone. My aim is to keep offering bespoke installations, and unique modern products, with a truly unique twist.
I like to work with a basic product that people overlook, dislike or simply ignore. It’s all about the way people interact with the item. Again, urinals or door handles are part of this category. In fact we actually designed three different types of urinals. We used illumination as well as a palette of eight solid colours to choose from, which include unusual bright yellow, bright orange and fuchsia. For a small dose of quirkiness, I even created a urinal out of a galvanised steel tin set on its own plinth.
Personally, I think urinals can make a statement too, in a home, same with other seemingly boring interior elements, like coat hooks for example. Why not?
Ironmongery as a manufacturing process is an ancient profession really. That’s the beauty of my work really. Using old techniques to produce something new and modern.
Do you think more girls should consider going into this industry? Why do you think they might be put off?
Ironmongery is a very old tradition. There is a danger of blacksmiths and ironmongers’ skills dying out. Indeed they are slowly disappearing here in the UK. I believe girls and young people in general
should be made aware of our work. I compare it to large scale jewellery work and plenty of girls do that, what we do is just slightly bigger, dirtier and smellier.
Congratulations on your new London showroom! What should we expect from your new space?
Thanks. I’m really excited about it actually. The showroom is in the Oxo Tower building- so just on Southbank near the Thames, which is nice. We’ve worked really hard to make it a space that we think best showcases our designs to our audience.
What can you expect? Expect a space that holds some incredible new pieces this we’ve been working hard on this year.
We’ve got a great display of our brand new door handles which like all our products, are hand-made. The showroom’s also featuring our new lighting features that will be on display too. It’s going to be an incredible new space.
Can you ever imagine doing anything else?
I thought I couldn’t but I am actually currently been involved in the design of a hotel, which is pretty exciting.
If you hadn’t been a ‘modern blacksmith designer’, what else would you have been?
An interior designer, for sure.
For more information on Philip and his incredible creations, please visit his website at https://www.philipwattsdesign.com