In the Studio with Wilkinson & Rivera
At the entrance to their sawdust-filled studio on Blackhorse Lane, I met up with Grant Wilkinson and Teresa Rivera, the husband and wife duo behind the furniture studio “Wilkinson & Rivera.” The two met as art students when American-born Teresa was studying the UK, and have been developing a creative partnership ever since. The pair launched their own brand in 2020, their sculptural approach to traditional wood furniture has become instantly recognisable. A twisted stool, a wiggly Windsor, and a dancing cane seat chair called “La Silla” have been featured in the London Design Fair, The New York Times, and quite heavily in my personal Instagram feed.
What began two years ago as a jump into the unknown world of furniture makingGrant had been working as a set designer and Teresa as an interior designer in London–has proven to be a surprising success. From an 8’ x 20’ shipping container, the pair have managed to move their studio indoors, and they’ve hired their first employee. Plus they’ve added another helper during the pandemic, a son who enjoys sticking his hand in a wooden vice on their workbench when he visits his mum and dad.
“There’s something about the way it shows causes and effect,” Teresa laughed.
Despite the sudden deluge of press and new orders, the two try to stay humble and focus on their craft. There’s a lot of time spent experimenting with salvaged wood, sanding down rough corners, and staring at Youtube videos of septuagenarian chair makers demonstrating obscure joinery techniques. At the tail end of summer, we sat down with the young furniture designers (on their own chairs, of course) to talk about how they’re reinventing British artisanship and striving to stay sustainable while trying not to drive one another insane.
Daniel Penny: I thought we could start with the design language of Wilkinson & Rivera because it's pretty unique. Your work echoes tradition, for sure. But it's also quite eccentric. I was hoping you could talk about how you developed this balance?
Teresa Rivera: We started out in art school, in my case the Tyler School of Art. Towards the end of my education, I was in search of function, so I started working for a furniture maker out of Brooklyn and fell into woodworking that way, because I got obsessed with the idea of making a chair. I had moved back to New York [where I’m from] and realised “I cannot live in New York, I have to go back to London.” And ended up staying in the same house that Grant was living in. And then we kind of both embarked on these parallel journeys.
Grant Wilkinson: I initially decided to get into furniture making because I was trying to impress Teresa. I was also pretty lost at art school, quite overwhelmed by the possibility of making anything and then first started exploring woodwork more as a craft. You know, I just wanted to learn the technical ability of working with my hands. So I left art school and went and worked at Bellerby and Co Globemakers, who make sort of a contemporary take on very traditionally made globes, stretched paper, or hand painted with watercolours.
DP: That is so British.
TR: Deeply. Yeah.
GW: But they do quite simple woodwork, and I sort of started from scratch. In some ways, the way I learned woodworking in the beginning was quite self taught.
TR: It's a very small community of artisans. And as you can expect, there are many older gentlemen that are happy to provide advice. So you can just hit them up. And they're keen to give it to young people.
GW: And also, we're making chairs in exactly the same way they do, but they've never seen anything like them.
TR: I think they get a kick out of it… Or it makes them want to throw up in their mouth. Our work is very polarising.
DP: I have to ask, where did the squiggles come from?
GW: It's a good question.
TR: We'd always been in conversation about doing stuff together. In 2020, Grant was working as a set builder. And it was incredibly long commutes. I was working as an interior designer, primarily me sourcing. Constantly being bombarded by people who have done design really well, like the classics. I was almost creating this library in my head. And Grant was becoming more and more obsessed with joinery, and we come back home, and we're just like talking about doing something together. And he was working this horrendous set building job. And all he could really do is sketch.
We always say that each piece is born from either an obsession with a process or a sketch. And the Windsor, which is what people associate as wiggly–it was born from a sketch that Grant just randomly made. And he showed it to me, I was like, “I've never seen this before.” It was really refreshing. And it was just fascinating to me. So it was like, we need to make this.
GW: Our work crosses over between design and furniture making and sculpture, doing these very sculptural forms. And it does at times feel a lot more like art making rather than design. So that came from a sketch, which was about deconstructing form and just experimenting with shapes and stuff on the paper, and then all of a sudden, it just happens.
TR: We don't have a tidy answer.
GW: Now that we've lived with our work for a while, we started analysing it more ourselves. I think that the thing that unifies the work is the way in which it distorts the properties of the material. So we expect wood to feel very rigid, and very straight grained. And nothing we make is like that. It doesn't feel like wood should be able to wiggle or should be able to twist in that way.
TR: It should be inflated; should dance.
GW: It's something which has taken us a while to realise.
DP: I'm also curious to hear about the cultural influences in your work. The eccentricity element feels quite British, but I know that you're not both British. And I know that there are references beyond the British canon of taste. Can you talk about that multicultural element of your practice?
TR: Definitely. We have our dining chair, which is called La Silla. And that is definitely inspired by my Dominican heritage. It's caned and the style of something like a Queen Victoria. It’s a staple within a Dominican household. When we were first designing it, I showed it to my family. I think it was my sister who had said, like, “God that looks so Dominican,” but it was a contemporary representation of a Dominican chair.
GW: It's something that's quite exciting to see how it will progress as we go forward. Because as our son's getting older, we plan on spending more time in New York, and we're about to take a trip over there for a few months.
DP: Let’s talk about wood. Obviously, that's been your chosen material. Like what kind of woods are you working with? Why do you choose the ones you choose? What role does that selection play?
GW: We're now putting a lot of effort into where we're sourcing our wood, not buying timber that's been imported. So at the moment, we are almost primarily buying our timber from Saunders which is the timber yard out the front.
DP: Wow, very convenient.
GW: Amazing. Every time you make a mistake, you can just go and buy some new stuff.
TR: And their MO is amazing. They only source and sell felled timber.
GW: Wood that would just be turned into firewood, but they get there first and mill it and season it, and then it becomes these furniture grade boards.
DP: What is going on with this crazy pattern on this wood stool? Is that just part of the grain?
GW: No. So this is spalted beech, and beech is just a fairly typical pale wood, but the spalting, which is the pattern, is actually a fungal infection spread throughout the timber. Which will be part of the reason why the tree was being felled in the first place. But it creates these beautiful patterns.
TR: It is amazing, isn't it? The patterns that you get? You know, it is diseased in some respects. But yeah, Saunders saves it. And then people are able to take it and create heirloom furniture from it.
GW: For centuries, working with wood has been about presenting it as this perfect material. You would discard a piece of timber if it had a knot or a shake. And working with Saunders’ wood and the nature of how they source it. It's full of imperfections. And now with the climate emergency as it is, I feel like our part to play is to try and repurpose those imperfections for a way in which people find them desirable.
TR: It's worth more than just firewood.
DP: Before we started recording, we talked about working together all the time. What is it like being collaborators, and how do you share responsibility for everything?
GW: Sure, sure. It can be tough. We are brutally honest with one another. So there's no p's and q's.
TR: Definitely. And then on the flip side, we have someone to always bounce ideas off of. To have a sound board is an insane privilege.
GW: But in terms of the actual way work develops, I think I've, we've started to realise recently, the way in which our approach to things differs. Because Teresa is far more detail oriented than I am. And you almost start with the details and then build out from there. Whereas I'm much more of a big picture thinker, sort of starting with a concept. So we're coming at it from completely different angles. Yeah. But we'll each have our own ideas, our own sketches that will sort of develop on our own for a while. And every now and again, will almost pitch to one another. And there'll be an idea in there that will grab both of us. And because we know each other so well, I can kind of sense when Teresa is working something out, and I can just give her space, start working something else myself, and then we'll come back to it. We're around each other all the time. But it means that you, you get to have this flexibility, things don't just disappear. You can hold 10 ideas at the same time, and they'll all be slowly moving forwards.
TR: Yeah, it’s not like we have specified times for design meetings. We're forever bouncing ideas off of each other. So we'll be cleaning the kitchen and something will spark. We have tried to leave work at work, but it's just impossible. If you get a really good idea, or for Grant, it's generally he's like, solved an issue, some joinery issue that he's been mulling over and he'll just tell me.
But I think we have our own strengths. I have more of an understanding of design history and Grant has a better idea of joinery, and we can kind of piggyback off of each other.
DP: I'm curious about how you imagine people living with your furniture. Because they do look like works of art, some people may be reluctant to have a cup of tea in case they spill anything on them.
TR: We do want to be making heirlooms. And at the same time, we don't want people to be precious with our furniture. I think that's the lovely thing about wood: when it does get worn down, you can just spruce it back up. You could use our stool as a side table and just put your cup of coffee on it without a coaster — it's fine. You can always just sand down a watermark.
GW: I love the idea of our chair being someone's, like, resting place.