The piece of jarrah is a dark sepia brown, with a grain so tight it is hard to make out. Some 200 years ago, this tree was chopped down in the southwest corner of Western Australia. It was brought to Bristol and hammered into the silt of the Floating Harbour to form a dock for Georges Brewery, at their site opposite Castle Park. With the development of Finzels Reach it emerged from the muddy water into daylight again, drying out and being bought by designer Beck Prior from a recycling centre. In her newly fitted-out retail space and workshop on West Street in Old Market, she handles the jarrah gently, showing the cuts she will make to give it a whole new life.
“Since I started Priormade I’ve always made recycled work,” Beck says. The kettle is on the little kitchen and a cheese plant is basking in Sunday morning sunshine on the windowsill. The space smells like wood shavings and linseed oil. “I’ve always been interested in not being wasteful, and I really like history. I love going to old buildings and imagining what it was before, and looking at old photos and comparing how the streets are now. When I started using wood, it was offcuts from a carpenter, and I was always really drawn to the way they told me that this was a church pew; this was a bowling alley.”
From a crate, Beck pulls out packets of geometric wooden drop earrings labelled ‘Thekla floorboards’ and ‘18th century ship-hatch’, along with delicate feathers made from old bicycle inner tubes. Written on the back in pencil are delightfully intimate descriptions of where the tube came from (tandem), how it popped (irreparable hole by the valve) and where (in the shed).
“Even now, seven years down the road, people either love my work because of the design, and they don’t really mind about the story – it’s a bonus,” Beck says. “Or they come to me and ask, ‘have you got any Thekla floorboards left? I really need a pair of Thekla earrings, I don’t care what colour.’”
Today, Beck is using the space for a lamp-making workshop. It begins at 11am with rough-offcuts of elm from Bristol Wood Recycling Project, and will end just after 1pm with shaped, sanded, oiled and wired lamps. A departure from Beck’s signature sculpted plywood, these lamps echo her favoured geometric shapes and celebrate the natural tones and patterns of the wood. The jarrah will one day become a set of lamps like these. We begin by marking the centre of wood with a pencil and a steel rule, and then don plastic lab goggles and a dust mask for a thorough safety demonstration.
Beck moved to this space in February, after nine years at In Bristol Studio in nearby Barton Hill. Deceptively large, it is split into three distinct areas. At the front, the shop, which opens to the public from April 3 2019, is stocked with responsibly designed bags, jewellery, wooden spoons, prints, wall-hangings and more, made by 19 local makers. Behind is the workshop space, with a shelf of paint-spattered acrylics and soft-bristled brushes on one wall, while at the back a wood room houses a clutch of new machines: a band saw, pillar drill and two belt sanders.
The space is the culmination of a successful crowdfunding campaign. After former residents Bristol Upholstery Collective moved to larger premises in Totterdown, Beck was offered it. “At first I was sure I didn’t want a shop – I was already too busy making stuff,” she says. “But I’m a product designer so it does make sense to have some kind of retail space. And then I just got carried away, as I always do.”
The campaign raised £10,000 in 28 days and paid for the fit-out of the space, including the machinery. Many of the 221 supporters were other self-employed creative business owners. “There was a really nice feeling and a sense of community,” Beck says. “It was quite moving, seeing how many people were up for helping. I really appreciate how many amazing makers I’ve met in the journey to get here.”
With the lamp gripped into a bench vice, the corners can be sawn off by hand, paring down the blunt square edges to create something more sculptural. After a go on the nerve-jangling belt sander, the shape emerges, softened; no more splinters. With another round of tea we reconvene at the workshop table, which is covered in lengths of colourful fabric flex, dark coppery lamp holders, and a set of small screwdrivers. Beck is reassuring and calmly authoritative as she shows us how to strip the wire of its plastic coating and wire it correctly into the plug. The top of the table is covered with clipped copper strands like angels’ hair.
As a child growing up in London, Beck’s defining feature was her determination. “I was never really trouble, but I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she says. “It wasn’t that I’d have a tantrum, it would be that I’d just do it anyway. I’d get up in the night all the time to do the things that my parents wouldn’t let me do. The story that my dad always tells is that when I was nine or ten, I cooked a whole roast dinner in the middle of the night. My mum and dad would wake up because the fire alarm was going off. It wasn’t always successful but I really wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to run the risk of someone saying no.”
Having left school at 16, it was Beck’s now-husband who encouraged her to study art at university – something she’d had no idea was possible. During the final year of her degree at UWE Bristol, Beck’s tutor was artist Brian Griffiths, whose three-dimensional collages often re-use existing objects and materials. “He really got what I was trying to do,” Beck says. “I was doing lots of work that played on icons and symbols, and paring things down to see how far you could take something and still recognise it.”
After graduating, Beck set up Young Arnolfini Artists Collective, established her Priormade brand to take on prop-making commissions, and worked with youth charity Young Bristol on art projects. “That was when I discovered that I really like working with groups of people from the community to make something for their area – something that they’ve actually made and not just consulted on,” Beck says. She wants to position the Prior shop as a hub for the community of Old Market, teaching skills and design in subsidised workshops and continuing to run the Arts Award for young people.
Beck produces a plate of cakes from Assembly Bakery (“every workshop I say I’m not going to get involved in the cake, and every time I do,” she laughs) as we flit between the belt sander and the jar of organic cold-pressed linseed oil from Sweden, with which Beck finishes her wooden pieces. One slick of the brush and the grain begins to pop.
The final touches go on at the workshop table. We feed our flex carefully through the wood, screw in a brass nipple and glue the lamp holder in at the top. Beck picks up one of the oiled lamps to admire its shape, and then digs in a box of lightbulbs to find one that is just right. Finally it’s the moment of truth: the plug goes into the socket, and on comes the lamp, everything wired correctly and shining proud. The comparison between the rough elm block and the finished product is amazing.
“I don’t want to be preachy,” Beck says. “No one wants to feel that this is a shop where we’ll be like, ‘oh my god, you’re carrying a plastic bag!’ but I’m trying to challenge some people’s ideas that things made from recycled materials are lower quality. High quality craftmanship is just as achievable, if not more achievable, with recycled materials.”
With the makers putting in shifts to run the shop, she’s hoping to have more time to spend on developing new ranges, like the jarrah lamps. “I’m always pushing the goalposts,” Beck says. “Even if a workshop is fine, I’ll always be thinking about how I can make it better. Once the shop opens, I want to stop trying to make it better and just let it tick away for a couple of months. If you keep being ambitious, it’s hard to reflect and enjoy it. So that’s my plan: to enjoy it and let it be a business, and not just a deadline.”
Visit the Prior shop at 58 West Street, Old Market, BS2 0BL, or find out more at www.priorshop.uk