Great to see Petter in the Bridport Times this month.
Arts & Culture
AHEAD OF THE CURVE PETTER SOUTHALL
Anna Powell, Director, Sladers Yard Gallery and Café
Bridport’s stylish new Literary and Scientific Institute has recently opened, completing ten years of thinking, planning, designing and refurbishing by an enlightened local team. My husband, Petter Southall, was commissioned to design and make the Enlightenment Wall, a 22-foot-high installation in wood inspired by the knots in nets. Consequently, the LSI has been on our minds day and night.
Now that his part is installed successfully, Petter is back in his studio designing different commissions and, while he is thinking, he is scraping down and restoring Kvalen, the 21-foot, traditional, Norwegian double-ended sailing/rowboat that he built as an apprentice piece when he was 21. This beautiful boat with its elegant lines and wonderful light tensile design has been an inspiration for much of his design work.
When he was 17, Petter left home to learn to build boats in Norway. He walked and hitched his way around the western fjords, finding the traditional boatbuilders still working in sheds and boathouses close to the water and offering to help them. After boatbuilding college, the Folk Museum selected him as one of eight who should learn to build the Oselvar Færing, known as the Stradivarius of the fjords. The design – which closely matches the row boats found in the greatest of the Viking burial ships, the Oseberg ship – had been kept a strict secret, handed down from father to son within one family. The last of these master-boatbuilders had no heir. So Petter built his Kvalen, (Norwegian for whale) and was later honoured to carry the coffin at his teacher’s funeral.
I first heard of Petter when my sister Laetitia organised several London shows and much publicity for the first-year intake of John Makepeace’s forward-looking, sustainable design college, Hooke Park. By that time Petter had run his own boatyard in Norway, built a super-yacht in Maine, sailed across the Atlantic and Caribbean on a classic Norwegian yacht and learned fine cabinetmaking from America’s ‘intuitive woodworker’ >
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James Krenov. Petter’s large-scale, solid oak dining tables with their striking steam-bent slatted bases were good fun for my sister to promote.
Thanks to the sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink who commissioned his first dining room, Petter did not leave the UK at the end of his course. And thanks to the artist John Hubbard and his wife Caryl, who agreed to let him use their barn as his workshop, he is still here in Dorset. I am grateful to them all. More than twenty-five years on, that barn is like a working machine with kiln and drying room, wood store and studio, five work benches, planks of air-dried oak and large steam-bent rings of wood stacked high into the rafters. Each tool and drill bit has its place. Petter has made steam bending solid timber into his art form. A master craftsman himself now, his deep knowledge and love of wood continues to give rise to a seemingly endless variety of designs.
Petter makes his work using the techniques from traditional boat-building combined with fine cabinetmaking and his own innovative solutions. He plans his moves as if he is playing chess. Fourteen apprentices have now trained with him. He works closely with his team planning their every cut so as to make the most of the timber and to achieve absolute precision of craftsmanship. The furniture they have made together is in private houses, gardens and workplaces, corporate reception areas and boardrooms, public spaces, hospital sanctuaries and gardens, science parks and sculpture trails across Europe and USA. In Bridport his boat- and rope-themed desks can be seen in the Town Hall TIC.
In April 2006, Petter came home one day and told me he had taken on Sladers Yard. We were looking for a Dorset showroom since closing the gallery he had had for four years in Belgravia, London. Sometimes you have to have faith in your husband. I had never even looked at Sladers Yard which was a boat chandlery at the time and filled with detritus, oil and two hundred years’ worth of dust. He and his team shovelled, scrubbed and vacuumed, removed partition walls, dug out the gravel yard to find the original drains, restored the original pulley system, made the glass doors and the big archway doors, fixed the stairs and clad everything in weathered wood. Our younger daughter Eliza was four. We opened in August and she started school in September.
Eliza is 16 now and works in the café at weekends. Sladers Yard has become a well-established art gallery and Petter’s furniture is a source of continual interest and wonder to our visitors.
Sladers Yard Gallery and Café, West Bay, is open Monday to Saturday 10am – 4pm Sundays 12pm – 4pm 01308 459511
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