Nicola Lisle talks to an acclaimed Oxfordshire furniture designer and maker

As a child, Philip Koomen was, he admits with a laugh, “a dreamer”. While his brother Ray was showing signs of becoming a successful businessman, Philip was the one getting told off at school for staring out of the window during lessons.

“My mother always said that out of the two of us, she was more worried about me because I just used to dream all the time,” he chuckles. “But I think dreaming is really important - I’m a professional dreamer!”

What Philip probably never imagined during those childhood daydreams was that he would become a furniture designer and maker and have his own workshop by the age of 22.

After finishing school, he headed off to university to study Applied Social Science, but soon realized that it wasn’t taking him in the direction he wanted. “By the time I got to college, I thought, actually I don’t really want to do this!“ he says. “It was just preparing me to become a teacher or social worker, and that’s not where I wanted to go.”

When Philip finished his degree, it was time for a re-assessment. “I thought, how could I make a living doing something that would be creative? My first thought was architecture, but at 22 I couldn’t start training to be an architect and I wasn’t sure I’d be any good.

“But furniture design has been described as small-scale architecture, and the level of autonomy that you have appealed to me.”

For a while, Philip worked as a self-employed jobbing builder in Henley, which he describes as “quite fun and well paid”, before going off to study furniture design and technology at Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe.

“It was actually a technology-based course for production engineers, but it was a good introduction to how to make things,” he recalls. “But after a year I thought there was no point in staying on to get a college diploma and do more of the same, so I persuaded a friend to leave with me and we set up a workshop at my parents’ place in Henley.

“We just advertised in the Henley Standard, and work started coming in through that, remarkably, and we had some quite elaborate commissions.

“I learnt the craft through repairing and restoring antique furniture, and making copies. People would come along and ask for a sixth chair to complete a set, or two more to go with the six they had, so I was making copies of Chippendale-style chairs and that kind of thing.”

In 1984 Philip moved to his current workshop in Checkendon, where his work has continued to expand. He now produces a range of work, from small, one-off commissions to large-scale projects, both here in the UK and overseas.

Although he enjoys the private commissions, he is passionate about putting his work in the public domain for all to enjoy.

“A few years ago I was furniture designer-in-residence for the Hay Literary Festival, and we did all the stage furniture and a big sculptural bench. That was really exciting, because the nature of the event made it very public.”

Closer to home, in 2012 he was involved in the Sylva Foundation’s OneOak project, which saw hundreds of children and craftspeople creating works of art from a 220-year-old oak tree from the Blenheim Estate.

In the same year, he again used Oxfordshire oak to create new choir stalls for Dorchester Abbey, a project that was, for him, a dream job. “There is something very special about ecclesiastical commissions,” he says. “It’s on another level altogether.”

Using local timber is of prime concern to Philip, and inspired him to do a PhD in Sustainable Furniture Design at Brunel University. In 2004 his research became the basis for a touring exhibition, which explored the ways in which the diverse range of local timbers has informed his work.

Now, after 40 years in the business, Philip feels privileged to still be doing a job that he loves. “You have to steer,” he laughs. “There are rocky periods, but you just have to hold on!”

Having a supportive team helps. Philip’s wife has, he says, been “incredibly kind and generous”, giving up a career as a computer lecturer at Oxford Brookes University to take on the administration of his business.

His son Jody is also now a furniture maker, and the two have collaborated on a number of projects, including The Visitors, a sculpture that currently stands at the entrance to the River and Rowing Museum in Henley.

It is here that Philip’s Arts Council-funded exhibition, Forest to Furniture: Ideas in the Making, is being held, showcasing different aspects of his work as well as looking at the nature of creativity.

On display are experimental works exploring form and surface, reflecting a creativity freed from the constraints of the design process, alongside examples of commissioned work and collaborations with other artists.

The exhibition has also spawned a symposium, to be held in Oxford this month as part of the Artweeks programme, and this will look at the creative processes across different disciplines.

All of this reflects Philip’s insatiable curiosity into the nature of creativity, which has been the basis of his work since the 1990s.

“The commissioning aspect is really important, because it ensures you earn a living,” he says. “Clients open creative doors, and take you in directions you would never think of.

“But I don’t think you can bring the same level of energy and focus and enthusiasm to a client’s brief if you don’t have your own creative agenda. You have to bring your own ideas - that’s really the most important thing.”

Forest to Furniture: Ideas in the Making is at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames, until June 7 which is also part of Oxfordshire Art Weeks