July 02 2010
Hitting the M4 on a hot summer’s day may sound like masochism. But it’s a different matter when the destination is Sir Terence Conran’s country home near Kintbury in Berkshire, where the workshops for Benchmark, the specialist joiner and furniture maker he founded with Sean Sutcliffe, are housed in old farm buildings on his estate. And that’s why I found myself steaming along the motorway because Benchmark’s showroom is pretty much the only place where you can buy this furniture.
Of course it’s also an excuse to admire Conran’s lovely 17th-century house with its listed, walled garden, outdoor sculptures and stream (you can peek at all this, although you can’t wander round the estate). It’s also worth asking, as I did, for a tour of the workshops. Here I saw Benchmark’s craftsmen turning English timbers into fine tables and chairs and watched them create a gleaming, pewter-topped bar for Fenwick’s new in-store restaurant.
As I like furniture that’s essentially very pure and simple, I could easily live with most of the designs in Benchmark’s new collection. But I was particularly drawn to the Camberwell desk whose lean, linear elegance belies its sturdy, solid-oak heart. This delightful design has an inlaid, eau-de-nil, leather writing surface which lifts up – a bit like an old school desk – so you can stash your laptop and papers inside. An optional up-stand for storing stationery only adds to its graceful lines. I also admired the solid oak Weaver’s console table (second picture, £1,395), and the boat-shaped, solid oak Skipper coffee table (third picture, £745) with its neat steel undercarriage for magazines (all the pieces are named after butterflies, one of Conran’s private passions).
Like other designs in the collection, the Camberwell desk is available straight from the workshop which means that its price – £1,550 plus £228 for the up-stand – is free of retail mark-ups. Even better, there’s a 15 per cent discount on all the new designs during Benchmark’s Open House event (July 3-10). And although you can view the collection online, I feel that this is no substitute for seeing your chosen piece lovingly hand-made on-site in the English countryside.