Fusing art with engineering

In the first of our profiles of up-and-coming interior designers, we speak to Irene Banham, who made an inspirational career change in order to follow her passion for elegant furniture design...

It’s fair to say that it’s been a busy couple of years for Irene Banham. Having spent many years working as a civil engineer in the UK water industry, she decided to use the knowledge she had gained in engineering to pursue a future in furniture design.

Workshop picture in Bristol workshop 

After completing a one-year full-time course at the highly-regarded Williams & Cleal Furniture School in Somerset, Irene set up her own business at the start of 2015, making bespoke fine furniture from her workshop in Bristol.

Career change

“I first took a serious interest in furniture design a couple of years ago,” she says. “My background is in civil engineering, working for many years in the water industry, and I fancied a career change into something more hands-on and creative.

“I’ve always had a passion for art and I found that with furniture making, I have the opportunity to design and make things that are beautiful to look at but also have a practical purpose.


 Cake Stand 14002

Irene’s ‘Cantilever Cake Stand’

“I started at the Williams & Cleal school with no previous woodworking experience at all – I was a total beginner but immersed myself in the course because I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about designing and making fine furniture.

“Now I’ve set up my own business, I’m loving it. I can combine my engineering experience with an interest in the artistic side of things to create interesting, bespoke household items. I can visualise something I’d like to see in real life, I have an idea about how it will go together structurally, and then I can go and construct it myself. It’s a very special feeling to bring an item to life in my own hands.”

The ‘Chief’s Chair’

One of her favourite creations so far is the ‘Chief’s Chair’, inspired by a traditional African chair design which Irene gave a more contemporary, European feel.

 Chair 1

Irene’s ‘Chief’s Chair’, made from Olive Ash

“Producing the steam-bent rear leg was a big challenge,” Irene says. “It was also the first project of my own at the Williams & Cleal school so it had to be done just right. The Ash leg was bent immediately after it came out of the steam box, which it had been left in for two hours.

“Because that section of wood was quite large, 60mm x 40mm, it was very tricky, but with help from my fellow students we managed to bend it into a curve perfectly. I really like how the curved rear leg provides a solid timber section to the chair and complements the simplicity and organic nature of the design.

“I used Olive Ash, which has beautiful grain patterns, while all the hand finishing took many weeks and I was really proud of how it turned out.

“I’ve really enjoyed putting together everything I’ve made. I’d say my influences come from all over the place, anything I see around – functional things that I’d like to re-engineer and make aesthetically pleasing.”

Looking to the future

Now she has found her calling, Irene, 50, wants to keep producing striking pieces of furniture long into the future. “I love to make beautiful, bespoke pieces of furniture that are nicely engineered and work well,” she says. “In terms of the business, I’d like to make small groups of items to order – still handmade pieces, not production work – and I’m also going to look at attending a few more shows where I can display my work.

 Drawers 2

Another example of Irene’s fine handmade work, her ‘Walnut Chest of Drawers’

“In my previous job I worked on things that were functional and useful but not beautiful, now I can work on achieving both.

“Ultimately, I’ve done all this because I want to make valuable handmade pieces from solid wood that people can buy for their home and look after forever.” If you’re interested in seeing more of Irene’s work, you can visit her website.