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David’s cottage industry

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Crafty work: furniture maker David Mitchell is moving to Canada

After losing his studio on Burnt House Hill, David Mitchell was in the market for a new workshop.

When the perfect spot presented itself in Flatts Village, he immediately saw its potential, but it was four years before he could move in.

After another 15, the Grade II-listed building is now back on the market as the furniture maker prepares for retirement in Canada.

“I thought it had enormous potential to turn it into something like this,” he told Lifestyle.

At that time, the 200-year-old building was an upstairs warehouse above a shopfront.

“We did buy it sort of blind. We didn’t know all the problems. Sitting outside you could see the bones of it were good.

“It had this charm, which was just lovely,” Mr Mitchell said.

“One of the first things we did when we bought it was tear the ceiling down.

“It was open eaves, so 100 years of dirt came down on our heads.”

Lazy Corner is now a one-bedroom cottage that has maintained its distinctive stone buttresses, solid wood shutters and Bermuda slate roof.

A cozy mix of the old and the new, the house was once featured on the cover of the Bermuda National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Series. Mr Mitchell and his wife Kathy Harriott have collected art from “most of” the island’s artists to complement his custom pieces.

“It is a very hard thing to do. Working from home and trying to restore a house, the lines were blurred in many respects,” the 62-year-old said.

“The electrics were non-existent. Plumbing — everything had to be rebuilt.

“The roof was sliding off and leaking. The back patio was just a pile of rubble.

“It was a blank slate.”

The furniture maker and designer is no stranger to restoration — making is part of his make-up. His father, Jimmy Mitchell was an engineer, his brother an architect.

“My father made all sorts of things. He would take things apart and figure out how to fix them,” he recalled.

Art escorted him through his academic career, from Warwick Academy until moving to England at 11. Looking into sculpture courses, the move into woodworking, he said, was “organic”.

The former curator of the Bermuda National Gallery studied in England for 15 years, honing his craft at a carriage makers before returning home in 1979 to set up David Mitchell Fine Furniture.

He made a name for himself making customised furniture out of Bermuda cedar and imported woods.

“When I came back, Bermuda was a very traditional place. We did repairs and we made reproductions,” he said “We were working almost exclusively in cedar and I got very good at it.” He said cedar didn’t lend itself to contemporary design, so he started mixing woods.

Getting the commission for Ace’s walnut boardroom table and chairs provided the opportunity to experiment with new design and materials.

“We started importing woods and that opened up a whole new world,” he said.

The team brought in zebra wood, wenge, spatted jacaranda, lace wood, cherry and maple. He said it took a while for people to accept this new approach, but it eventually opened his work up to a new generation of clients.

“I had always mixed my woods at university. I started going back to that. It started to get much cleaner and moved away from all the carving that we did on cedar,” he explained.

His craft soon earned him recognition in the art community and he inherited woods from all over the island.

But after 9/11 the phone stopped ringing and he was forced to close up shop.

“It just stopped business,” he said. There was no longer a market for luxury items.

For the past 10 years he has worked out of the workshop in his Flatts Village home, keeping his quest for modernist pieces alive.

“Now I want to do the stuff that’s in my head and I have years worth of ideas,” he said. “Good furniture, good architecture — it doesn’t get old.”

Searching for a way to bring cedar into the 21st century, he moved from chairs to chests. Without departing from tradition, he combines old techniques with modern design.

“The thing abut chests are, they’re so Bermudian in a way.

“Cedar in Bermuda has these enormous connotations around it.

“All the work that we were doing was reproductions of historical pieces. We did a lot of carving — ball and claw feet, fretted corners on the tables.

“I always wanted to push it. Once you get the skill, you want to push the ideas of what you’re making,” he said, adding: “Although it’s very contemporary, my work is also actually very classical.

“It all can coexist; it’s 2016, let’s make 2016 furniture. It’s not 1720.”

A favourite is a cedar chest with legs made from African wenge wood.

“One of the fascinating things about Bermudian antique furniture, is you have no idea who made it,” Mr Mitchell said.

“This house was made by slaves.

“With a piece of furniture, you don’t know if it was the master, the slave, an indentured servant, so there’s this whole spectrum of society who have these skills, which is fascinating to me.

“I like the idea of African-Bermudians holding the chest up. There’s a whole social history tied up in furniture and you can start playing with those ideas.”

Mr Mitchell said he harboured the idea for years before putting it into action.

“I had actually done a little sample of it probably 20 years before I made this chest,” he said.

“It percolated and I had to go through making the traditional chests to get to the stage of translating it into a new way of looking at it.

‘The guy who bought it asked me once, how long did it take you to make it?

“I said nearly 40 years.”

•Lazy Corner, a Grade II listed building sits at the heart of Flatts Village.

Visit www.digbermuda.com/listings/lazy-corner-flatts-village/

(Photograph by Alia Hamza)
(Photograph by Alia Hamza)
Brimming with charm: the beautifully restored 200-year-old cottage (Photograph by Alia Hamza)
(Photograph by Alia Hamza)
(Photograph by Alia Hamza)
David Mitchell (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Mitchell (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Mitchell with wife Kathy Harriott (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Mitchell (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Mitchell (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Mitchell (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
David Mitchell (Photograph by Akil Simmons)