From her eco-friendly workshop in a corner of West Cork, Alison Ospina creates chairs from Irish greenwood that are equal parts raw and refined.
Alison Ospina’s first foray into furniture design emerged out of necessity. “We needed furniture and we couldn’t afford it.” Six months pregnant, she signed up to do an adult education woodwork class in London. Her first construction was a rocker cradle.
Fast forward two decades, and Alison has earned a reputation for crafting light and lean chairs from indigenous Irish hazelwood. From her studio a few miles west of Skibbereen, she runs chair-building workshops while simultaneously inventing new ways to reinterpret greenwood.
Formerly a psychiatric nurse, Alison’s decision to move to the hinterland of south-westerly Ireland in 1996 was an instinctive one. “There is something about West Cork that sort of hooks you in, and you just want to be here. It’s a very beautiful place, with so many artists and craftspeople.”
Her current base is an elevated, timber-clad workshop tucked amid tall trees. Over time, word of mouth has spread, and Alison is now known locally as the woman who can transform sticks into elegant greenwood chairs. “I feel like I’m part of the community, and that means something.”
Greenwood is wood that has yet to be dried, and thus is rich in natural sap. This sap heightens the tension held within the construction. “When I am making a chair I really have to force it, and struggle to get it into place, because it still has sap in it. That tension makes the structure strong.”
Hazel is grown using an organically regurgitative process known as “coppicing”, which enables the trees to grow back once they have been razed. Her relationship with hazelwood runs deep. “I know its properties exactly – how it reacts in certain situations; I know its strengths and its weaknesses. I wouldn’t use anything else.”
At a glance, the chairs appear as though they have grown from the ground up. Alison works with the natural dip and curve of the hazel sticks, allowing the wood itself to persuade the design process. “With greenwood, you can’t just draw a chair on a piece of paper and decide you are going to make it. This is very different from a lot of furniture design.”
Subtle concave arcs are used as spindles at the back, while sturdy straight shoots offer support as chair legs. It is a technique that Alison has coined as her own. “I’m only working with the shapes they grow in. There was never a method for me to follow. I had to make it up as I went along.”
Chairs swathed in kiwi green wool, dyed to Alison’s specification, are the fruits of a collaboration with Kerry Woollen Mills. “I have one of those chairs by a window at home, and it is the same vibrant green as the grass in springtime. It’s nice to have something inside that reflects that same colour.”
The integration of cloth brings a tactile edge to the golden grain of her work, adding colour where there wasn’t before. Alison avails of strictly natural fibres. Thickly woven leather strips make for strap seats in some of her chairs, while plush cream sheepskins swaddle the frameworks of others.
One of the beautiful things about Alison’s craft is her willingness to share it with others. This summer, due to Covid-19 restrictions, there are no 3 day 3 person courses, but she is running day courses for one person per day, costing €190. On site is studio accommodation, and her daughter, Ana, also runs an Airbnb nearby. Overnight guests can peruse a copy of Alison’s book, while planted in a greenwood chair, in order to inspire them for the course ahead.
Working with a maximum of three students at a time, the workshops are intense and empowering. Students emerge with a newfound ability to use tools and machinery, as well as their own hand-crafted chair.
The students’ interaction with each task at hand is a perpetual source of fascination for Alison. “When you make something, you put part of yourself in it. Students connect with it somehow, but they could never tell you why. It’s really something quite deep down in them.”
One visiting couple in particular epitomised this sentiment. She was an artist, and he was an accountant. The artist salvaged a forked piece of hazelwood and made a sculptural wishbone chair that “wasn’t particularly useful, but very beautiful”. The accountant, however, took careful measurements and duplicated one of Alison’s own designs identically. “At the end of the weekend we had two chairs that were the same dimensions. Yet, they couldn’t have been more different.”
Through Alison’s eyes, a chair will always be an innately personal object. It is a familiar staple of the home, often weighted with memory and attachment. While a person is seated, there exists an intimate exchange between human and object. “There’s something about a chair in particular that is quite special. You sit in it and it takes your complete weight. A chair is something that you have to trust.”
Up high in her raised studio between the trees, Alison continues to imagine novel and natural ways to craft greenwood chairs. If one thing is clear, it is that Alison has found her calling. “When I am in my workshop, I am at my best. Physically, mentally, creatively, I am at at my best.”